Dog behavior solutions: Housesoiling

Whether housebreaking a new puppy or resolving an existing problem in an older dog, the routine is the same: 1) prevent your dog from making mistakes, (i.e., eliminating in inappropriate places), 2) show your dog the appropriate place at the appropriate time, 3) reward your dog for using the appropriate toilet area, and above all 4) teach your dog the relevance of appropriate toilet etiquette.

Step 1: Prevent mistakes

The first time your dog soils your house it creates a precedent – a bad precedent. Subsequent mistakes quickly reinforce the existing bad habit, making it even harder to break. The prime directive of housetraining therefore is to prevent your pup from making mistakes. This is particularly important during the first few days the puppydog is at home. Your puppy’s initial elimination sites will remain favorite locations for a long time to come.

A not uncommon housesoiling case history comprises dogs which eliminate in the owner’s bedroom – daily! Now, I can understand an owner ‘slipping up’ and allowing the pup to have a messy mishap once in a while, but not every day! Why not just close the bedroom door and then housetrain the dog. Until a dog is housetrained, surely common sense dictates, it should not have the run of the house, let alone the bedroom! As a temporary solution, at times when you cannot keep an eye on your pup, keep it confined to a single room or an outdoor run.

The purpose of long-term confinement is to confine the problem to a selected area. The owner acknowledges that the pup will need to eliminate sometime during the lengthy confinement period, and so the pup is confined to an area where urine and feces will cause the least damage and provoke the least annoyance, e.g., a utility room or kitchen with non-porous floors, which may be covered with newspaper. The pup soon develops a preference for eliminating on papers in the confinement area. Of course, eventually it will be necessary to break the dog of this habit and train it to eliminate outside exclusively. However, for the meantime, if ever the pup has the run of the house, but the silly owner is not paying attention (i.e., a physically-present but mentally-absent owner), at least the pup is likely to seek out its familiar confinement area when it needs to eliminate, thus causing the least possible damage and inconvenience indoors.

Step 2: Teach appropriate behavior

Housetraining offers one of the best possible illustrations of the effects of good and bad training techniques. By ignoring the dog’s appropriate responses and punishing it for every mistake, housetraining can take forever. There are literally hundreds of different places a puppy can choose to eliminate – all of them hopelessly inappropriate – and the owner must punish the pup for each and every wrong choice. This is unfair and inhumane, especially since punishment for housesoiling tends to be extremely severe. On the other hand, there is only ‘one right spot’. So, don’t keep it a secret – show it to your dog right away!

Step 3: Reward the dog

Over 95% of housetraining comprises rewarding the dog for eliminating in the right place. If you regularly take your dog to its doggy toilet area and praise it upon completion, the problem will be resolved in short order.

This all sounds fine and dandy in theory, but in practice there’s one wee flaw. How do you know in advance when your dog wants to eliminate, so you may escort it to the appropriate area? Here again, confinement comes to the rescue. This time it’s short-term close confinement. The most popularly used variations are crate training, tie-downs (short tethers) and place training (confining a dog to its bed, basket, or moveable mat). A crate is the doggy equivalent of a baby’s crib or play pen. A tie-down is similar to the principle of a child’s car seat, and place training is the equivalent of a well-trained child who can sit still and be quiet on request.

Short-term close confinement temporarily inhibits the pup from eliminating during the short confinement period, such that it is highly likely the pup will need to eliminate immediately upon release. Thus, the purpose of crate-training is to predict the time of elimination, whereupon the pup may be taken directly to its toilet area and be praised for producing.

Crate training

Firstly, accustom your puppy to its crate (or tie-down). Leave the crate door open so the pup may come and go as it pleases. Periodically, put treats inside the crate, (dry kibble from tonight’s dinner is ideal) so your pup learns the crate is a great place to visit. In fact, have the dog dine in the crate. Praise your dog whenever it visits the crate, and ignore it when it leaves. Then, try closing the door for short periods. Praise your dog, and offer the occasional treat whenever it spends time in its newfound doggy den. Open the door and continue praising your dog, but stop praising and ignore your dog the instant it leaves. The crate will soon become your dog’s preferred resting place, whereupon it may be used for confinement.

When away from home, leave your dog in its long-term confinement area and when at home, keep the dog in the crate. Dog crates are easily portable, and so your pup may be confined in the same room as you. Thus, your puppy will not feel excluded or isolated, and you may conveniently keep an eye on the pup to praise it for settling down peacefully or for chewing its chewtoys. Every hour, say “Outside,” open the crate door and run your dog to the intended toilet area and then stand still and wait for three minutes. It is likely your dog will eliminate, since it has not done so in the past hour, and the speedy passage to the doggy toilet has jiggled the dog’s full bladder and rectum. If your dog pees or poops, praise the living Dickens out of that critter. Drop to your knees (careful where) and THANK THAT DOG! – for its MOST WONDERFUL AND GLORIOUS PERFORMANCE!

Since it is delightfully empty, your puppy may now be allowed the run of the house (under supervision of course) for half an hour or so, before being put back in its crate once more. If your dog does not eliminate within the allotted time-span, no big deal; simply straight back in the crate for another hour and so forth.

Crate-training techniques are so successful that you should consider soliciting the help of a puppy-sitter to housetrain your puppydog as an alternative to long-term confinement when you are away. There must be some nice bloke in the neighborhood who would relish watching over the little tyke. Perhaps an elderly person, who would love to have a dog of his own but does not for some reason. It is important to establish the status quo during the first few weeks your pup is at home. Dog sitters are similarly invaluable when retraining an older dog – just one week of continual crate-training, and the ‘problem’ never becomes a problem.

