Housetraining a dog or pup is not rocket science. But it is not always easy, since dogs are not born with the understanding that your living room rug is not a bathroom. Whether housebreaking a pup or an adult dog, the first step is taking advantage of the dog’s den instinct (their desire to curl up in a snug protected place). A crate, when properly introduced as a happy and rewarding place, provides your pet a secure haven of its very own. The reason it is invaluable for housebreaking is because most dogs will not soil their sleeping quarters. An exception might be a dog from a puppy mill situation, who has been forced to potty in the same area where they sleep. It can take these dogs a bit longer to understand the difference in their living quarters, versus their potty areas. Tips for working with these dogs, or with a pup you wish to train with potty pads, are listed at the end of this article.*
For regular training, what size crate do you need? Start with smaller than you may use later on--one that is just big enough for the dog to stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably. If the crate is too big, the pup may feel he can potty and still get away from it. An easy-to-clean plastic crate works well, or a wire crate which can be covered with a towel or blanket if needed to make the dog feel more secure.
Introduce the crate in a positive manner. Get pup used to going in the crate by tossing small treats into the crate, with the door open. Most dogs will venture in to get the treats. Once they are comfortable going in to eat the treat, you can briefly shut the door, standing right in front and giving treats through the door, then open it. If you also use the crate to feed your dog his regular meals, he will quickly associate it as a pleasurable place.
What about bedding? If your dog does not chew fabric or soil bedding, you can use a towel or light blanket inside the crate. Newspaper is not a good idea, as it may send the wrong message of “go here”, especially if the dog was previously trained to potty on paper. A few dogs will urinate in a crate only if bedding is provided, in which case remove the bedding until the pup starts to understand that bedding is for sleeping, not for a potty pad!
Whenever not directly under your supervision in the house, your dog should be in her crate or kennel. Preventing potty mistakes by not allowing an accident to happen will help the dog understand much quicker. Whenever you take pup out of the crate, make sure you immediately go to the potty area, every single time, even if your pup was crated only 15 minutes. When you reach the area, set your pup down, put a little slack in the leash, and say a phrase such as “go potty” or “do your business”. When your pup actually begins to “go”, repeat the phrase quietly while he is going. Note--do not use a loud excited voice as this may cause the pup to become distracted and forget what he or she is doing!
Consistency is key! Be consistent even in which door you use to go outside, and be consistent with feeding schedules, go-potty phrases and places plus exercise schedules. Even if your dog just came back inside, if they drink a lot of water or start doing something they were not before--take them back out to potty! Sniffing the floor, circling, whining, wandering away or going towards the door are often signals that pup needs to go, which means you need to be quick in taking them outside!
How often do they need to go out? Pups normally eliminate a few minutes after eating or drinking, and again about 20-30 minutes later. Keep in mind that some dogs will actually poop twice in one outing, so walk them long enough to make sure everything is taken care of before coming back inside. Also, when dogs have been playing and drinking water, they will have to go out more often, sometimes even every half hour if they are out with you instead of sleeping in their crate.
When an accident does happen, use a rag or paper towel to soak up urine and/or pick up feces, then clean the spot with a good carpet cleaner first, then follow up with an enzyme cleaner formulated to neutralize odors. Once at least partially dry, spray the spot with a dog repellant spray such as Boundary™, or with a vinegar and water solution, to discourage future accidents in the same area. Be sure to put pup out of sight when you clean, so you do not intentionally “punish” when they have no idea what has been done wrong. Never scold a pup after the fact, and never scold for crate accidents. If you catch the pup just beginning the event, a quick “no” in a calm voice, followed by rushing pup outside can sometimes be helpful.
