Housetraining 101

Housetraining 101

In This Chapter

  • Defining housetraining
  • Understanding why housetraining is important
  • Discovering two ways to housetrain
  • Dealing with the unexpected
  • Clarifying the housetrainer’s role
  • Housetraining older dogs
  • Understanding how dogs really learn
  • Becoming your dog’s best teacher

Max, a 10-week-old Beagle, is delighting his new owner with his puppy antics but is dismaying her with his penchant for peeing all over her recently installed carpet. No matter how recently he tinkled outside, he always seems to have something left over with which to tinkle on the floor covering.

Allie, a 6-year-old Golden Retriever, would never pee on anyone’s carpet. Her people can count on her to do her business three or four times a day: first thing in the morning, early in the afternoon, in the late afternoon (sometimes), and in the evening before she retires for the night. On the rare occasions that she needs an extra bathroom break, she lets her people know by heading to the back door and scratching it — or if her tummy is giving her trouble, by waking up one of her people to get her outside in time to avoid an accident.
Cody, a 3-year-old Chihuahua, can hold his water pretty well — sometimes. Other times, though, he seems to suffer from bathroom-manners amnesia or a sudden preference for taking a whiz any place except where he’s supposed to.

Which of these dogs are housetrained? Which ones aren’t? In this chapter, you not only find the answer to those two questions, but also discover why housetraining plays such an important role in whether you and your dog can live happily ever after.

What Housetraining Is and Why It Matters

To know whether your dog is really housetrained, you need to understand exactly what housetraining is. Simply put, housetraining is the process by which you teach your dog to eliminate when you want him to and where you want him to — and to refrain from eliminating at any other time or place.
That definition doesn’t allow much room for errors or lapses. And clearly, when measured against those criteria, a dog who consistently does his duty outdoors or in a designated indoor area is fully housetrained. That’s not the case, though, with a dog who usually tinkles outdoors, never tinkles outdoors, or only occasionally tinkles outdoors (or performs with similar levels of consistency in a predetermined indoor Bowser bathroom). Housetraining is one of those all-or-nothing cases. That being the case, Allie is the only dog in the chapter intro whom you can consider truly housetrained.
Why does such precision matter? Simple: An otherwise well-behaved, healthy dog who doesn’t know proper pooch potty protocol is much more likely to lose his home than a similar dog who knows his bathroom basics. No human being likes to have his home turned into a multiroom canine toilet — and if such a human can’t teach his dog to take his bathroom business elsewhere, that dog will likely find himself going elsewhere.

Why Your Dog Can’t Be “a Little Bit Housetrained”

Housetraining is an either-or proposition: Either a dog is housetrained or not. To say that a dog is “a little bit housetrained” is like saying that a woman is “a little bit pregnant.”


If you consider your dog to be “a little bit housetrained,” you’re really saying that she hasn’t completely learned proper bathroom manners yet. So you can’t really rely on her to go to the bathroom only where and when you want her to.

Until your dog is totally housetrained, you always face the chance that Lassie will decide to use your brand-new area rug as her toilet or that Laddie will choose to anoint your mother-in-law’s prized Chippendale chair. And of course, for some dogs, especially puppies, those chances are way better than even. That’s certainly the case with Max, the young Beagle from the chapter intro who’s been using that new carpet as his own personal potty.
But owners of adult dogs like Cody, the Chihuahua who’s occasionally leaving unwelcome puddles throughout his owner’s abode, also cope with unreliable canines. Cody appears to have forgotten the lessons in bathroom manners his owners taught him years ago — or perhaps he never quite understood those lessons in the first place. Or maybe Cody doesn’t feel well.
But although housetraining is an either-or proposition, owners definitely can teach a dog proper potty behavior in more than one way.

Exploring Housetraining Methods

Most people who choose to live with dogs want to be able to regulate their canines’ bathroom deportment. They want their dogs to poop and pee where and when they (the people) choose.
Fortunately, you can choose between two methods designed to help you achieve this goal. The right choice for you and your dog depends on many factors, some of which relate less to your dog’s needs than to your way of living. This section discusses indoor and outdoor training and talks about some of the lifestyle issues that may help you choose one method over another.

Location, location, location: Outdoor versus indoor training

The two housetraining methods are all about location — as in, where you want your pooch to potty: indoors or outdoors.

