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Canine housetraining, Part 1: Humane and age-appropriate strategies


Housetraining dogs is really quite simple. The hard part is ensuring clients understand dogs' needs.

Housetraining dogs is really quite simple. The hard part is ensuring that clients understand dogs' needs. Clients also need to understand how a dog's developmental stage may affect its behavior. This helps clients to have realistic expectations. Without this type of tutoring, dogs are at risk for being abused by clients who are teaching them not to eliminate in the house.

It's worth remembering that we used to call this housebreaking, but the dog was the one usually broken. In trying to communicate what they view as the wrong place for their dogs to eliminate, clients may hit their dogs for the first time. A similar scenario occurs in people who are anxious to toilet train children. In both cases, the first smack or shake facilitates the second, so it's important that we prevent that initial smack or shake.

Get your clients in line: Housetraining is simple if you start clients off on the right foot. (Nicole Hill/Getty Images)

It's easiest to approach the housetraining issue by age. So deal with puppies separately from adult dogs. Because the housetraining strategy recommended for puppies is based on ontogeny, this is a good opportunity to discuss other early developmental responses that can become problems for dogs.

Whether the clients are impatient, not knowledgeable or truly problematic in the manner in which they treat dogs (and likely people), we need to remember that a lack of housetraining kills dogs. Clients have low thresholds for constant cleaning and the damage their dogs do to rugs and floors, so anything we can do to provide them with realistic expectations can only increase the probability that the dogs will remain, happily and humanely, in the household.

Sensitive periods for social exposure

Puppies become adept at interacting with other dogs between the ages 4 and 8 or more weeks and with people between the ages of 5 and 10 or more weeks. They're especially able to learn to explore complex new surroundings between 5 and 16 weeks, and if they're not exposed to such stimuli by about 10 weeks, they can become neophobic (fearful of the unfamiliar).

Because of these sensitive periods—periods in which puppies learn quickly about new social and physical experiences—the recommended time for bringing a new puppy home starts at about 8.5 weeks. Before this, dogs are really honing their dog-dog skills and need the stimulation and solace of their parents and littermates. Dogs with a good social background have more tools for understanding increasingly complex worlds.

If a breeder is willing to expose a dog to new environments and housetrain the puppy, it can stay with the breeders through 12 weeks of age without detrimental effects. The real advantages of having the dog stay with the breeder has to do with social experiences with other dogs.

As long as the puppy is engaged in an active vaccination and preventive healthcare program, there are other ways for this interaction to be achieved, including puppy play parties, play dates, puppy day care and puppy kindergarten. If there's an adult dog in the home already, the pup will learn best and fastest from that dog, so anyone who already has a dog and is bringing home a puppy needs to make sure their adult dogs are well-behaved before adding a puppy.

Dogs that miss these sensitive periods for interaction and development do not necessarily develop problems associated with lack of experience, but may be more at risk for developing such problems. Dogs may not get adequate exposure because they are kept in isolation at the breeder's or because they're sent to their new home too early.

The more we learn about effects of the early learning environment, the more justification we have for trying to minimize risk for puppies in terms of the social and environmental exposure. Doing everything right does not guarantee you a perfect dog, but not doing what we know you should puts your dog at risk for behavioral problems.

Minimize the development of fear

In the first two months that the client has the puppy, he or she should make sure that the puppy interacts with other dogs and people of all ages and genders. It should experience cars and traffic, meet other animals the owner lives with such as farm animals and get accustomed to most of the situations in which the adult dog will be expected to function. That said, the key to producing a behaviorally healthy and happy puppy is to understand and recognize fear, including knowing the following:

  • It's OK if the dog is a little startled by the new experiences, as long as it recovers quickly. This means the puppy is willing to continue exploring and maintains its curiosity and willingness to interact, even if it's a little uncertain.

  • It's not OK if the experience upsets the dog so much it cries, urinates or defecates and wants to hide.

  • It's not OK if the puppy does not recover quickly—within a few minutes—when it's startled by a normal but unfamiliar event or object.

