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Potty Training a Shelter Dog

Updated on March 10, 2013
Lillian Mae, aka "Lily"
Lillian Mae, aka "Lily"

A couple of months ago I adopted a 6 month old ball of puppy energy. My dog of 12 years had passed away 3 months earlier and it was a bit of a shock to suddenly have a puppy on my hands. One of the things I loved about her was her enthusiasm for life, which I assumed would translate to an equal enthusiasm for trouble.

It turned out that with the right amount of exercise and playtime the puppy, dubbed Lillian Mae, was exceptionally well behaved. She didn't tear things up, she went to the bathroom outside, and (to the detriment of my waking up on time) she slept like a rock through the night and well in to the morning.

But then, out of the blue, she began to treat her crate like a litter box.

At first I thought it was a one time occurrence, but it started happening more and more frequently. Even if I only left the room for 30 minutes. Then it began happening even when I was in the room - she decided she needed to pee, walked into the crate, did her business, and casually strolled back out. That was the must infuriating part. The casual strolling.

I struggled with this problem a lot because it clearly was not a matter of her ability to hold her bladder - she would sleep up to 10 hours through the night with no problems. When I took her outside she always did her business in a timely manner. She never peed in my own personal space - it was only inside the crate.

Despite letting Lily outside before I Ieft and as soon as I returned 1-2 hours later, the problem was not abating. When I caught her in the act I threw in some verbal scolding and immediately escorted her outside to pee in the proper location. Nothing seemed to get through to her.

This is a good place to clarify that Lily was in no way anxious about me leaving, nor is she afraid of the crate. I made a point early on to play games with her that directly involved a positive association with the crate. She uses it as a safe place to hide when she encounters something she is unsure of (floor mops are apparently quite frightening) and enters it willingly and often.

Lillian having a little too much fun in her crate.
Lillian having a little too much fun in her crate.

I came to the conclusion that the behavior was a learned behavior, picked up from her stay at the shelter. She learned to associate a cages with being inside for long periods of time - periods of time too long to even bother with holding her bladder.

I discovered other pet owners were facing similar issues with their shelter dogs, though no one seemed to have a concrete solution. Through the internet I researched basic potty training techniques. Most sources gave the same solution - put your puppy in its crate and it will not pee. Any further training suggestions were based on the theory that the kennel is the place to put your puppy when you do not want it to make a mess. So in other words all of the many dog owners whose dogs have, for whatever reason, decided that their crate is also a good place for peeing, are out of luck. .

And I thought I was out of luck. I thought I was going to be stuck with a perpetually peeing dog. I tried every obscure solution I could. I washed her urine-soaked bedding with vinegar to get rid of the smell, I took away her bedding all together, I gave her one of my own shirts so that she would have my smell near her (which she promptly peed on- thanks dog!), I scolded her every time I came home to an accident and rewarded her every time I came home to a clean crate, I gave her toys in her crate, I took her toys away, I put a sweater on her to make her feel more secure. Nothing worked. Tensions were high, and if I came home to pee soaked towels one more time I was going to have a mini breakdown and probably make a few empty threats to the dog about her return to the pound.

At this point I decided to try the obvious solution - I began giving Lillian a "high value" treat (deli meat is perfect for this) every time she peed outside, followed by a lot of petting and praise (usually accompanied by a few judgmental looks from passersby invoked by my exclamations of "Good PEE, Lily! Good pee!").

My dog is no dunce, so after a few walks she began to pretend pee - that is, squat in the pee position without actually peeing 3 or 4 times a walk, just to get a treat. I rewarded this too. A pretend pee outside is better than a real pee inside, after all.

In addition, I turned peeing in to a command instead of just a bodily urge. I took her to a specific place in the yard, and every time she began to pee I stated "Go potty, Lily." Now I can simply walk outside and say "Go potty" and she will promptly squat to pee. Which is wonderful when it is cold outside and you just want to get back in.

I would like to point out that the exact wording of the phrase to induce peeing is a particularly important choice. For instance, if you have small children and ask them "Do you need to GO POTTY?" on a regular basis, there is a high chance that your now well potty-trained shelter dog will promptly "Go potty" on your hardwood floor and by the time you have cleaned up the mess, your small child will have done the same. So choose your phrase wisely, and then be sure to use it only at the right times.

Before I implemented these changes in Lillian's routine, peeing in the crate and peeing outdoors had been rewarded equally - with the feeling of relief after releasing the contents of her bladder. Once a command was associated with the act of peeing, and then a treat used to reward that specific act, the benefits to peeing outside became much greater than the benefits of peeing in the crate.