Outdoor training

If the idea of turning part of your house into a canine bathroom doesn’t thrill you, you’re far from alone. That same lack of enthusiasm is probably the primary reason millions of dog owners train their four-legged friends to do their bathroom business outside. Outdoor training involves teaching a dog to eliminate in a potty area located outside your home. The potty area can be a designated spot in your backyard or wherever you allow your dog to do his business, such as on walks.
Outdoor training has plenty of advantages. First and foremost, as soon as your dog knows what he’s supposed to do and where he’s supposed to do it, you never again need to worry about canine waste marring your floors, staining your carpets, or otherwise stinking up your house. You also have more floor space to use and enjoy, because you don’t have any newspapers,
litter boxes, or other indoor canine bathroom paraphernalia to get in the way of household foot traffic. Finally, owners who choose to walk their dogs outdoors can get some healthful, enjoyable exercise and some special bonding time with their canine companions.
But outdoor training carries some disadvantages, too — just ask anyone who’s had to go outside with his pooch on a cold or rainy night. Fortunately, a little extra training can go a long way toward alleviating the problem of the pooch who takes too long to do his business during bad weather.


Don’t think that letting your pooch potty in your yard relieves you of the obligation to clean up those deposits. Unless you like having bright yellow patches in the middle of your green grass or stepping in the other stuff — because that stuff generally doesn’t degrade fast enough for you to totally avoid such missteps — plan on cleaning up after your four-legged friend even if his potty is on your property.

Indoor training

Indoor training involves teaching a dog to eliminate in a potty area located inside your home. The potty area can be some newspapers spread on the floor in one room, a litter box tucked discreetly into a corner, or some other device located in a designated area of your abode.
A dog who’s indoor trained makes a beeline for that indoor location whenever she feels the urge to eliminate. As soon as she’s finished, cleanup is easy: You just flush the poop down the toilet and either throw away or clean the surface upon which the poop or pee landed.


Indoor training is a viable housetraining option if, for some reason, taking your dog outside to eliminate isn’t practical. This method is also worth trying if your adult dog and her waste byproducts are very small.

But indoor training carries some disadvantages. It’s impractical if your dog is much bigger than toy sized (consider how big that waste is likely to be). Moreover, if your canine companion is male, sooner or later he’ll probably starting lifting his leg when he pees. When that happens, his ability to aim accurately may decline. Instead of hitting the litter box, newspaper, or other toilet, he may . . . well, you get the idea.

Looking at lifestyle factors to help you choose your method

How do you decide which housetraining method works best for you? The right answer depends as much on your way of living as it does on your dog’s needs.
Maybe you’re one of those lucky people who not only works from home during the day but also has some nice outdoor places within walking distance. For you, walking a dog can be a real pleasure — and at times even a sanity saver. A housetraining method that takes you and your dog outdoors is probably an attractive option.
Perhaps, though, you’re an elderly person or a mobility-impaired individual who can’t get out and around easily. The dog walk that’s pure pleasure for your work-at-home neighbor may be torture for you. If this description fits you, the ideal housetraining method probably means never having to leave the house. Indoor training may be a better choice.
Maybe you live in a high-rise apartment building in the middle of the city. When your canine companion needs a potty break, you can’t just snap on the leash, open the front door, and head out for a quick stroll or a trip to a designated doggie toilet area. Instead, your route to the great outdoors may require you and your dog to walk to the opposite end of a long hallway, wait for the elevator, ride down to your building lobby, and finally get yourselves to the proper spot outside. And all this time, your dog is expected to hold her water. If you and your dog face such obstacles en route to an outdoor bathroom, you may also want to consider keeping her potty indoors.
Although housetraining is generally a straightforward process, chances are, you’ll encounter setbacks during the training period. And even when your four-legged friend becomes a housetraining graduate, she’s bound to do some occasional backsliding. In any case, you’ll likely see situations in which your consistently rock-solid housetrainee suddenly seems to lose her edge, and neither you nor she knows why.

Understanding the Role You and Your Family Play

You and the other humans in your life play crucial roles in your dog’s housetraining progress and ultimate success (or lack thereof). Not only do you teach your dog the ins and outs of proper potty protocol, but you also create the conditions that can make or break a housetraining program. For one thing, housetraining needs to be a family affair. Consider why:

To keep the diet consistent: No matter how diligently you’re trying to regulate Sparky’s bathroom urges by regulating the kind and amount of food you feed him, such diligence is all for naught if your partner or child is sneaking the dog snacks all the while.

To help you avoid burnout: Housetraining can be pretty simple, but it can also be pretty tedious when just one person is doing the day-in, dayout routine of feeding, walking, and confining the housetrainee.

But maybe getting your family on board isn’t your problem. Maybe you’re trying to deal with housetraining a dog while working away from home all day. Even well into the 21st century, corporate America isn’t great about accommodating the needs of employees’ family members, whether those members are human or canine.


Your dog or puppy has all the instincts and desire he needs to motivate him to acquire good bathroom manners — he just needs you to get him going. If you do the job right, not only will your dog become a housetraining ace, but the two of you will build a bond that goes the distance for years to come.

