Potty training problems? Does your dog go in the house every time it rains outside (which is not a rare occurrence here in Oregon)?
One of the most common questions I get is some version of:
Shouldn’t she just know to go outside, I take her a lot, and I know she can hold it.
In short, the answer is unfortunately “no.” House-training is usually not that easy. To dogs, our rules are a bit weird, and our reactions to pee and poo are ridiculously uptight. That ottoman is a perfect place to pee in their eyes, and why not use that spot behind the couch as a place to do one’s business in peace? Besides, how else will the rest of the world know who lives here?
To understand their outlook, let us consider a comparison:
(If you’re not up for the story, you can scroll down to the treatment steps.)
Because you are such a good dancer/programmer/singer/accountant (pick your fantasy), you are invited over to Russia for a fully funded Awesomeness Fellowship. You feel you’ve won the lottery. They show you the pictures of where you’ll be staying: it’s a giant palace, with hundreds of rooms.
When you arrive, they greet you warmly and hand you a plate of chocolates and an overflowing mug of beer. You don’t understand a single word, but everyone seems friendly and happy to see you. You accept a second plate and another mug. Still no English to be seen or heard, but there’s music and dancing and you’re an open-minded person.
When the Welcome Party ends, they lead you to your room, which has a nice new bed. You start to unpack and settle in, when you realize that all of those wonderful mugs have left you with a bursting bladder. There’s no bathroom attached to your suite, but you remember several on your way down the hall. So you put on your slippers and set out for some relief.
Lucky for you, there’s a bathroom two doors down. There a bunch of stuff written in Russian on the door, but you decide to knock lightly and hope for the best. No one answers, so you enter. An automatic light comes on; the place is wonderful, rather luxurious. You feel RELIEF. You realize you’re a bit stressed in this new environment, but man it feels good to empty that bladder. You’re tired from the travel, so you head back to your bed and pull out your iPad to wind down.
Not too long after, you hear an anguished cry from the hallway. You tense up. The angered cry gets closer. Soon a large man is in the room wagging his fist and pointing at you. He had been fantastically friendly earlier in the night, so you just smile and hold open your palms, hoping this will appease the very angry Russian.
He gets closer to you. You can smell the vodka on his breath. You hunch over a little. Finally he stops and pats you on the head. Then he hands you a menu for McDonald’s, and you think you might make out the word “American”. He smiles and nods. So you smile and nod. Everything seems okay.
The next morning, you have to go to the bathroom again. You read somewhere that it’s important to stay hydrated when traveling, and they’ve been so good about filling your mini fridge with all sorts of wonderful beverages.
You put on your slippers again and head into the hallway.
On the way to the bathroom, you pass the yelling man from last night. He has a big smile on his face and he again mentions “McDonalds.” You don’t eat there very often, but you give him a thumbs up, because you’re trying to make friends. You again both nod and smile and then you see his phone light up, and he runs off. You’re kind of relieved, because right now you feel like you could pee a full gallon.
This time someone is in the bathroom you used previously, so you find the next one down the hall. This one is even fancier. The communication in this place may not be clear, but they sure know their luxury.
As you’re back coming out, however, there’s a woman running down the hall, screaming at you. You duck to the side and hope that she’s actually talking to someone else.
She starts pointing at the door. You apologize. This must have been a special bathroom, you figure. She then points down the hall toward the entrance. You’re not sure what she means. But you smile and nod and finally she runs off.
The next time people gather, you start whispering around, hoping there’s someone who speaks English. Everyone smiles and is friendly, but no one seems to have any answer, except for offering you a snack or a drink.
Finally, a friendly man from China comes over. He looks like he knows what he’s doing. You mention “restroom” and he smiles and nods.
You get excited for a minute, until you realize he doesn’t speak English either. He pulls out a McDonald’s menu. You’re not quite sure why people seem so obsessed with this American stereotype, but you smile along, because you’re trying to fit in.
When you get to McDonald’s, you’re not really hungry, but you do realize you have to go to the bathroom again. So while your new friend goes up to order, you slip off to the restroom.