Eventually the immediate benefit of a treat turned into a habit and a knowledge of the correct way to behave. Lily did not pee in her crate for an entire week after the initial treat. I forgot to bring a treat outside a few times and for two days we were back to square one. She quickly jumped back on board though, and she has not had an accident inside since. After 2 weeks accident free I cut back the treats to basic dog treats, and after three weeks I cut out treats entirely.

The solution was almost obnoxiously simple, yet it was immediately effective. I know I am not the only one who has dealt with this, and I hope this article will shed some light on the situation for someone else. There is nothing like the benefit of enjoying your pup without the excess fluid.

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    • A r F profile image

      Allison 5 years ago

      Coffeegginmyrice, I love when dogs pick up on phrases you do not specifically teach them. When I say "let's go" or "come on" Lily runs to the door and sits (she knows she has to sit to have her leash put on). My sheltie used to bark if I left without telling her "Bye bud, I love you." My sheltie also picked up words like "water", "home", and "dog park". Sometimes I wonder how much human language they really know!

    • coffeegginmyrice profile image

      Marites Mabugat-Simbajon 5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

      Welcome to HP, A r F!

      A good heart you have for adopting a dog from a shelter. Lily will always love you back. This is a very useful and interesting topic out from your own experience where other owners of pet dogs with similar situations could relate and apply your helpful tips.

      When I say, "C'mon, let's go pee!", my dog Simba will hide underneath the dining if he is not ready. But I make sure he goes empty his bladder a few times a day and once late in the night whoever sleeps late. Whenever Simba is ready, he would come for his leash without running away. The first pee in the morning will also have him do the other business and he is good with this too. Then, his last pee in the night will be the same (pee and poo).

      On leaving him alone at home, I tell him "You stay. I'll be back. I love you." and he gets a rawhide to keep him busy as a reward for staying. The rawhide reward is not all the time when we have to leave him. He also listens when we tell him to "stay".

      If we take him out in the car with us, we tell him "Simba, do you wanna come? Let's go." and then, he gets crazy! This is how he knows the difference between not coming and coming.

      It's funny sometimes that when I leave, my dog follows me to the landing and I turn around and say to him, "Bye sweetheart!" Then, in unison, I hear "Bye hon!", "Bye mom!" LOL!!

    • sholland10 profile image

      Susan Holland 5 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Your patience and consistency will pay off. I am sure many shelter dog owners have similar issues with their pups. Just like humans, they are going to relapse every once in a while. :-) Good luck to you and Lily; I think you will be very happy together. :-)

    • A r F profile image

      Allison 5 years ago

      I can not agree more about consistence, sholland. Lily had a relapse a few days after I wrote this hub, but we went straight back to the treats and she immediately went back to doing the correct thing. I guess sometimes everyone just needs a little reminder.

    • sholland10 profile image

      Susan Holland 5 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Welcome to HubPages, A R F! I bet several people with rescue dogs have this problem. Your patience and consistence are so important. I am glad Lily learned to go outside. I have used the same techniques with my pups (two mini-Dachshunds). Saying the same words over and over then giving the treat after they have done what I was training them to do was so helpful. I thought it was so funny when you said Lily would try to pull a "psyche" pee with you. My dogs are smart, too, and would be very creative for the treat. The good news is that we can wean them off the treats, and they will be better pets for our patience.

      Great hub! Votes+++

    • A r F profile image

      Allison 5 years ago

      I paper trained my previous dog, a Shetland sheepdog who I had as a tiny puppy. It worked well and I would do it that way again in the right situation. I am not all about crate training - I used an X-pen for my Sheltie to keep her out of trouble while I was gone. I tried to do the same with Lily but she could jump the fence and I was afraid she would get hurt. So a crate was the only option, and as soon as she gets through her chewing phase I hope to let her roam freely.

      I hope you find a great buddy at the shelter - I love Miss Lily and would not trade her for the world.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 5 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      Very informative indeed.

      I have always raised (large dog breed) puppies training them on newspapers rather the the crates. I have always been successful in training them that way. I realize that most people advocate crate training, bit that is not me. I have stuck with my conventional method since 1980s and I am comfortable with it.

      I would like to have my second dog from a shelter, but always wondered if the dog is not properly house broken how am I going to train him / her. Thanks for the easy solution. I know that this solution can work in any scenario.

    • gjwriter profile image

      gjwriter 5 years ago from Colorado

      Congratulations for coming up with a simple solution. Thank you for saving a shelter dog. I am a shelter dog advocate and can say the years of love, commitment and a devoted relationship are so worth every challenge you could possibly face.


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