Scheduling Outdoor Training for Adult Dogs

Teaching an adult dog to do her bathroom business outside is similar to teaching a puppy. The difference between the two, and the good news, is that an adult dog doesn’t need nearly as many bathroom breaks as a puppy does. But the principles and procedures are the same: showing your four-legged friend that her bathroom is outside and doing whatever it takes to keep her from eliminating inside.
Table 1-1 shows a sample schedule for outdoor-training an adult dog. As soon as your adult dog has mastered her housetraining basics — which can happen in just a few days — you can eliminate the noontime potty break and consider giving her a little more freedom in your home.

Table 1-1                Outdoor Training Schedule for an Adult Dog

7:00 a.m.
Get up.
Take dog outside.
Feed dog.
Offer water.
Take dog outside.
Play with dog up to 15 minutes.
Take dog outside.
Offer water.
Play with dog 15 to 30 minutes.
5:30 p.m.
Take dog outside.
Feed dog.
Offer water.
Play with dog for 1 hour and/or let her hang out with the family in the kitchen.
7:00 p.m.
Remove water.
Before bed
Take dog outside.

Training the Housetrainer: Taking the Right Approach

Before a person can teach any subject, he has to know not only the subject itself, but also how to convey that information to a student. The same is true for housetraining. For your puppy or dog to learn basic bathroom manners, you must teach him those manners in a way he can understand.
That said, your four-legged friend brings plenty of positive attributes to the housetraining process: a strong instinct to seek out a den, an equally strong instinct to keep that den clean, an ability to learn through repetition, and a desire to score rewards. But it’s up to you to capitalize on those attributes and develop an approach to housetraining that enables him to get the hang of proper potty protocol with minimal stress on him — and on you.

Leaving behind housetraining methods of yesteryear

Housetraining a dog doesn’t have to be hard. But a generation ago, not many people realized that fact. At best, housetraining was a difficult undertaking; at worst, it was a total failure. Unfortunately, failures occurred all too often.
Consider what may have been behind these failures. Mom (she was the one who usually got stuck with the housetraining task) would see a puddle or pile of poop on the floor. She’d freak — naturally, the little deposit would be gracing a just-mopped kitchen floor or freshly shampooed living room carpet — and go on the warpath to find the canine culprit. When she found him, she’d grab the culprit by the collar, drag him over to the puddle or pile, and yell, “Bad dog!” at him. Maybe she’d swat him with a rolled-up newspaper. She may even have rubbed his nose in the object of his offense. The terrified pooch would then creep away, and things would settle down, at least temporarily. Maybe the dog would eventually figure out what Mom was trying to tell him. Often, though, he wouldn’t. And so the dog would soon have another accident, and the whole miserable cycle would begin again. Still, the dog was learning something: He learned that he should avoid the rolled-up newspaper at all costs. He also learned that he should avoid screaming moms.
Most of the problems people had with housetraining their dogs weren’t the dogs’ faults; they were the people’s faults. People knew very little about the canine instincts that make housetraining and other training easier. They knew only that they didn’t want their dogs to do their business inside the house.
Since then, dog trainers and owners alike have discovered a lot about how dogs learn. And you can use that knowledge to make housetraining a much easier process than when your mother was trying to do the job.


The way you try to show your dog proper potty protocol lays the foundation for your efforts to teach him other maneuvers, such as coming when called, sitting when told, and walking nicely while leashed (see Chapter Basic Training and Beyond for details on these lessons). What you do now, in this most basic of lessons, can set the tone for your relationship with your dog in the years ahead. For that reason alone, it’s worth taking the time to do the job well.

Using Your Pooch’s Instincts to Lay a Foundation

When housetraining your pooch, you’re not working with a blank slate. Your canine companion probably learned a lot about bathroom behavior before you ever met her — whether she came to you as a puppy or as an adult dog. And a lot of what she knows comes from her instincts: those feelings, drives, and desires that have been with your dog since the moment she was born. They’re hard wired into her very being. No one taught her the behaviors that result from these impulses; they just came naturally.
The places where your dog chooses to sleep, her tendency to hoard things, her love of licking your face, her delight in fetching objects — these and countless other actions and reactions may all be inborn. And although some of these instincts don’t affect her ability to be housetrained, others do. After you find out about some of these inborn impulses, you can begin to direct them in ways that help your dog learn to do what you want her to do. Your dog’s instincts help her pick up not only potty deportment, but also just about anything else you want your dog to know.

The training your dog has already had, whether puppy or adult

You can housetrain almost any dog, but the challenges of teaching a puppy to go potty may differ from the challenges you encounter when you try to teach the same maneuvers to an adult dog. Some of these issues have to do with the kind of nurturing and training the dog has already received.