When you come out, the manager recognizes you, points and waves. You tense up again, ready to be yelled at. Instead he pulls out a picture of you, and asks you to autograph it. He then offers you $100 to put it on the Favorite Customers wall. He asks if you can come back tomorrow, to sign a few more.
You offer him something better than that. After sightseeing for the afternoon, you stop by again the same day. He gives a key to the VIP bathroom and another $100.
Over the next week, each time you visit, he’s got more pictures to sign, at $100 a pop. You’re not quite sure who’s buying (“bless their hearts”!), but your past financial actions were not all top-notch, so you’re not complaining. Pretty soon, you’re coming by on every break.
After a week, you finally run into another American. During the conversation, you mention the Russians that seemed to randomly yell at you, and the one time you accidentally used what must have been the host’s bathroom.
He laughs for a second and explains, “They’re redoing the plumbing in the palace. Everyone is requested to use the McDonald’s. You can cause some pretty bad damage with every flush.”
These words surprise you. It seems your hosts were waaay too lax and negligent if their goal really was to keep you from peeing there. “Why didn’t they lock the doors?” you ask. “Why would they let me walk into the bathrooms? They must know that lots of the guests don’t speak Russian.”
“There’s a contract for the locks,” he says, “but the work hasn’t been done yet. I guess they’ll get to it eventually. Everyone’s busy.”
“How were we supposed to figure it out? They hope we’ll learn the rules by their random yelling?”
He shrugs. “They figure those who don’t simply will be returned to their countries, with their invitations cut short. Respect is very important to the people running this place.”
“I wasn’t intending disrespect. I just didn’t know better. Why not include clear translations?”
“Russian is a beautiful language. They do not want to spoil it with lesser tongues.”
“At the end of a long party, I can barely read English, much less Russian!” you protest.
“Yes, that has been a point of tension. The maintenance company even hired a consultant to understand why foreigners were so disrespectful.”
“It wasn’t intended.”
“They say you all smirk and bob your heads, which shows you are guilty.”
You throw up your arms. “I just did that because it seemed to make them less mad. Did the consultant explain these things to people?”
“She had another solution. She calculated that each time a person used the wrong restroom, it caused $200 worth of damage, whereas for $100 they would learn to hold it and walk down the street to the McDonald’s.”
So our goal is to be a little more like the consultant, and a little less like the easily offended Russians…
Enough about the Russians!
What approach should I take?
The first step is to reward the dog heavily for going outside.
Think a chunk of meat or cheese or whatever gets him really excited. Something that he only gets for pottying. Be generous. If necessary, reduce meals accordingly. If you’re giving him healthy food rewards this will likely be a net benefit nutritionally. The reward needs to come within a second or two. A bone when he gets back inside won’t do it. Dogs learn through immediate feedback.
Yes, this means we need to go out with the dog into the yard, even though we just put up that BEAUTIFUL new fence. (This is one reason why apartment dwellers seem to have an easier job house training — they are always right there with the dog when he goes.) Don’t use a doggy door during the training period. Lots of “outside time” is not a replacement for training.
Take him on leash to where you want him to go. Wait there until he goes. Once he goes, he can be let off leash to run and play, or the walk can commence.
At this stage, pottying should always be followed by something good. Don’t make him rush back inside right after he goes if he wants nothing more than to run around in the yard. This will result in him holding it as long as he can — and then relieving himself soon after he comes back inside. If the dog does not want to be outside, then it is okay to reward him with coming back inside right after he goes.
The second step is to limit the damage inside.
This is going to mean restricted access at first. Block off all bedrooms, fancy rugs and new carpeting. If he did not go outside, he may need to be crated, leashed to you, or gated in a room that he will not soil.
When house training a dog, he needs to be in sight, or in a crate/room/pen he won’t soil. This does not mean you will have to crate him for the rest of his life, but he needs limited access while adjusting. (For more on this, see Welcoming a New Dog into the Household.)
You can keep the crate/pen interesting with food dispensing toys, frozen stuffed Kongs, antlers… you get the idea. If it’s a recent adoption, this “downtime” will also help the dog to slowly adjust to the new house. If he tends to sneak off, you can attach a bell to his collar so you’ll hear when he gets restless. Any sort of pacing or sniffing is a sign that he should go outside.
