Where to go to the toilet is one of the first things we try to teach our dogs and it is important that we do so correctly and consistently as soon as we acquire them. Most of us adopt our dogs as very young puppies that need to urinate and defecate more frequently than adult dogs and are also more likely to do so as a result of nervousness or excitement. It is important to understand a pup's limitations in this area and to handle house-training in a positive manner. It is better to engage in a concentrated effort over a few weeks, at the end of which you are likely to have a fully house-trained dog, than to make sporadic attempts at house-training over several months with unreliable results. A word of warning here to the owners of little dogs: don’t be tempted to gloss over house-training because the amount of urine or faeces your pup is producing is so small – it will increase as your pup matures and you will end up with a house-training crisis if you don’t train your puppy straight away!
The quickest way to house-train:
Teaching a puppy where to go to the toilet takes vigilance and patience. Most pups will begin to sniff the ground when they are considering urinating or defecating and may also circle a particular spot. You need to be aware of your pup's movements and pick up on these signals quickly. Do not to let your pup out of your sight in the house at this critical stage in his learning. When you are unable to watch him, confine him to a puppy playpen with his bed and a few chew-toys.
Dogs generally do not like to soil their sleeping areas and will wait as long as possible for an opportunity to relieve themselves elsewhere. A puppy playpen may be a crate or partitioned area of a room large enough for the pup to move around comfortably, but small enough so that he cannot move away from his bed to relieve himself. Larger crates or areas can be used for adult dogs – the same principle applies. Dogs and pups should not be left in their crates for more than an hour at a time and never without chew toys. The crate should be seen as a place of safety, never a form of punishment. Remember, a crate or confined area is a tool for house-training and not a place for your dog to spend most of his life!
Whether you choose to supervise your pup or place him in his playpen, every hour you must take him outside to a suitable area and wait for him to urinate or defecate. As soon as he "performs", reward him with praise and three treats. He needs to learn that going to the loo outside is a really good thing! Allow him to return to the house if he so wishes, so that he does not end up thinking that going outside for a toilet break will lose him access to the house. If he does not relieve himself within five minutes, put him back in his playpen for another hour or continue to keep a close eye on him for any signs that he wants to relieve himself.
There are several times in the course of your pup's daily life when he is likely to need to relieve himself. These are when he has just woken up from a nap, eaten a meal or finished a play session. Get into the habit of taking him outside on all these occasions as well. It is obvious that the more time you spend with your pup, the quicker he is going to learn. If a pup is kept outside for most of the day, the opportunities for teaching him are greatly decreased.
When Accidents Happen
Even with the best intentions we may slip up at some time and allow our pups out of our sight for a few minutes – in fact it only takes a few seconds for a mistake to be made. Your puppy may also urinate from great excitement or nervousness. If you find that he has soiled inside the house without you being aware of it let it go! Do not recall him to the evidence and scold him or stick his nose in it. Punishing a puppy like this is abuse and will result in a breakdown of the trust between you and your dog. The best way to handle the situation is to ignore the mess in front of the pup and to clean it up when he is not present. As any scent residue may induce a dog to use the same spot again, it is important to clean soiled areas thoroughly. Scrubbing with a biological detergent (dishwashing liquid in warm water), followed by a rub down with some pure alcohol (surgical spirits) is the simplest and most effective cleaning procedure. Products containing bleach or ammonia should be avoided as they contain compounds found in urine.
If you catch your dog just as he is about to squat, calmly say "outside" and quickly take him out and praise him when he relieves himself there. Be careful not to react in a way that causes him to urinate from fright. If you can't get him out in time do not become angry: this may teach him not to relieve himself in front of you, but will not prevent him from doing so inside the house. Never punish a pup for urinating from fear or excitement. This will only exacerbate the problem. Rather avoid creating too much excitement when he is inside the house. If the pup has a secure and loving home, he should quickly outgrow this behaviour.
Going through the Night
Until a pup is about 12 - 14 weeks old (some a lot older), he is usually unable to go through the night without needing the loo. Arrangements must be made to accommodate his needs. Many people find that their pups will readily go to the loo on newspaper placed on the floor, as this is the method used by most breeders before the pups are adopted. However, if this practice is kept up for too long it can interfere with the housetraining process, by encouraging the dog to relieve himself on "suitable" material inside the house rather than to go outdoors. It is far better to have the pup in his playpen near the side of your bed or to block him into a small sleeping area there. When he needs to go to the loo your pup will become restless and will wake you up either by crying or by moving around a lot. You can then take him outside, wait for him to perform, praise and reward him when he does and take him straight back to bed. For the first few nights you may have to do this 2 or 3 times, but it should soon decrease to just once a night. Although you may not enjoy getting up, this is the best way to teach your pup to let you know when he needs to go out.
Always give your pup every opportunity to relieve himself before he goes to bed at night so that he has more chance of sleeping through. It is also very important to get your pup outside as soon as he wakes up in the morning, as he will probably be desperate to relieve himself if he has lasted the whole night.
Toileting on cue
It is possible to teach dogs to urinate and defecate on cue. This can be done simply by introducing an appropriate word into the house-training process. When you take your dog outside and are waiting for him to do his business, repeat some verbal cue like “Go to the loo!”. As soon as he performs, praise and reward him. It will not take long for him to learn what he needs to do to get the reward. You can then use this cue before you go to bed at night or during a stop on a long road-trip.
Points worth noting
1. You cannot house-train without a house! A dog that is never allowed inside the house has no idea that he may not relieve himself there. Remember – companion animals should not spend their lives in the back yard.
2. Whenever possible, leave the door open so that your dog can take the initiative to go outside when he wishes to relieve himself.
3. Owners are sometimes advised to remove their dogs' water supply at around 5pm, so that they are less likely to urinate during the night. However, dogs should always have a fresh supply of water.
4. If you want your dog to relieve himself before bedtime and he has not yet learned to do so on cue, taking him for a stroll and a sniff around the neighbourhood will often bring results.
5. People often report that their dogs don’t seem to know how to ask to go outdoors: If your puppy or dog is starting to get the idea that their toilet area is actually outside, they will often move towards the door when they need to go to the loo. If the door is closed they may just stand there, unsure what to do. This is again where we need to be vigilant and reward this behaviour by opening the door. Over time, your dog will likely become more persistent in this regard and may walk to the door and then back to you and to the door again if you are not getting the message. They may end up scratching on the door as well. The best way to teach them to do these things when they want to go out is to be aware of our dog’s movements and reward their efforts with actually opening the door!