House Training

    Dog laying down with paw on a toilet roll

    Anybody who is taking in a new dog, whether for keeps, or as a foster dog, would be well-advised to assume that the dog is not fully house-trained! Many dogs, no matter how well house-trained they are, will pee or poo in unfamiliar surroundings. They do not know yet where the garden is, where the back door is that brings them out to the garden, and even if they do, it can take a new owner a while to pick up on the signals their new dog is giving that he wants to go out. In addition, the stress of the whole process and change that the dog has gone through can result in a temporary “loss” of housetraining.

    For dogs that are already housetrained, it is simply a matter of providing the dog with plenty of opportunities to relieve himself. He must be allowed to make his own way out to the garden, and it is good practise for the owner to accompany him out into the garden for the first few days or weeks. Many rescue dogs are worried about being abandoned in the garden, and if we just hoosh them out and leave them to their own devices, the dog will likely spend all his time outside with his nose pressed against the back door, wanting to come back in! When let back in, the dog still has a full bladder, and may then empty it on the floor.

    However, if we accompany them outside, we help to build up their confidence. We can also satisfy ourselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the dog has toileted and is safe to come back inside. And, best of all, by being out there with him, we can praise and reward him at just the right moment for going to the toilet outside.

    All dogs need to toilet after waking up from a snooze. Many need to go after eating. It is good practise to work towards getting the dog into the routine of getting outside at these times, because you are using the times a dog is most likely to go to your advantage.

    What about puppies and un-housetrained adults? It’s a more involved process. Never assume that a dog naturally “knows” that he’s meant to go outside. We have to teach them that this is the place to go. To break down the process, we need to teach the dog to go to the door when he feels the urge, to make his way from the inside to the outside, then to go to the toilet only when he gets outside.

    Leaving the door open for the dog to wander in and out is NOT housetraining. It is far too random, and it does not teach the dog to differentiate between going inside, and going outside.
    Putting newspaper/pee pads down in fine for times we can’t be there to let the dog/pup out. But, if we rely on newspaper or pads exclusively, there is a strong chance that we will teach the pup that it’s ok to go in the house.

    We get out of our dogs what we put into them: if you want a house-trained dog, you have to put in several weeks of applied effort: it is well worth it in the long run. Taking short-cuts at this stage is a mistake, one which many owners pay for eventually.

    By far the most effective way to reliably housetrain a dog is to crate train him. The crate is a wire cage, and it should be big enough to fit the dog’s bed and a bowl of water. The dog should be able to fully stretch out on his bed. But the crate should be no larger than this.

    The reason crate training works so effectively is that it prevents the dog from leaving his bed while you’re not paying attention, and peeing in a convenient corner. It holds him on his bed until you’re ready to let him out. In effect, it gives you control over his bowel and bladder: this is an important responsibility and not one to be abused.
    By the same token, crate-training focuses you better on the dog’s rhythms, and allows you to leave the dog for short periods unsupervised, without the fear of finding a present on the floor when you get back.

    The crate should never, ever be used as a prison: it should be looked upon as being the dog’s bedroom. He goes in there to sleep, and he goes in there when you can’t supervise him. He should always enjoy going into the crate, so it is important to gradually build up his time in it, always giving him something interesting to do while he’s in there. Say, a stuffed Kong, or chew toy. Give him his meals in the crate. Never lock a dog in a crate unless and until he’s happy to be there. Most dogs learn to love the crate: it is their den, their refuge. When the dog is not sleeping or not supervised, he should be out of the crate doing normal doggy things. A pup should not be left alone in a crate for longer than 1-2 hours, and adult dog 3-4 hours maximum, without being given an opportunity to toilet outside and stretch his legs.

    The secret to training any dog is to stop him from rehearsing any unwanted behaviours. So, for housetraining, we need to try to stop the dog from going to the toilet in the house at all. This means that we have to really apply ourselves. Get the dog onto regular meals, always bring him out for toileting at regular intervals, and contain him in the crate at times when we can’t supervise him.

    To crate train, once the pup/dog is happy to be in the crate: when the pup wakes up from a snooze, or finishes his dinner, or when you return from a short absence, open the crate door. Allow the pup to make his own way over to the back door. Open the back door, and go outside with your pup. Stand out in the garden, staying nice and quiet. Don’t talk to you pup, you don’t want to distract him. In any case, talking to him may be interpreted as praise: we want to save ALL praise for when he has gone to the toilet. You will find that if you do this every time you open the crate door, the pup will quickly fall into the habit of making a beeline for the back door every time he gets out of the crate. So, at an early stage, you get the habit of going to the back door up and running.