Take the dog out more often than you think is necessary during training. If you have another dog whose house training is solid, it can be helpful to have them along as a guide. (But don’t let them play before pottying, and don’t depend fully on the other dog to teach the new dog house manners.)
Any soiled areas need to be cleaned with an enzymatic cleaner, like Nature’s Miracle or Eco-88. For a male dog that is peeing or marking, a belly band/male wrap can be used. (Dog diapers can also be used on a female.) This is usually not adequate as a replacement for training, but it can limit damage in the short-term.
If you find an accident, do not punish the dog after the fact. This will not make him more likely to go outside; it will make him a sneakier pee-er, at which point it becomes harder to house train him. If you catch them in the act, you can interrupt and immediately take outside.
– Keep a journal of all accidents, successful pottyings, and times taken out. You will likely start to see patterns in the accidents. If she pees every night when you jump in the shower, for example, place her in a crate with a Kong. This can also help you see that you’re making progress (even if it doesn’t quite feel like it).
– If free feeding, consider feeding once or twice a day to regularize the dog’s schedule.
– Consult a vet if the onset of pottying issues is sudden, or if they seem to be getting worse.
Onto some questions:
I adopted a dog who is a sneaky peer, what can I do?
You will have to put extra effort into management, and reward particularly generously if he goes outside. If he’s afraid to go in front of you, you can use a 25-foot leash or a retractable lead outside.
I’ve been told this breed is impossible to train.
Small dogs are harder to house train. They have smaller bladders, higher relative metabolisms, less bowel control and they tend to be more difficult to monitor. A Maltese can sneak away and pee behind the couch a bunch of times before someone notices. The same is not true of a Great Pyrenees.
I adopted a puppy mill dog. Is there any hope?
Puppy mill dogs present a lot of challenges. Not too long ago in Georgia, 300+ dogs were confiscated from a puppy mill that was not up to code. They were then adopted out to the public after being vetted. People lined up overnight to get discounted designer breeds. Then, within a month, a bunch of these dogs were being re-homed again because people got more training challenges than they wanted to deal with.
And house-training was one of the key struggles. So be prepared with a little extra patience. Most of these same principles for house training an adult dog will apply. You can also get more tips (and moral support) from Best Friends.
He’s held it through the night, doesn’t this mean he can hold it for at least 8 hours?
Holding it while calmly sleeping is very different from holding it during daytime excitement. Anything that is either stressful or exciting can weaken bladder control.
He looks guilty, isn’t this a sign that he knows better?
They’ve actually studied these “guilty looks” quite a bit, and have found that often the dog is just responding to the person’s reaction. In general, you will have better results if you decline to assume the worst about your dog’s motivations. People who insist the dog is peeing out of spite tend to have less success than those who simply take a more pragmatic view with these types of things.
I took him out recently for quite a bit of play. Isn’t this a sign that he’s empty?
If you take the dog out, and she doesn’t go, it doesn’t really count. This is annoying and it seems cosmically unfair, but when it comes to effective training, this is the approach you need to take. Lots of dogs, especially in a new a place, either get so excited that they forget to go, or are too wary to go. So sometimes they come back inside having to go worse than when they went out. This is one thing that makes people want to give up.
But it is not surprising. The dog doesn’t automatically understand why she should go outside. This is why rewarding her immediately after she goes (within a second or two) is so important.
Can I have someone else do the work for me?
You can increase your chances by adopting an adult with a solid history of not soiling inside, but there are no guarantees, especially for smaller dogs. I recommend re-housetraining small dogs with each move.
Heck, it you have a guest come to stay with you, or construction on your street, or a change in your schedule, or a particularly bad stretch of weather, I would be extra careful at first to help ease the transition. Dogs do not always generalize that well, and change and stress can both “build up” and cause behaviors to deteriorate.
The dog is peeing because she’s resentful. She must be unhappy. Isn’t this a sign that I should re-home or return to the rescue?
I’m really, really frustrated. I’m not sure I can deal with this anymore.