The wee ones: Preliminary training and physical limits


All a healthy puppy usually needs to become housetrained is some time to grow and to develop some self-control — and, of course, some guidance from you in the meantime.

If you got your puppy from a reputable breeder, he may already know the rudiments of proper potty behavior. After all, the well-bred pup has had lots of opportunities to learn about keeping clean and getting along with other dogs (and people) — both of which are important pre-housetraining skills. A puppy who has nailed those basics is easier to teach than one who lacks such knowledge.
Many breeders go even further. They take their puppies outside every morning and after meals, and they praise the little pups when they eliminate. If your puppy’s breeder did that (ask when you’re interviewing prospective breeders), she already did some of your dog’s housetraining for you. The same may be true of a dog you adopt from a shelter, rescue group, or individual.
But even if your new puppy aced those preliminary lessons, one crucial lesson he’s only starting to learn is the lesson of self-control. To put it simply, your little pup just can’t hold it — at least, not for very long. A puppy younger than 4 months doesn’t have a big enough bladder or sufficient muscle control to go more than a couple hours without eliminating. As he gets older, a pup’s ability to control himself gradually increases. By the time he reaches adulthood, at about 1 year of age, a healthy dog usually has plenty of self-control. In fact, some adult dogs can hold it for a very long time.

Grown-up pooches: Unlearning bad habits

Even an adult dog who appears to have an iron bladder isn’t necessarily housetrained. The fact that she can hold it doesn’t necessarily mean that she will hold it. An adult dog may be burdened with mental baggage or just plain bad habits that can create additional obstacles to housetraining.
For example, if you adopted your young adult dog from an animal shelter, her previous owners may not have bothered to housetrain her — or if they did, they may have done a poor job. Either way, her failure to master proper potty deportment may well have been what landed her in the shelter in the first place.
Some shelter and rescue dogs have behavioral problems that manifest as inappropriate elimination — for example, a shy dog may roll over and pee whenever someone stands above her and looks directly at her. Even a dog who’s been a model of proper bathroom behavior at one point in her life can later appear to forget what she’s been taught.
Not surprisingly, then, housetraining an adult dog is often less straightforward than housetraining a puppy. The grown-up pooch who has less-than-stellar bathroom manners often needs to unlearn some bad but well-entrenched habits before learning new ones. The person who lives with such a dog may need to develop his detective skills and figure out why his canine companion keeps making bathroom mistakes.
In any case, though, when you know something about your canine friend’s instincts and impulses, you have a leg up on your efforts to housetrain her.

How long can a dog hold it?

Some dogs appear to have bladders made of iron. When the weather is bad, for example, they slap their floodgates shut. A storm-frightened dog can hold it for up to 24 hours, even if you give him ample opportunity to unload during that time period.
Still, just because your dog has an iron bladder doesn’t mean you should put it to the test. Keep some guidelines in mind:

– Most experts say a dog needs a chance to pee at least every eight to ten hours.

– For puppies, the standard guideline is that they can hold it for the number of months they’ve lived plus one. In other words, your 3-month-old youngster can hold it for about four hours, max. But for many puppies of that age, even four hours is pushing their anatomical limits; they may need trips every three hours, or even every two hours for a while.

– Very small puppies, such as toy breeds, often need hourly potty breaks when they’re under 4 months of age simply because their bladders are so small.

Learning from mom

Even while he’s still with his litter, a puppy is learning a lot about life as a dog. From his littermates, he learns not to bite too hard (if he bites at all) and how to jockey for position at feeding time. He learns a lot about proper bathroom behavior, too.
Puppies can start learning elimination etiquette from the time they’re about 3 or 4 weeks old — in some cases, even earlier. Generally, their bathroom manners start kicking in when they have sufficient motor skills to start wandering around the whelping box where they’ve been living with their mom, and perhaps outside the box, too.
The mama dog takes advantage of this ability. When the pups indicate that they’re about to go potty, she may use her nose to push them outside the box if they haven’t already gotten themselves out of there. Doing so keeps their poop and pee from stinking up the doggie domicile. If the mama dog and puppies are lucky enough to be residing in the home of a good breeder, several layers of newspaper will be at the other end of the box or other quarters for the puppies to eliminate on. After the puppies eliminate on the newspaper that the breeder placed on the floor for just that purpose, she whisks away the soiled papers and replaces them with fresh ones. A breeder reinforces the mama dog’s efforts in this way.
By 7 or 8 weeks of age, most puppies have developed enough control to master this first bathroom lesson. They have to poop and pee every couple hours or so, but they’ve learned to listen to their bodies, and they can tell when they need to go. When they get those urges, they try to scurry away from their den before giving in to that compulsion to squat. This effort to eliminate away from the den signals that a puppy is ready to begin learning the rudiments of housetraining.