    Chocolate Labrador Retriever Puppy in a garden

    You may have to wait some time out in the garden with him: remember, your pup has no idea what this is all about! He will root around it may take him some time to think about going to the toilet. Brace yourself for this: the first few days are the hardest!
    As soon as pup starts to go, gently and calmly praise him; the very second he has finished, praise him greatly, then make a big deal of running back into the house to have a game, or to give him a treat.

    This gives the pup two rewards: first, your verbal praise. Second, he gets to come back into the house for a lovely game or treat. This teaches him, over a number of repetitions, that he will only get these rewards once he has gone to the toilet outside. As he realises this, he will start to toilet faster and faster, as he learns that the faster he goes, the quicker he gets to go back inside for some fun!

    Do not be tempted to leave him alone out in the garden yet: the pup will simply spend his time waiting at the back door for you to reappear, and will not think about toileting. Instead, when you let him in, the chances are he’ll relieve himself on your floor. If this happens a few times, it will become the norm for the pup. Remember, we need to stop him rehearsing going to the toilet inside.
    Every time we fail to let him out on time is one more missed opportunity to reinforce and reward him for going outside. Every mistake out pup makes is our mistake, not his. He is completely helpless when it comes to managing where and when he toilets: that’s your job!

    Pups or dogs should never, ever be punished in any way for toileting inside the house. Remember that every accident is our fault, not his. We missed an opportunity to bring him outside. If we scold a pup for having an accident, a number of things can happen. Firstly, the pup will become worried about being anywhere near you when he needs to toilet. This makes it terribly difficult to housetrain a dog effectively, as you are meant to be a source of reward for him, not a source of fear. If a dog is afraid to be around us when he needs to toilet, he may try to hide where he goes. He will sneak away under the sofa, or behind the door, or under the table, and pee there, where he can’t be seen. Even worse, some dogs will try to hide the evidence, and will start to eat their own poo, rather than have you find it, because when you do, the pup gets punished.

    In addition, pups and dogs are completely incapable of making a link between something they did a few seconds/minutes/hours ago, and why you’re annoyed now. Picture the scene: pup is left alone in the kitchen. He needs to go to the toilet, so he squats and pees on the floor. A minute later, his owner comes in, sees the pee, scowls at the pup, then puts him out in the garden alone for half an hour. We might think that this is teaching the pup a good lesson, but let’s look at what’s actually happening.

    Pup feels the need to pee. So he pees. Nothing wrong with that, we all do it! Owner walks back into room, and seems annoyed. In fact, they have “that” face on that means pup is going to get pegged out into the garden. Pup hates being left alone in the garden, and starts to act submissively, trying to appease the owner. Owner points at puddle on floor. Pup has no idea why. He neither speaks English, or is capable of making the connection between the puddle and himself. Pup bows his head some more, looking doleful, sad and… GUILTY! “Aha!” says the owner, “he KNOWS he’s done wrong!” No, he doesn’t. What you’re looking at is canine appeasement signals.

    He is trying to calm you down, but remember that he has NO IDEA WHY YOU’RE ANGRY IN THE FIRST PLACE! If you don’t believe me, try this: walk into the room, and find your pup doing something “good”. Stride over to him and talk to him in a scolding voice. Watch those same signals appear: lip-licking, ears down, head bowed, even turning over to show you his tummy. It is clear that the pup is not feeling guilt. Why should he feel guilty for doing something good? No, I’m afraid that it’s time we accepted that dogs cannot feel guilt. That seems to be a purely human emotion! And we are horribly mistaken if we think that our scolding the pup is teaching him anything other than to be a bit frightened of us sometimes, especially when we have “that” face on!

    The only time that it’s in any way appropriate to “punish” the pup is if we catch him in the act of going to the toilet inside. Even then, we have to tread very carefully. Do not make a song and dance out of this: remember, he is going to the toilet because he needs to, and you didn’t get him out on time! Simply say a firm “No!”, and bring him outside to finish. If we catch him one second after he has toileted, IT’S TOO LATE to punish.

    Speaking of punishment, you should never rub your pup’s nose in his pee or poo. This is one very fast way of making your pup fearful of being anywhere near you when there happens to be a puddle or present on the floor. It does not teach him not to toilet inside. Punishment is a very, very dangerous tool to use in training. We almost inevitably get the timing wrong, and we often get the punishment out of context. It is so easy to get the punishment wrong, and to get a punishment wrong can have catastrophic effects on a pup’s behaviour. So, instead of punishment, encourage desired behaviour. The dog will always choose a behaviour that “works” best for him, so let’s make going to the toilet in the garden lovely for him, so that he’ll choose to repeat it.

    By Maureen Byrne Ph.D.