Housebreaking Your Puppy

Housebreaking: How to Save Your Sanity, Carpeting, and Relationship with Your Dog

I've come to believe that the hardest part of housebreaking a dog (or "housetraining" as I prefer to call it, since I'd rather leave the dog unbroken by the whole experience) is in the perception. And I don't mean the dog's perception - I mean the owner's! When I talk to owners who are struggling to housetrain their dogs, they tell me they're trying to teach their dog NOT TO GO IN THE HOUSE. In reality, you need to teach your dog TO GO OUTSIDE. I've found that flipping this perspective puts you ahead of the game and a lot closer to success. Read on for a step-by-step plan to bring you the rest of the way.

There are two main components to a successful housetraining program: manage your dog's access to your home until he has learned to go outside and teach your dog to go to the bathroom outside.

So, Step One: You must manage your dog's movements in your home so that he has no accidents. Let's say that one more time: you must manage your dog's movements in your home so that he has no accidents. Okay, all together now, for good measure: You must manage your dog's movements in your home so that he has no accidents.

Why is this so important? Well, think about how you feel when you have to go to the bathroom. A little uncomfortable, right? And, if you have to go very badly, you feel very uncomfortable, right? So, when you finally find that bathroom and get to go, you feel pretty darn good, right? That relief is a reward.

Now, transfer that to your dog. Every time your dog relieves himself in the house, he is instantly rewarded with a feeling of relief. It's like a nice little pat on the back for him saying "good for you, you took care of that discomfort."

So, to avoid the reward your dog will feel every time he has an accident in the house, you need to control his movements in the house. There are a number of ways you can control your dog's movements. You can take the time to properly crate train him in a proper-sized crate and put him in the crate with a good chew toy when you are not actively watching him. Alternatively, you can use a baby gate or exercise pen to block him into a small area like a bathroom or to block him into whatever room you are in at the time. Lastly, you can tie your dog's leash to your waist or belt loop so that he will be with you at all times.

With the crate, you are using the size of the crate to inhibit his urge to go to the bathroom. Dogs do not like to eliminate in the same space that they sleep, eat, and "live" in. Because of this, a properly sized crate will inhibit the urge to go to the bathroom when you are not home or cannot supervise him.

If you are home or able to supervise him, you should use the baby gate or the leash tied to your waist to keep him near you so that you can watch for signs that he needs to eliminate (watch for sniffing or circling to tip you off that he needs to go). If you catch your dog about to go or in the act of going, scoop him up and take him outside to his Potty Area. Do not punish him, yell, put his nose in the urine, or anything else. He will likely only learn that it is dangerous to go to the bathroom in front of you rather than learning that he shouldn't go in the house. Then you'll have the problem of him sneaking off behind furniture or into an empty room to go. And, he won't want to go in front of you when you're outside either, making training that much harder. So, instead, REWARD, REWARD, REWARD for going outside!

Now, Step Two: You must teach your dog to go outside. You'll need to put your pup on a schedule and reward him when he goes outside. Dogs tend to have to go to the bathroom in the morning, before bedtime, after taking a nap or playing, after eating, and every 3-4 hours in between. Your pottying schedule for your dog might look like this:

7:00 am - wake up and go out to potty.
7:20 am - feed your pup after he's gone to the bathroom.
12:00 pm - potty break.
4:00 pm - potty break.
6:00 pm - potty break.
6:20 pm - feed your dog after he's gone to the bathroom.
10:00 pm - bed time potty break.

Depending on your dog's age, he may have to go more or less frequently. Remember, a puppy does not begin to have the muscle control to hold his bladder and bowels until he is approximately 12 weeks old. And even after 12 weeks, he will have to go out more frequently than a 6 month old puppy to prevent accidents in the house. Take the above schedule as a model and adjust it according to your dog's age.

Each potty break should look like this: Go to his designated Potty Area (a section of the yard that will be used for pottying) and wait - don't play or take a walk - just keep him in the Potty Area.
Reward him with treats, praise, a game of ball, a walk, etc. after he goes. Lots of praise and treats - don't be stingy here! You can use a mixture of his kibble, small (1/4 inch) bits of chicken or cheese, a lick of peanut butter or canned dog food off of a spoon, or store bought treats. Vary it so he is always surprised by what he gets after pottying. And, remember to bring the treat outside with you so you can give it to him immediately after he goes to the bathroom. If you wait to give him a treat after he comes inside, he may think you are rewarding him for coming in the house so nicely!

If he doesn't go during a scheduled potty break or is just trying to play instead of pottying, he needs to go back inside and be WITH YOU OR IN HIS CRATE for 10-15 minutes. Then try again. Repeat until he is successful. After a successful potty break, he can be in his exercise pen, crate, or with you until his next scheduled potty break. He should not have free roam of the house!

Common Problem Number One:
My dog still goes to the bathroom in certain spots in the house. This may be caused by scent. Scent is an important part of the housetraining process and both removing and adding scent plays a part. First, understand that dogs can smell urine in carpeting and flooring long after you think the scent is gone. This will cause the dog to return to that spot to urinate again. To stop this from happening, clean all accidents with an enzymatic cleaner available at all pet stores. Follow the manufacturer instructions for cleaning the spot. If you have areas that were not properly cleaned, clean these old spots with an enzymatic cleaner before you even begin your plan or you'll be doomed to failure from the get-go.

The other part of the scent equation is adding the right scent to your home. Dogs don't see the house as four walls the way that we do. They understand the boundaries of the house because the pack scent is in it. If you have a sewing room, guest room, office or other little-used room in your house where your dog is going to the bathroom, it may be because he does not smell the pack in that room and, therefore, doesn't see it as part of the house. Dr. Patricia McConnell of Dog's Best Friend, Ltd. recommends sitting on the floor of that room with your dog for a few hours. Grab a book or the paper and spend a Saturday morning reading with your pack. You'll transfer the pack scent there and your dog will begin to understand that the room is part of the house.

Common Problem Number Two:
My puppy goes to the bathroom in the house right after coming in from the outside. There are generally two possible causes for this. If your puppy was outside playing or exploring, he may have been so distracted that he didn't feel the urge to go until he came inside. You can solve this by making sure that you have a designated potty spot in the yard and that you allow your dog to play only after he has gone to the bathroom. Also, if you are following the program, you should have your puppy in his crate or with you in a room or on a leash when you come back inside, which should allow you to catch him in the act and scoot him outside to go.

The other possible cause for a puppy who goes in the house shortly after coming inside is that puppies often go once and then have to go again 15 or 20 minutes later. If he is going in the house after he "just went outside" he is not doing this out of spite! He's just a puppy. He should only be allowed free roam of the house for 30 minutes AFTER he has gone to the bathroom 2 times outside and you are sure he is empty!

Last but not least, I want to emphasize the management part of this again. You MUST manage your dog's behavior and movements in the house so that he cannot have an accident while you teach him to go outside. The house is a very logical and welcoming place for your pup to go. The carpet is absorbent and it seems all too natural to him to run into the guest bedroom and pee in there instead of going outside in the cold or, heaven forbid, the rain. So, remember, baby gates, crates, and leashes are your best friend for the next few months!


Cara Shannon is the owner of Buddy's Chance, a professional petsitting and dog training business in Austin, Texas.