It really is possible to train your dog to “do its business” in the location of your choosing, whether that means paper training, litter box training or training the dog just not to “go” in your home. You can even train your dog to “go” on cue, which is very useful while traveling! These notes are meant as an overview of the general canine potty training (housebreaking) process. Feel free to contact Bette Yip at Picture Perfect Pets in Arlington, MA if you need further guidance with or modification of this approach.
Laws of Learning—the Basics of training
Before attempting to teach your dog where to eliminate, it’s crucial to understand how your dog learns, so that your communication will be efficient and effective. It’s really quite simple: when your dog performs a behavior that is followed by a consequence THE DOG considers pleasant, useful or desirable, the dog is likely to repeat the behavior in hopes of attaining the favorable consequence again. If a certain behavior is never followed by any consequence the dog considers favorable (and certainly if the behavior yields unpleasant consequences), that behavior eventually dies out. This makes perfect sense in evolutionary terms, right? In fact, all complex organisms (all organisms with a central nervous system) are subject to these very basic laws of learning.
So what do dogs consider rewards? Most dogs respond very well to food treats, but rewards can also include play, toys, attention and petting to name a few. Praise alone is usually not much of a reward to most dogs. Remember, our dogs don’t speak English…it’s a foreign language we’ll be teaching them. However, over time, since our praise is often accompanied by “other good stuff for dogs,” the praise can take on the function of a conditioned reinforcer (reward marker), like a dog trainer’s clicker or a dolphin trainer’s whistle. (Remember Pavlov’s dogs and the bell?)
Timing also plays a key role in the effectiveness of your communication during training. Some say dogs have no concept of future or past, and it’s certain that we have no way of communicating ideas of past or future to them. That is, I can’t say, “you go potty outside on our walk and I’ll give you a special treat when we get home.” My dog won’t understand. Training needs to make use of an efficient “behavior—consequence” model. If I break into generally happy talk and produce a tasty treat or a toy to play with the instant my dog finishes her business on that same walk, now my dog understands that going potty on leash with me present when we are outside might yield a pleasant consequence, and thus may be worth repeating. If my dog goes potty outside and no one notices--nothing more special happens than when the dog has an “accident” behind the sofa--my dog will NOT learn to prefer going outside to going behind the sofa. Thus, during the potty training process, we’ll see the best progress possible if every single elimination is caught and given feedback.
This also applies with negative feedback. The old “rub the dog’s nose in it” technique simply does not work! Worse, it can damage your relationship with your dog, causing your dog to mistrust or even fear you. Take this scenario: you walk into the room. Your dog is playing with one of its own chew toys. You see the puddle on the floor. You have a tantrum. We know that dogs learn by the behavior—consequence model…what will your dog think you are punishing her for? That’s right! For playing with her toy! Dogs do not learn by evidence of past behavior—consequence.
“BUT,” you say, “…my dog looks so guilty. She must know what she did wrong.” This is a truly sad misunderstanding between dog and human culture. Dog’s have a very ritualized system of handling disputes. Dog A shows a threat display. Dog B has two options…fight back, or act submissive to turn off Dog A’s threatening behavior. What sorts of body language do we see in a submissive display? Among others, we might see an avoidance of eye contact (prolonged direct eye contact in doggie body language is confrontational), hunkering, slouching, tail tucked to the side, ears back, lip licking, possibly even turning belly up. Some of these same body language cues are ones humans associate with feeling guilty. Now we have a vicious cycle between our human and dog in this example. The human has a tantrum…shows a threat display. The dog acts submissively to turn off the attack. The human sees this as admission of guilt and knowing better, so the human becomes more irate. The dog may have no idea what caused this exchange, or worse, may associate this with whatever the dog was doing when the tantrum began. The dog may even get the idea that when puddles are on the floor, it means danger for the dog…but the dog will not associate the display with its own behavior of making the puddle, UNLESS you catch the dog in the act!
