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How To House Train Your Dog

Updated on June 25, 2013

Setting Your Dog Up For Success!

When trying to extinguish an unwanted behavior in your dog, it's your responsibility to minimize his opportunity for failure. The less mistakes he makes, the more positive reinforcement and interaction he receives. The goal is to spark the desire to potty outside, not make him fearful to eliminate in your presence.

Your Dog's Schedule

What goes in on a schedule will come out on a schedule. Free feeding, the practice of leaving food available to your dog at all times, is a no-no during this period. Generally, free feeding is something most dog trainers will advise against entirely because it takes control of an important resource out of your hands. For house training, it makes predicting when your dog will have to eliminate much more challenging. Feed a dog one to three meals a day (depending on age and health) at the same time every day and you'll have him eliminating on a regular schedule. You'll know when he'll have to go, and you'll be able to help him make the right choice by taking him outside at the right time.

Generally, your dog will have to potty half an hour after a meal. If you must leave for more than a couple hours, a small snack will be enough until you can come home for his evening meal. It's also prudent to limit the amount of water you leave your dog with while you're away so long as it is safe to do so. You don't want him to dehydrate in an overly warm apartment on a hot summer day.

For overnight, food and water should be taken away two hours before bed time. After your dog's last successful potty trip for the evening, confine him to a safe place where he'll be unlikely to make a mess until you take him out again in the morning.

Keeping a schedule and establishing rules for your dog are an integral part of his well being, and yours if you want to avoid frustration. Dogs are happiest when part of a team and working together with you, but they will also indulge in behaviors that give immediate gratification whether it's good for them or not. For tips establishing other house rules, see the article linked below.

Going Outside... Together

Don't let your dog outside to use the bathroom when you think he has to go... take him out with you, on a leash, to the same spot every time. You have to be there to see if he's going potty. No, you cannot skip this. You must take the time out of your day, go to the potty-spot, tell him how good he is when he goes and reward him.

You should always give verbal praise when your dog starts to potty in the right area, and treats are fine if that's all you have time for, but a better "real life" reward is a walk or off-leash romp. Allowing fun time only after successful potty trips will reinforce the notion that eliminating outside is first priority. Requiring your dog to potty before a walk also does two more things. First, it demonstrates you are in charge and a fair leader by showing your dog he needs to earn the things he wants. Second, if he's going potty before the walk, he won't have to go during your excursion and you don't have to worry about it.

It's important to mention something here about being a responsible dog owner during walks. Most neighborhoods have a law that requires you to clean up after your dog, please do so. You represent other dog owners when you act responsibly or otherwise. Don't let your dog mark on things during your walk. If he stops, be attentive and pull him along. You can give an "okay" for when you wish to permit such behavior, but do not allow it constantly. Do not forget that dogs require rules and guidance, and your neighbors will appreciate when you don't let your dog pee on the front step every time you take him out. The smell can be awful. Please consider others when out with your dog.

You Went Outside But Your Dog Didn't "Go"

If you stood outside in the potty spot for 10 minutes, but your dog doesn't use the bathroom, bring him back inside and confine him to an area where you know he won't have an accident and try again in 20 minutes. A crate is a perfect spot to leave your dog if you cannot supervise him during this time. If you want to allow him more freedom, having him on-leash with you is another option, but if you let him out of your sight and he has an accident you've just taken three steps back for the one step of progress you might have made.

Your dog can have freedom in the house only when you know you can trust him. For an adult dog that's not entirely house trained, you can trust him for about 30 to 40 minutes after the last time he used the bathroom. After that time frame, if you can't supervise him put him somewhere he can't make a mistake. The space should be a small enough that he won't want to eliminate within its confines. A crate, bathroom, or any gated area will work. The minimum size of the area should allow your dog to stand upright and turn around without awkwardness. Dogs don't want to eliminate where they know they sleep, so the crate is ideal.

Remind yourself how important you are to your dog's success. You can help him avoid mistakes by following through with routine and rules. It will feel like high maintenance at first, but there is an end to this constant supervision and outdoor potty trips together.

There Was An Accident

If you catch your dog in the act, try to interrupt or startle him out of it. You can shout, clap, or use a shaker can (pop can filled with tabs, etc) to break his concentration and get him outside as soon as possible. Don't scold him. You want to redirect his inappropriate elimination to the right spot and reward it.

If you don't catch him in the act and find the mess later, you want to create a negative association with the mess being inside without creating the same association between you and your dog. Remember, you don't want him fearful of going potty in front of you or you're undoing some of your progress.