Den dynamics

The lessons a puppy learns about keeping clean go way beyond what her mom makes her do. The nest that a dog’s mother teaches her to help keep clean is really her first den — and dens are a big deal in the lives of most dogs.


For a dog, the den is simply an area that she can call her own. Generally, it’s a small place that’s at least somewhat enclosed on two or three sides but is also open on at least one side. The area may be dark, but it doesn’t have to be. What it does have to be is a place where the dog feels safe and secure.

Unlike her wolf ancestors, the domestic dog doesn’t need a den to ensure her physical survival, but her urge to find a den is still very strong.

Cleanliness is next to dogliness

So-called dog people — humans who are enamored of anything and everything remotely canine — like to say that the word God is really dog spelled backward. They may espouse the motto of a magazine called The Bark: “Dog is my co-pilot.” These dog people aren’t being blasphemous. Dogs instinctively want to keep themselves clean.
Sometimes a dog’s definition of cleanliness differs slightly from yours. You probably don’t like the idea of Fido’s splashing in a mud puddle, but Fido may not mind the mud at all. In terms of peeing and pooping, though, Fido and most of his canine compatriots draw the line between dirt and cleanliness — and they draw that line right smack in front of their dens.
Instinctively, a normal, healthy dog does just about anything to avoid having to use his den as a toilet area. The last thing he wants to do is deposit his bodily waste anywhere near his cherished domicile. You can make that impulse work in your favor as you housetrain your dog. The impulse to keep the den clean is the foundation of teaching dogs to poop and pee only where and when you want them to. The drive to use a den and the drive to avoid soiling that den form the basis of easy, effective housetraining — using a crate.

Life without guilt

Suppose your dog makes a mistake. Say that he anoints your freshly mopped kitchen floor or leaves a little pile of poop in the foyer. Do you think he feels bad about it? Do you think he’s overcome with remorse? Do you think he even remembers he’s done a dirty deed within five minutes of committing the act? The answers to those questions are no, no, and no. Guilt and remorse aren’t in your dog’s emotional repertoire.
“Now, wait a minute,” you say. “When I come home at night from work and see that Fido’s peed on the rug, he sure looks to me as though he’s feeling guilty. And when I start yelling at him, his ears go back, his tail goes between his legs, and he kind of cringes. He knows he’s done something wrong.”
Fido knows something all right — but that something isn’t any realization that he’s messed up big time. What he does know is that you’re angry. If you’re yelling his name, he also figures out pretty quickly that you’re angry at him. But he doesn’t have a clue about why you’re so upset; he’s long since forgotten about his little rug-christening party. All he knows is that you’re mad at him, and he’s scared of you. Under such circumstances, he takes what looks to him like two prudent courses of action: literally making himself smaller (that’s why he cringes) and beating a hasty retreat.
Does he understand that you don’t want him to have any more accidents in the house? Nope. Does he realize that if he didn’t have any accidents, you wouldn’t become angry? No again. He’s just doing everything he can to minimize your wrath and, when that fails, to get away from that wrath — and from you.


Your dog lives a life that’s completely free of guilt. He doesn’t connect one of his long-ago actions with the angry outburst you’re having now, which is why yelling at your dog after the fact doesn’t teach him anything except to be afraid of you. Time, patience, and consistency are much more likely to get you the results you seek.

Learning by repetition

Your dog’s inability to remember past mistakes doesn’t mean that she can’t make connections. On the contrary, she’s very good at linking cause and effect. You can use that linking ability to teach her proper bathroom behavior or just about anything else you want her to know. How? Behold the power of repetition.
In fact, many times your dog learns something that you didn’t plan to teach her. Your dog may know when you’re about to leave the house — and, in response to your near departure, may head down to her crate on her own. How does she know? You perform the same sequence of actions every time you leave the house: You may turn off some lights, close doors, grab your wallet and iPod, pick up your purse, get out your car keys . . . that sequence is an unmistakable signal.
Although repetition is the key to teaching your dog what you want her to know, you can do less repeating when you provide her with some sort of incentive for doing the right thing. Find out more about this positive approach in the later section, titled “Rewarding the good, ignoring the goofs.”

The need for attachment


Puppies tumble over each other constantly and seem to be touching each other all the time. Rarely do you see one puppy consistently go off by himself. Puppies need each other for warmth and companionship; they thrive in each other’s company.

But perhaps when you welcomed home your new puppy or dog, you made the mistake of having him sleep by himself in the kitchen or basement. If so, you undoubtedly experienced a night full of heart-rending wails, yips, and howls. Your canine companion didn’t like being alone, away from his littermates or the companions of his previous home. Being away from you made those already bad feelings seem even worse.
And of course, you may have a neighborhood dog whose owner leaves him alone in the backyard all day, every day, and who barks his head off — much to the annoyance of people who live nearby. Why does he do it? Boredom is one reason. Loneliness is another.