Basic Canine Potty Training Process
- First rule out medical reasons for potty accidents, especially if you have an elderly dog or adopted older dog. Also rule out separation anxiety, which is a panic disorder some dogs (especially ones that have lost previous owners) might have, the symptoms of which might include potty accidents EVERY TIME the owner leaves, usually within the first 30 minutes of the absence. Separation anxiety is also often characterized by escape attempts, destructive chewing of things around doors or windows they pet saw the owner leave from and sometimes consistent, panicked barking. If you think your dog might have separation anxiety, please consult a qualified animal behaviorist or trainer. Your careful potty training efforts will simply be in vain if your dog’s “potty training” problems actually have a medical or panic disorder root.
- Set your dog up for success by anticipating the need for potty breaks and having your dog in the right place at the right time. Take your dog to the spot on leash and try not to be distracting. Do not pay attention to or play with the pup until AFTER the elimination. Be there to give your dog feedback every time it eliminates. Build up a reward history for eliminating in the right place. You’ll learn in greater detail the times when your dog will need potty breaks later in this document.
- During this early phase of training, prevent the chance for potty accidents to happen through careful supervision and use of dog-safe areas (like a crate or small, dog-proofed room set up for this purpose) when your dog can’t be under your watchful eye. You’ll learn more on how to do in the next section of this document.
- If you catch your dog in the act of going in the wrong place, try to interrupt the dog without scaring it and rush the dog to the right place where you will wait patiently to see if your dog will finish, so you can reward elimination in the right place. Don’t frighten your dog! He may get the mistaken idea that he’s in trouble for “going” in front of you, rather than understanding you’re upset that he’s going in the wrong place. If this happens, your dog may be reluctant to eliminate in front of you outside, but once inside and out of your presence, may feel it’s safe to “go.”
- Thoroughly clean each and every potty accident with an enzymatic cleaner like Nature’s Miracle or Simple Solution. Such cleaners break down the organic material to eliminate odor rather than just covering it up as some household cleaners will. (Be mindful not to use cleaning products containing ammonia which smells pretty much like urine to a dog’s nose!) Dogs have a much keener sense of smell than we do, and for them, smelling the scent of a previous elimination would be like the equivalent of us seeing a big sign labeled “restrooms.”
- Once you’ve built up a clear reward history for eliminations in the right spot and your dog is making few mistakes, you’ll want to “proof” your potty training. You’ll set your dog up to make a mistake. For example, you might leave your dog free but under keen supervision at a time when you know the dog needs to eliminate. You spy on the dog from where you can’t be seen. When the dog starts to make a mistake, NOW you do something disturbing…beat a pan with a spoon, use an ultrasonic device that produces a sound many dogs dislike…or in some way, interrupt the dog dramatically without hurting them. It’s best if your dog doesn’t realize that YOU are the source of this unpleasantness, so they don’t just end up concluding it’s unsafe to eliminate in the kitchen whenever you’re around (but that it might still be fine if you’re not there.) With this last step, you’re helping your dog learn that not only is it often rewarding go potty in the desired location, but it is also unpleasant to eliminate indoors. For the most efficient training, you need to catch every single elimination to give your dog the appropriate feedback—and be prepared to go back and review if there is a regression…so it isn’t yet time to throw out that crate, or give your dog free run of the house unsupervised.
- Never stop rewarding your dog altogether! Moving to random rewards is a good idea once the desired behavior has been learned, but if you stop rewarding altogether forever, you will likely see a drop in motivation. At least give your dog some enthusiastic praise and attention from time to time for eliminating in the right places.
How do we accomplish all of this?
- Know when your dog will need a potty break. Here is a list to help you:
- Young puppies usually need a potty break at least every few hours. A general rule of thumb is number of months plus one: example, a 3 month old pup would probably need a potty break AT LEAST every 4 hours. (At night when the household is quiet, they may be able to go longer if they are not woken up during the night.)
- Adult dogs should generally be offered a potty break at least every 8 hours or so (especially for urinary tract health.)
- Puppies (especially) may need to eliminate upon waking up from a nap of any duration.
- Puppies often need to urinate during rambunctious play.