Having problems housebreaking an older pup or adult? First, have your veterinarian rule out a medical condition (such as a urinary tract infection). If everything checks out okay, make sure you are truly observing the rule of keeping the dog right beside you whenever they are out of the crate (so you do not miss any signals). If you are dealing with a male who was not neutered at an early age and has a desire to mark territory even after being neutered, then you may find a “belly band” helpful. Almost all small dogs accept them quickly. These can be ordered in pet supply catalogs or over the internet, or for small dogs, it is easy enough to make your own with a tube sock and Velcro™. Just wrap it around the dog’s middle, with a sanitary pad in the place where the dog would urinate if he were to do so with the belly band on. For female dogs, purchase doggie panties which are used for females in season, and use them in the house, taking them off just before you take the dog outside to potty (the same as you would if using a belly band for a male dog.) Be sure to change the pad if the dog does urinate on it. If you are consistent, so that accidents are prevented through the use of the bands or panties, plus you are continuing to take the dog outside on a regular basis, most dogs get the idea within a month or so.
Accidents when you come in the door? Some pups will urinate from excitement when greeting people, or when showing submissive behavior. These dogs do best if you ignore them when you first arrive, and then let them come to you later after you have sat down. Do not scold for this behavior, as this can make the problem worse. If you ignore it, usually it is outgrown. If the behavior continues past the age of 6 months, your vet may prescribe some medication to help solve the problem, and you may also wish to work with a behavior counselor to make sure that your pup’s confidence is increased (which will lessen urinating that is related to submissive behavior.) Use of the doggie panties mentioned above can also help, so that no one accidentally makes the problem worse by verbal scolding when submissive urination occurs.
Don’t let a crate interfere with your pup’s social needs! The best place for your new dog to be crated the first few nights is directly beside your bed, close enough that you can stick your fingers in if needed for comfort. Keep in mind that puppies are especially prone to fear of being alone, as they have always had plenty of “company” from their Mom and littermates.
If you have another dog, be sure to leave it crated beside your pup, or at least have it in the same room with your pup’s crate whenever you leave the puppy alone. This helps prevent the feeling of “social isolation” when you are away. If you do not have another pet, then try leaving a radio or TV on in the room, at low volume. If you must be away all day at work, arrange to have a neighbor or relative come walk the dog in the middle of the day, or hire a professional dog-sitter. Doggie daycare can also be a good option, if you have an experienced trainer in your area who offers this service. Always check with your veterinarian’s office for references.
Last but not least, always schedule enough time that your pup gets a quick walk after he finishes going potty outside, and make sure he does not have to go immediately back to his crate the second he comes back inside. If the fun always ends (they have to go right back to their crate) as soon as they “go”, some pups will prolong going so they can stay outside in the fresh area and enjoy your company a bit longer!
*Tips for working with puppy mill survivors or dogs purchased from a pet store, where they have had to live in a cage full-time: These dogs will, at first until they get used to a routine of going outdoors, be likely to potty in a crate. A better option is to use a portable exercise pen, which a small plastic crate set up at one end, with the door removed, and potty pads on the floor. The pup should go into the crate for security to nap and sleep, and will begin to think of the crate as a place to remain clean. At that point, you can begin crate training as listed above, if you want the dog to learn to go outside. If you want them trained to potty pads, then whenever you are not home, use the exercise pen set-up. If you do not have room for an exercise pen, then you can buy a large wire crate, and place a small plastic crate inside of it at one end, with potty pads at the other end of the crate. Also, keep in mind that a pup like this may have intestinal parasites or bacterial infections that must be dealt with, in order for his little digestive system to work properly again. Keeping him on a food for sensitive tummies, like Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin and Stomach, and making sure your vet has checked a fecal sample and given him appropriate medication, will help take care of this issue, so that he has less accidents due to tummy upset.
In addition to being very patient, you must also make absolutely certain that the puppy mill pup is tethered to you on leash whenever he is out of his crate until he is totally housebroken. Do not give him the opportunity to have accidents. Use belly bands (male wraps) for boy dogs and santi-panties for girls, so if a mistake is made, it will not be on your carpet. Remember, prevention is always the best cure!
Many thanks to Judith Rock Allen. Judy and author Melanie Schlaginhaufen worked together on the original draft of this article in 1995. Judy was also the person who introduced Melanie to the use of belly bands/male wraps, which are of great benefit when training toy breeds, particularly adult males adopted from puppy mill cases.
(C)2002-2010, Melanie Schlaginhaufen. May not be used for commercial purposes without written permission from the author. For reprint permission, you may reach Melanie through the Contact Us form on our home page.