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Canine housetraining, Part 4: FAQs from clients


Be ready to answer these client questions to ensure a successful housetraining process.

Clients will have many questions as they begin and continue through the housetraining process. These answers will help them undertake this task successfully.*


What can I do about an older puppy that seems not to understand the concept of preferred places for elimination?

For older puppies (7 to 9 months old) that still seem to have no awareness of appropriate elimination behavior, diapers can help. Dog diapers or britches are available at pet care outlets and are sold primarily for females in heat. The uncomfortable sensation of a damp diaper next to the skin may help to teach some dogs to inhibit themselves. Clients will have to be willing to bathe and powder dogs that might soil themselves to prevent urine burns or fecal contamination. A thin layer of petroleum jelly can help provide a protective coating.

What about just letting the dog roam and housetrain itself?

Even if a client has 120 acres and the dog will have free range, the client needs to be standing next to the dog—rewarding it for eliminating on an appropriate substrate—for the association to be made. It's ineffective to simply wave at a dog through a window or comment to a puppy when it returns to the house. That's not a reward structure.

Free-range dogs and those confined to kennels learn to eliminate anywhere. No substrate preference is needed (one isn't even possible for most kenneled dogs), and inhibition is meaningless. But most clients don't want dogs that randomly eliminate wherever they are. So part of the covenant of owning dogs means clients must teach them which choices will be rewarded.

How can I make housetraining a puppy seem like play to the dog?

Reward the puppy with a longer walk and play outside after it eliminates. Don't play with a puppy or allow it to play with other dogs before it eliminates. Rather, eliminating outside is rewarded with carefree play. If the only time that the puppy gets to watch the air, chase leaves and hear birds is when it's out to eliminate, bringing it inside immediately after elimination may make housetraining problems worse. If the dog is yanked back in right after eliminating, it can learn to avoid or postpone elimination outside and to save walks for exploration. After all, the puppy can always eliminate indoors.

Tips for cleaning indoor elimination zones

Can I use a word to tell my dog to urinate or defecate?

If a client wants a dog to learn to eliminate on command, he or she must request that the dog eliminate as it is doing so. Say "empty," "potty," "go wee," etc., and make sure the last repetition of the cue coincides with a squatting event. Then the dog should be told that it is brilliant. If clients use this keyword and reward the puppies with play after elimination, puppies will be more than willing to do their bidding.

What punishment is most appropriate?

Punishment has no role in housetraining any dog. Animals and people make associations between acts and consequences; this is how we learn. Coming into a room to find a puddle of urine on the rug and the dog cringing does not mean the dog knows it erred. Rather, it probably connotes that this scenario has happened before: The client has come home, grabbed the dog, dragged it to the urine, and whacked the animal. The dog has made an association: The client comes home, and the dog gets whacked. But it's the wrong association (or at least one the client didn't intend for the dog to learn). In fact, if the client has punished the puppy, it probably cringes when the client comes home, even if it hasn't urinated on the rug, but the client doesn't notice.

Any correction must be coupled exactly with the action that needs correcting. If a client sees the puppy start to squat or finds it in the act of urinating or defecating in an inappropriate place, the client should calmly interrupt the dog and move it to a more appropriate spot. The puppy should stop eliminating but not be scared.

For most people, it's smarter and simpler to recommend they ignore the dog, take it out as soon as possible, and then make a mental note to take the dog out again in 30 minutes and frequently thereafter—each time rewarding the animal for eliminating in the more desirable place. For some meek puppies, any correction can make them more timid, so caution is urged. The key is to praise the dog as soon it urinates or defecates on an appropriate substrate.

What if I've done everything right, and my puppy is still having accidents?

Have the client keep a log for a week denoting how frequently the dog is out and for how long it's out, what happens when it's out and when it eats, plays, sleeps, snacks, etc. Review the log for any patterns associated with housesoiling and with potential medical issues. Chances are the dog's needs were not met, but some dogs will have an underlying medical concern that must be addressed.

What are the best ways to housetrain an older dog?

The same basic training rules apply for older dogs as for puppies. But older dogs can be more difficult to housetrain since they may have to unlearn some less-favorable behaviors. Older puppies or dogs that have been kenneled for extensive periods may have developed a preference for the substrate on which they were kept. Clients may be able to use this, or they may be able to shift the preference to a broader range of substrates.

The following instructions will encourage most dogs to meet clients' needs and desires:

  • Even as the client repeats all of the steps involved in housetraining a puppy, he or she will have to be vigilant any time the dog is around substrates it has used in the past.

  • Expect to do a lot of monitoring and redirecting of the dog.

  • Spying on the dog can be made easier by putting a bell on its collar. The bell ensures the client always will know where the dog is and when it's moving.

  • Humanely incarcerate the dog any time it cannot be monitored.

  • Be patient. It's hard for a dog to break a habit.

  • As soon as the client sees the dog squat in an inappropriate area, calmly shuffle it outside and reward any act of elimination.

  • If the dog is interrupted and startled and then won't eliminate when taken out, take it on long leash walks where other dogs have eliminated. Reward sniffing, and greatly praise acts of elimination before cleaning up feces.

  • If the dog won't eliminate on a lead, take it to a fenced outdoor area with the scents of other dogs, and wait. Reward any elimination behaviors before cleaning up feces.

  • Consider borrowing a dog that is good at eliminating in the outside desired places as a demonstration model. Dogs do observational learning quite well and are interested in the scent of urine and feces of other dogs. Praise and reward the other dog every time it eliminates. Your dog will catch on.

  • On the positive side, older rescued dogs are usually so grateful they have a home and can now be loved that they'll work wonderfully for praise and interaction.

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.

*A client handout version of this article will be published in Overall KL. Manual of clinical behavioral medicine for dogs and cats. St. Louis, Mo: Elsevier, late 2011/early 2012.

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