If for some reason you do not want to use a crate in training, the same housetraining principles may be applied using tie-downs or place training. A tie-down is a short tether with a clasp at each end. One clasp attaches to the dog’s collar and the other to an eye-hook screwed into the baseboard, door jam or floorboards. With a permanent eye-hook in each room, you may move your dog and its mat as you change rooms and so keep an eye on your dog at all times. Some owners find it easier to keep the puppy on leash indoors and tie the leash to their belt. Of course, a diligent owner only needs to instruct the pup to settle down on its mat, which is placed in convenient, easily monitored locations, such as in front of the TV, next to the computer or under the dining room table.

Step 4: REALLY REWARD THAT DOG!

Once your dog has been taught the house rules, it needs to learn their relevance. Each time your dog eliminates in the appropriate spot, offering a special training treat is just the ticket. Once your dog realizes its elimination products are the equivalent of coins for a food vending machine, i.e., tokens which may be cashed-in for treats from you simply by eliminating in a designated area, your dog will not want to eliminate anywhere else. Eliminating around the house does not have comparable fringe benefits.

Training treats are especially useful during housetraining because when standing outside in the freezing rain at 6:00 a.m., some owners cannot summon sufficient enthusiasm to smile, let alone to adequately praise a puppy for pooping. However, giving a food treat has the required positive effect. So always keep a screw-top jar of treats handy to your dog’s toilet area.

By employing a reward gradient, your dog may even be trained to eliminate in a specific location, i.e., a doggy toilet. The level of the reward varies according to how close your dog eliminates to ground zero: praise for each time your pup eliminates outside; purposeful praise plus a piece of kibble for each time it eliminates within 20 feet of the chosen target; an enthusiastic “Good dog,” a meaningful pat and two pieces of kibble for doing it within 10 feet of the target area; a delighted “Gooood dog!,” several pets and pats and a training treat for eliminating within five feet; and for scoring a bull’s-eye – five treats, a resounding Woodhousian “WHATTT a good doggie!,” multiple hugs and squeezes, promise of a barbecued sheep for supper, extra TV privileges and a free trip to the Bahamas! Eschew litotes; one can never afford to be a master of understatement when housetraining a critter.

Regardless of whether your dog has been trained to eliminate in a specific spot in the backyard or at curbside, a walk still remains one of the best rewards for a defecating dog. People with fenced yards seldom use this valuable reward at all, and people who have no private yard and therefore customarily take the dog outside to eliminate on public property do it all wrong. The common practice of walking a dog to induce it to eliminate is quite awry – the dog gets the walk for free and often, the walk is terminated as soon as the dog relieves itself, i.e., the dog receives one of the biggest rewards in the Western World (a walk) for doing no more than acting like the proverbial banana (in expectation of going walkies), yet it receives the biggest punishment in the civilized canine world (termination of said walk) for doing the right thing in the right place at the right time – going potty on the pavement! We seem to be 180 degrees out of phase here.

Instead, release your dog from its crate, tie-down, or resting place, take it outside and wait for three minutes. If your dog does not eliminate within the allotted time span, back to its doggy den for another hour. However, if your dog does eliminate in its backyard toilet area or in front of the house, it’s time for walkies!

Using a walk as a reward is especially important for dogs that eliminate outdoors on public property. Leave the house, stand out front and wait for your dog to eliminate. (Take along a book to read – this book, for example – to pass the time until the dog passes other matters.) If your dog does eliminate in front of the house: 1) it is much easier to clean up after your dog and dispose of the mess in one’s own dustbin (i.e., it is no longer necessary to stroll down Main Street handicapped by a bag of doggie doo) and 2) your dog may receive the walk as a reward for eliminating. You will find that a no feces-no walk policy creates a very speedy defecator.

Handling housesoiling mistakes

As far as possible, prevent any mistakes from happening. However, if your pup is ever ‘caught in the act‘, urgently instruct it “Outside!” The single word, “outside,” is an instructive reprimand, which immediately conveys two vital bits of information: 1) the tone and volume inform your dog it is about to make a big booboo and 2) the meaning of the word instructs your dog how to make amends. Of course, before using any word as an instructive reprimand, first make certain your dog knows what it means.

Any other reprimand or punishment is much less effective. Saying “No!” is ridiculous when the dog’s brain, bladder and bowels all say “Yes.” Moreover, a “No” or a guttural “Echh” is non-specific; it merely lets the dog know it is making a mistake but does nothing to inform the dog what is expected. Human temper tantrums, rubbing the dog’s nose in the mess or squirting noxious substances in the dog’s mouth are all time-consuming, messy and downright cruel. They will only serve to 1) make the dog hand shy and defensive towards the owner and 2) encourage your dog to eliminate in hiding.

“Outside!” is the easiest, quickest, most efficient and most effective way to instructively reprimand your dog.

If you do not catch your dog in the act do NOT reprimand it at all. The time delay makes it impossible for your dog to comprehend the connection between the crime and punishment. Instead, reprimand yourself – it was your mistake for not having sufficiently confined, supervised or housetrained your dog. Back to step one. Do not pass ‘Go,’ and do not collect $200. Bad owner! BAD OWNER!!! This will not happen again.

Excerpted from How to Teach An Old Dog New Tricks, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.