- Watch for body language cues such as sniffing, walking slowly in circles or figure eights. Some dogs may do a certain type of walk when looking for their spot. If you think your dog may need to go, just offer them a potty break to be on the safe side.
- Dogs need to eliminate after eating and drinking. For pups, this may be as soon as 5 or 10 minutes afterwards. For mature dogs, this may be more like half an hour to several hours. You’ll get to know your dog’s body clock.
- Put your dog of a feeding schedule to help you anticipate when they’ll need potty breaks. (If you “free feed,” it will be much harder to guess when your dog needs a potty break, and free feeding can also contribute to picky eating habits.)
- Sometimes a dog will need a potty break after having been frightened.
- Consider learning to teach your dog to give a signal when she needs a potty break. I’ve taught my dog to ring a bell hung near the door when she needs to go out.
- You may also want to learn how to put elimination functions on cue (my dog’s cue for pee is “zoom” and poop is “better go now.)
- Supervise your dog as closely as possible. When you can’t supervise your dog, use a crate or dog safe area to discourage accidents in the wrong place.
- Dogs are denning animals. In the wild, they would refrain from eliminating in their tiny den in order not to let other predators know where they sleep. That’s how a crate or small safe area can be useful in the potty training process. If using a crate, be sure to introduce your dog to it carefully and with ample positive reinforcement. Seek help from a trainer if you need further guidance with this. Also be prepared to block space off if needed. To make the crate a useful tool, your dog must have enough space to stand, turn around and stretch out comfortably, and no more (or they may use one side as the potty area.) When you can’t watch your dog like a hawk, you can put them into their crate. Be sure to offer a potty break as soon as you let them out again.
- If you will need to leave your dog unattended longer than they can physically “hold it,” You’ll need to arrange for an alternate setup. I advise a larger dog-proofed area (play pen, small room) with a large target of “wee wee pads.” This prevents your dog from developing a habit of going on wrong surfaces like carpet or linoleum. Do not leave your dog locked in the crate longer than she can “hold it”…or you may end up ruining the usefulness of the crate as a tool if your dog loses inhibition for eliminating in the crate.
- If your pup came from a place where they HAD TO eliminate in their sleeping area, you may not be able to use the crate as a tool in potty training. If you are following all the rules and your pup seems to have no inhibition towards eliminating in the crate, you will also want to go for the option detailed above. Your training progress will be slower than if you can use a crate as a tool, but your dog will eventually learn to prefer “holding it” for the reward fest they’ll get outside as long as you are diligent in your training process.
Generalization & Regressions
Even if you go through this process meticulously, there may be times your dog seems to forget the rules. Dogs do not generalize well…that means, if you only go through the training process in a certain location, for example, they may learn the rules apply there, but may not automatically understand these rules apply in all buildings. If you move to a new home, take your dog to a friend’s house or even visit a pet store with your pet, the dog may not understand they shouldn’t eliminate in these buildings. The solution: “go back to preschool”…that is, REVIEW the training process starting with feeding schedule, supervision, rewards for every elimination in the right place…all the way up to proofing your training. Also resist the temptation to stop rewarding altogether once a behavior has been learned. Occasional rewards throughout life will help keep your dog’s motivation to do desired behaviors strong.
Sometimes if there is just a change in your household, this will be enough to trigger a regression. Perhaps someone has moved in or out, or maybe you’ve lost or gained another pet. It could have just been that you rearranged your furniture, or that you decided to try to get your dog to only eliminate in a certain portion of your yard. In any of these situations, you should be prepared to go back to the basics and review the potty training process if you see any signs of regression.
You Can Do It!
Training your dog to eliminate in the place of your choosing takes consistency, patience and work. But, you can do it! Now you understand better how to give your dog well-time feedback they’ll understand in order to shape their elimination behavior, and you understand how to have them in the right place at the right time, as well as how to manage the environment whenever you can’t supervise your dog closely. You’re prepared to go back and review any time see a regression. You now have the knowledge you need to effectively train your dog to eliminate in the place of your choosing!
Article courtesy of Pet360
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