Dogs are social animals. When they have a chance to choose between being alone and being with another individual, they generally choose the latter.

What does this need for company have to do with housetraining? Plenty. Not only does your dog’s desire to be with you help build a precious bond between the two of you, but it also helps you keep track of where he is and what he’s doing during the housetraining process. No matter how you look at it, your dog’s instinctive desire to be close to you is something you can use as part of his housetraining — and any other training, for that matter.

How instincts can be thwarted

Instincts play a big role in how quickly your dog masters the art of housetraining. Many puppies learn basic cleanliness and social skills — two important pre-housetraining accomplishments — from their mothers and littermates. But what if, for some reason, a puppy doesn’t pick up those lessons in the first few weeks of her life? And how can that happen? One answer to how that happens is just two words: puppy mills.

Puppy mills: Inhibiting instincts


Puppy mills are substandard breeding operations in which female dogs are forced to mate as often as possible. Breeders raise mother and pups in deplorable conditions — tiny cages in which these poor animals barely have enough room to turn around. They also often have to live knee-deep in their own poop and pee.


Having to live in her own filth is a surefire way to short-circuit a dog’s instinctive drive to do her bathroom business away from her den. She can’t get away from her den. And especially if she’s a puppy, she can’t hold it long enough. Sooner or later, she has to go, and if the den is the only place where she can eliminate, that’s where she does so. Eventually, she learns to deal with it.

What does this kind of situation mean for housetraining? Simple: A puppy-mill dog may take quite a while to recover her instinct to potty away from her den. And until she does, housetraining will be extremely difficult for everyone involved. This doesn’t mean that a puppy-mill pooch can’t be housetrained. Plenty of people have persevered until their canine companions finally understood where and when they were supposed to potty. But getting to that point takes lots of time and even more patience.
Unfortunately, many people lack such patience. Life with their puppy-mill potty delinquents may veer off in one of two directions. Either the owners put up with a dog they say is “partially housetrained” (which really means the dog isn’t housetrained at all), or the owners decide that they can’t tolerate the stains, smells, and aggravation of a dog who can’t learn basic bathroom manners. In turn, they either relegate the dog to remote areas of the house or, worse, get rid of the dog. Any way you look at it, the outcome is unhappy for all concerned.
Clearly, avoiding such problems in the first place is a good idea. How? By not buying a puppy or dog who comes from a puppy mill. A large number of these pooches end up in retail pet stores, such as stores located in shopping malls. Others are sold by dealers who pose as breeders and advertise online or through print classifieds. Always visit the premises and ask to see the mama dog.


Many pet stores have stopped selling puppies themselves and instead hold adoption events to allow shelters and rescue groups to showcase the puppies and dogs who need new homes. Such stores clearly indicate that they’re holding such events, and personnel from the shelter or rescue group are there to talk with you about the animals up for adoption. If that’s the case with the pet store you’re considering, assess the puppies and dogs up for adoption, and know that, in doing so, you may be saving a life. If you can’t tell whether the store is selling puppies or is just giving a shelter or rescue group a place to display the animals in their care, think two, three, four, or more times before acquiring a puppy from that store.

Animal shelters and rescue groups: Lacking socialization?

Suppose you’ve opted for an older dog or a mixed breed from a shelter or rescue group. Will such a dog pose special housetraining challenges? That question has no single answer.
Lots of dogs from animal shelters and rescue groups do just fine with housetraining. In fact, quite a few of them have mastered basic bathroom behavior before they even arrive at their new home. Some, though, may not have done so. And some may be poorly socialized — in other words, they lack the exposure to everyday sights, sounds, and people that enables them to become emotionally well-adjusted animals. This poor socialization may make it tougher for such a dog to become bonded to you and may also make it tougher for you to help him unlearn some bad bathroom habits.
This certainly doesn’t mean that the dog you adopt from a shelter or a rescue group can’t be housetrained. The task simply may be a bit more challenging than you expected. You’ll get a leg up on that challenge, however, if you find out as much as you can about your dog’s background before you bring him home and start teaching him basic bathroom etiquette.

Taking the 21st-Century Approach to Housetraining

Today more people understand that to get what they want from their dogs, they first have to tune in to what their dogs want. People have discovered a lot about how dogs think, feel, and learn. They now know that most dogs don’t want to poop or pee anywhere near where they sleep and eat. They understand that every canine likes to have a den to call her own. They realize that dogs don’t remember what they’ve done within a few minutes of having done it. Consistency, patience, and repetition are the tools you need to teach your dog what you want her to know.
Such knowledge enables you to develop a training approach that helps you help your dog express her instincts in ways that are acceptable to you. In other words, you can train your dog not only to do what you want, but to do what she wants, too. After you know what your dog can bring to the housetraining process, you have to realize what you need to bring to that same enterprise. This section covers some of the qualities that can help you be the best teacher your dog will ever have.