  • It's not OK to deliberately scare a puppy to make it tougher. This tactic behaviorally damages the puppy.

  • It's essential that clients seek veterinary help as soon they begin to see a pattern when the puppy reacts fearfully to new things, people and events and does not recover quickly in a way that allows the puppy to enjoy life. Data show that heritable fear is identifiable as early as 5 weeks of age, and dogs that are worried and anxious by 12 weeks of age are usually worried and anxious as adults. Early recognition and treatment will safely keep dogs in the clinic population and will improve the quality of their life and humane care.

If the client intends to show the dog in conformation, agility or obedience, he or she needs to take the puppy to shows early, even before it's old enough to compete. This is possible with outdoor shows and ensures that the puppy has experience with vans, crates, pens, runs, rings, food smells, many dogs, the chaos of shows and—most important—the various options for allowing a dog to eliminate within the confines of dog show rules and events.

Please remember that if the puppy shows any signs of fear or anxiety (crying, whining, withdrawal, salivation, avoidance, shaking or trembling, nonstop panting, scanning, vigilance, inappetence, vomiting, diarrhea, uncontrolled urination or defecation) that do not stop, that dog must be removed from the situation to one where it can calm down. Please don't think that by continually exposing the dog to something worrisome that the dog will get over it. In fact, the opposite is true. Such exposure renders the puppy truly fearful and does long-term harm.

Teaching puppies to eliminate outside

The best time to start teaching a dog to eliminate in a desired location is when the puppy is between 7.5 and 8.5 weeks of age. At about 8.5 weeks, the puppy is able to choose a preferred substrate (grass, dirt or cement) and act on that choice. This is the first age at which the puppy can cognitively make the connection between the scent and feel of the place it's eliminating in and the act of elimination. This is also when it learns it is able to control the act of eliminating. Before 8 weeks of age, most puppies don't have the neurologic control to inhibit elimination. Housetraining a puppy involves two parts:

1. Getting the puppy to eliminate in the "right" place

2. Encouraging the puppy to wait to eliminate until it gets to that "right" place

This means that puppies need the neuromuscular control and the cognitive component for housetraining to succeed. This doesn't guarantee a 8.5-week-old will not have accidents after that time. It will, but the foundation for easier housetraining is best laid at that age.

Consider a puppy's development

Some puppies are not as developmentally advanced as others that are the same age and may do well forming a preference for an area for urination and defecation, but they may not have the physical muscle and nervous control necessary to endure extended periods without accidents. There's a lot of variation in the rates at which puppies develop, just like children. This control will come with age if the puppy is appropriately reinforced and if there's no physical problem. This is important to know because for puppies as well as children, the first incident of abuse often comes with housetraining and toilet training.

If the clients have truly done everything right and the 6- to 9-month-old puppy is still not completely housetrained, look for an underlying medical problem that may be contributing to or causing the problem, such as an infection. Sometimes a slight amount of dribbling—particularly if the dog is excited—can be normal. For example, while not true for every dog, it's common for female puppies to dribble urine because of some of the hormonal and anatomical differences that distinguish them from male dogs. The dribbling usually resolves or improves with age, but in some cases when it doesn't, the puppy may respond to the hormones that become abundant during an estrous or heat cycle.

Housetraining a puppy is time-consuming because it requires clients to pay constant attention to the puppy's signals and it requires consistent action. Housetraining a puppy when it's young is a lot easier than trying to correct inappropriate elimination behaviors that could've been avoided by the right approach at the start.

If your clients don't have the knowledge or energy to housetrain a puppy kindly and humanely, encourage them to consider adopting an adult dog that is already housetrained. If you have a good relationship with breeders and shelters in your area, discuss the importance of this type of commitment with them so that you can work as a team to ensure that puppies go to homes where realistic expectations rule.

Coming next month: A look at crate training as an option.

Dr. Overall, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, is a diplomate of the American College of Behavior Medicine (ACVB) and is board-certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.

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