There's a silly tactic many dog owners have found very effective in communicating that a mess in the house is undesirable. You scold the mess. Yes, it sounds and feels silly to do so, but scolding the bad spot will allow you to vent at the mistake without being a detriment to the trust you've built with your dog. He'll understand that the mess makes you upset and he'll be less likely to eliminate in the house if you freak out at the mess every time.

Yell at the mess all you want. Be animated about it. Yell for 10 to 20 seconds. Grab a shoe and slap it on the floor next to the mess. Be ridiculous. When you're all done with throwing a fit at a pile of poop, calmly lead your dog to somewhere out of view before you clean it up. You just spent a bit of time putting the mess into negative context for your dog, and some dogs will view the clean up process as the opposite. When cleaning up, you often pat, sop, rub, and pet the spot your dog just made. From his perspective, you are giving the mess positive attention. This is why you want to put him out of sight, so he doesn't witness the clean up.

Make sure to use the correct product when cleaning up your dog's mess. Avoid anything containing ammonia at all costs. The scent of it will only encourage him to re-soil where he's gone before. Get a cleanser for pet messes from a pet store. There are many more options available and friendly sales staff to help you find what really works. Getting the odor out will help your dog recognize that the floor is not his potty spot, so it's very important to use a product designed specifically for cleaning up after pets.

Putting It All Together

Many dogs will grasp the concept within the first week but will need your continued vigilance and attention to schedule in order to prevent backward progress for a few more weeks. Different breeds will learn at different paces, but rest assured, all dogs can be house trained.

This method can be used for puppies and adults, but keep in mind that young puppies will need to eat more often, and will require more trips outside as a result. If you must be away for long periods of time, give them an appropriate place to use the bathroom within a larger confined space. Potty and house training pads are available at pet stores and offer a proper area for eliminating using pheromones to help guide noses to the right spot.

Things to remember:

  • Scheduled feeding lets you anticipate a potty schedule.
  • Going potty outside is first priority, then walks and playtime.
  • Confine your dog when you can't watch him to minimize mistakes.
  • Yell at the mess, not your dog.
  • Clean it up properly and out of sight when he makes a mistake.

If your dog spends a lot of time confined during the day, house soiling may be what owners interpret as "acting out." A dog left alone or confined with little interaction must look for things that he enjoys to keep him occupied. Dogs only do what they find enjoyable. Eliminating in the house is a relief and therefore, enjoyable. Be sure your dog is getting enough mental and physical exercise every day to avoid built up frustration that can contribute to house soiling and other more destructive behaviors. Training away bad behaviors is about prevention and available alternatives. Always be aware of ways you can help your dog succeed.


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    • trainerlex profile image

      Lex 5 years ago from Denver, CO

      Ah, yes I misinterpreted the spray bottle. Good idea. =)

    • profile image

      grayareas 5 years ago

      I didn't mean to spray the dog for an aversion technique. I meant to use it as a cleanup when the dog urinates in a public place. We clean up feces, but urine is a nuisance too when the dog goes on someone's garden plants, or on nice stone planters in a park. I appreciate your response to my comment, and I enjoyed your article a lot.

    • trainerlex profile image

      Lex 5 years ago from Denver, CO

      Thank you very much for the comment. You've brought up some good points, so I have added detail to the items you mentioned in order to better explain why they are important to me as a trainer. The reason I do not care for spray bottles or recommend them is that most dogs are indifferent to a few squirts, even with soap. Also, I make a huge effort to keep my training techniques positive without many aversion tools. You will not see any of my articles for general dog behavior and training issues use direct aversion techniques.

      Many owners have feelings similar to yours about marking. I am of the opinion that if you can maintain a healthy role in your dog's life as a responsible leader he is perfectly fine marking where he wants with your permission. I just wish more people would be mindful of how it affects others.

    • profile image

      grayareas 5 years ago from Sanford, North Carolina

      good article. but a dog probably doesn't need to eat 3 meals a day. two is optimum for maintaining healthy blood sugar level and minimizing obesity. we tend to feed our pets like we eat; but their needs are very different. also ditch treats regularly. a pet will not know what a pet is unless you introduce it to him frequently. Also, not letting a dog "mark" is cruel. Dogs live to mark; it's their nature. Just carry a spray bottle with water and a small amount of environmentally friendly soap and spray where they go especially if it is on someone else's property.