Seeing your dog’s point of view

Any communications theorist, corporate trainer, or psychologist will tell you that to persuade someone to do what you want, you have to put yourself in his shoes. You need to imagine his thoughts and figure out what makes him tick.


Empathy is just as important when you’re trying to reach a dog as when you’re trying to persuade a person. You need to understand the way your dog views the world and relates to it. In terms of housetraining or any other teaching, you’ll be miles ahead of the game if you can think like a dog.

When you think like a dog, you realize that

– Disciplining your dog after he’s done something wrong doesn’t do any good, because he has no idea what that “something wrong” is.

– For many dogs, peeing is much more than an act of elimination — it’s a way to communicate with other canines.

– The shy little darling who rolls onto his back and dribbles a bit of urine when you come home hasn’t mislaid his bathroom manners. Instead, he’s paying homage to you, doggie style.

– When you’re out walking with your four-legged friend at night and he stops suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk, he’s not being stubborn; more likely, he sees something that scares him. To you, it’s just another garbage can, but to him, it’s big and bad and dark and menacing. When you realize what he’s feeling and thinking, you can coax him past the object in question instead of yanking on his leash and dragging him to you.


You can’t succeed with housetraining — or any type of dog training — by shoving your wishes down your dog’s throat and expecting him to swallow them. Force isn’t effective; it pits the two of you against each other. Instead, you and your canine companion should be on the same side. You should have a common goal: figuring out how to live happily together.

Being benevolent

A lot of dog-training literature, not to mention amateur trainers or people who think they know the scoop, tell you that dominance and leadership are the keys to training success. “Show your dog who’s boss,” they say. “Don’t let her get away with anything.”
Some “experts” even recommend that you punish a transgressing dog by grabbing her by the scruff of the neck and rolling her over onto her back (called an alpha roll). Still others advocate that the best way to deal with a fearful dog is to help her face her fear. You won’t see any such advocacy here.


At times, a dog owner does need to be a leader. But even at such times, you can be a benevolent leader — the giver of all good things, the source of all things fun, the refuge in times of fear. Such a leader thinks not in terms of dominance and submission, but in terms of benevolence and cooperation. You can be your dog’s best teacher, but you can also be her best friend — and dominance never needs to be a part of your vocabulary. 

Working with your dog’s instincts

You can housetrain your puppy or dog faster when you work with his tendencies. His need for a den, his desire to keep that den clean, and his ability to learn through consistency and repetition can all help him become a housetraining ace much faster than back in the day when all Mom had to work with was a rolled-up newspaper and a boatload of totally understandable frustration. You just have to use your dog’s instincts to your advantage.

Creating a schedule

Creating a schedule for the canine housetrainee is important because, quite simply, having a schedule is a great way to reduce the time it takes your dog to get the hang of housetraining. The training process becomes a whole lot easier when you feed your dog, play with him, and let him eliminate at the same times every single day.
A schedule plays right into your dog’s need for repetition, consistency, and predictability. A schedule also makes it a whole lot easier for you to anticipate when your dog needs to pee and poop and then to get him to the right place before he has an accident. You won’t find a one-schedule-fits-all timetable. You need to put together a regimen that fits your dog’s age, his degree of housetraining prowess, and the housetraining method you’re using.

Rewarding the good, ignoring the goofs

No, this section isn’t an advertorial for the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale’s treatise on The Power of Positive Thinking. But frankly, he had a point: A whole lot of power lies in positive thinking — and in positive training, too.
Think about the old approach to dog training. Basically, it revolved around finding your dog doing something wrong and then punishing her for doing so. But that approach doesn’t work very well. All too often, dogs don’t know what they’re doing wrong, much less how to do something right.
The opposite, positive approach works much better than the negative one. Instead of pouncing on your dog for messing up, look for her to do the right thing — and when she does, reward her lavishly. That reward can come in the form of verbal praise, loving hugs and petting, tasty treats, or even all three. In any case, take a positive approach, not a negative one.
Of course, you don’t just wait passively for your dog to do the right thing. As part of your approach, you need to actively guide her into performing the maneuvers you want her to perform, using her instincts to help her get the idea a little faster. And when she does get the idea, don’t forget to praise her to the skies. You have to reward her for doing what you want her to do.


By consistently showing your dog what you want her to do and then rewarding her for doing so, you’re conditioning your dog to do the right thing. You’re upping the odds that she’ll do what you want her to do every time you want her to do it.

Technical Stuff

Remember reading about Pavlov’s dogs in science class? The Russian scientist actually got the dogs to salivate by giving each dog a food reward — a treat — every time a bell rang. The dogs learned that the ringing bell meant a treat, and they began to look forward to getting that treat. They were primed for that food reward, and as a result, their mouths mouth began to water when they heard the bell.

You don’t have to wear a white coat and have a fancy laboratory to condition your dog the same way Pavlov conditioned his. Simply show your pooch what you want and immediately reward her for doing what you’ve shown her — whether it’s the first time she pees in your backyard or the hundredth time she anoints a tree rather than the rug in your bedroom. By giving her that reward, you’re letting her know that she’s done something that pleases you, and you give her an incentive to do that something again.
What if she does something wrong? If she pees on your carpet, you clean it up without any comment. If she poops on your brand-new hardwood floor, you whisk the mess away. Period. You don’t yell at her. You don’t punish her. You certainly don’t rub her nose in it. You just get rid of the mess and move on.


If you catch your dog in the act of peeing or pooping in the wrong place, view the situation as a teaching opportunity for you and a learning opportunity for her. Interrupt her in the act and take her to the right place — the place where you’ve decided she should do her bathroom business.

Being consistent

You’ve already got so much going on in your oh-so-busy life that you can’t possibly remember what color your dog’s pee was yesterday or when he last pooped. Everyone is on information overload. But take heart. Help for memory-impaired folks is here: consistency. In housetraining terms, consistency means having your dog eat, drink, pee, and poop at the same times and places every day. You create a routine that the two of you eventually can do in your sleep (or almost, anyway).
By adopting a consistent routine for your dog’s dining and toileting activities, you help not only your own memory, but also your dog’s ability to housetrain faster. Dogs learn through repetition, so when you and he do the same things at the same times in the same places each day, he’ll come to expect that you’ll be doing those things.
This consistency affects your dog both physically and mentally. The repetition that you establish in feeding and housetraining your dog conditions his body as well as his mind. After all, you may be physically conditioned to expect that early morning jog or a second cup of coffee at the same time each day — and without the jog or joe, you don’t feel quite right. You don’t like that feeling, so you stick with your exercise and/or coffee routine; it becomes a habit. By establishing similar routines with your dog, you’re helping to make housetraining a habit for him. When his body gets used to the routine you set up for him, he’ll be primed to poop and pee when and where you want him to.
Don’t worry, though. After your dog is truly housetrained, you don’t have to be quite such a fanatic about repetition and consistency. Your dog will have the control he needs to hold it a little longer if your schedule hits an unexpected snag. Still, keeping to at least a semblance of routine is a good idea, even when your four-legged friend is a housetraining ace.

Attending to details

Have you ever toilet-trained a child? If so, you know the importance of paying attention to seemingly trivial details, such as when he last peed in the potty, when he last did a doo-doo in his diaper, or what he ate for dinner the night before he had a funny-colored bowel movement.
The same is true when you’re housetraining your dog. During this process, you need to remember what you fed your four-legged friend and when you did so. Recalling how long it’s been since he last peed or pooped is always a good idea. And knowing what his pee or poop normally looks like is important so that you can tell when he may be sick.
Paying attention to details also means taking the time to observe your dog and discover what makes him the unique individual he is. For example, do you know the answers to these questions?

– Does he lift his leg when he pees? Does he like to lift both legs (one at a time, of course)? Or does he not bother lifting his leg at all?

– Does he need to eliminate right after he eats, or does he like to wait awhile?

– Does he like to pee in the same spot all the time, or is he an I’ll-do-it-anywhere piddler?

– Does he circle and sniff before doing his business? Or does he suddenly stop midstride and do the deed before you quite realize what’s happening?

– Is he a little introvert who sometimes releases some urine when you greet him? Or is he an extrovert who offers a wagging tail and canine grin to everyone he meets?

Think of the stories you tell your friends about your dog. What are some funny things he’s done? How about the sweet things, the poignant things? What are some of his quirks — potty related and otherwise?
What, you ask, do all these questions have to do with housetraining? A lot. The better you know your dog, the more you can empathize with him. The more you can empathize with him — to think the way he does — the better able you are to adjust his housetraining lessons to his unique character and perspective. And the better able you are to fine-tune your housetraining to his character, the more effective your housetraining efforts are overall.
This personalized — or, rather, dog-specific — approach is particularly true with respect to your dog’s bathroom habits. By paying attention to what he does when he pees or poops, you can better anticipate when he’s going to go — and intervene when he’s going to go in the wrong place.
by Eve Adamson, Richard G. Beauchamp, Margaret H. Bonham, Stanley Coren, Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sarah Hodgson, Connie Isbell, Susan McCullough, Gina Spadafori, Jack and Wendy Volhard, Chris Walkowicz, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD