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Potty Training an Adult Dog

Housetraining the Adult or Adopted Dog

Potty accidents can be one of the most frustrating things about having a pet. No one likes potty accidents, but we also sometimes put unrealistic expectations on our new dog. Think about it. It can take YEARS for a human baby to be potty trained; however, we often expect our puppies to know what we want and be perfect when they are only a few months old. Let’s be realistic. It can take six to 12 months before a puppy is fully housetrained. What about an adult dog in a new home? Well, think about it from their perspective. You know where the bathroom is at your house and work, but if you go to a friend’s home or to a store, you need to ask for the location. It’s not so different for dogs. They may know where the bathroom was at their last home, but in a new location, it’s much more difficult to know where to go. Also, many dogs cannot hold it all day long while you are at work anymore than you can go all day at work without using the bathroom. Keep in mind that smaller dogs have smaller bladders and need more frequent potty breaks. Looking at things from your dog’s perspective will help you understand and train them much more quickly.

Don’t Assume Your Dog is House Trained    

Most important, treat your new dog as if he is not housetrained. Although he may have done very well at the foster home, the shelter, or his previous home, he is now facing a new environment with new smells, new rules, and a new schedule, so start from scratch. Take him out often and communicate what you expect in very clear terms.

Don’t Equate Letting You Know He Has to go With Being House Trained

Every dog has a different signal when they have to go potty. Some go to the door, some sniff, some bark, and some dogs (especially toy breeds) never signal. Until you learn your dog’s signal, take them out on a regular schedule and routine. Waiting for the young dog or new dog in a home to tell you he has to go NOW is like asking a human baby to tell you to change his diaper. It just doesn’t happen at this young age.

Make House Training Black and White

Housetraining should be black and white in the dog world. What does that mean? It means when the dog goes outside, he gets a treat and praise. When the dog goes inside, we interrupt the behavior and quickly take him outside, making it VERY clear what we expect. There can be NO gray. What is gray? Gray is when the dog goes in the back bedroom or sneaks off down the stairs, potties, and feels better so it becomes OK in his mind. Potty is a self-rewarding behavior. It feels good to lighten the load, so don’t let it happen indoors! It’s simple: By rewarding the behavior you like (potty outside) and interrupting the behavior you don’t like (potty inside), you teach the dog very clearly what you want.

Manage the Environment for Success

The first step in any successful training program is to manage the environment so the dog is successful. Until she is completely trained, a dog should either be confined or in your sight at all times. This allows for immediate feedback and prevents mistakes. Using a leash tethered to your waist, sometimes called an umbilical, is another means of limiting freedom. This allows for constant supervision, and many experts believe this also strengthens the bond between pet and owner and can calm an excitable dog. Baby gates also can be helpful in supervision. Other options to limit freedom so you can supervise your dog include using a “drag line” (a leash dragging behind dog) or a crate. (More information on crates is available in “Tips on Crate Training.”) You can also use a kitchen timer to remind you to take out your new dog on a schedule. If your new dog can go downstairs or in the back bedroom and potty inside, she will, and if you don’t catch her in the act, it becomes OK in her mind. If you have trouble keeping up with your dog, put a small cat collar or bell on your dog initially so you can keep up with his movements and stay on top of housetraining. Also, don’t make the mistake of confining your dog to an area where you don’t care if she has accidents there because it’s tile or linoleum and easy to clean up. That will only teach your dog to potty in the house. Just because it’s easier to clean up, that doesn’t make it easier to train. Every minute of every day, you are training or untraining your dog. If she is allowed to potty on that surface in the house, she is learning how to potty inside and not how to hold it or go outside.

Remove All Scents in the Home! 

If you had a dog or your current dog has had accidents, clean all spots very well, even hard surfaces, with a product designed for urine or, ideally, hire a carpet cleaner that specializes in pet stains and odors for your carpets. Remember, a dog’s sense of smell is much keener than ours, and so you must remove all traces of previous accidents. I like products like Nature’s Miracle, available at pet stores, for spot cleaning.

Pay Well for the Good Behavior

Find a treat your dog loves. I’m talking about the $10,000 treat, such as deli meat, turkey hot dogs, or liver treats, something he doesn’t get often. Now reserve this treat only for outside potty. That is the only behavior that is going to earn him the $10,000 treat. Take your dog out to potty in the same area (more about this later) and tell him to “go potty.” This is one command you can repeat and even chant over and over. The second he finishes going, tell him “YES!” give tons of praise, have a party, and give him that $10,000 treat. Sure, your neighbors will think you are crazy, but let your dog know he did good! Do NOT wait until you come inside to give the treat. Studies show you have 1.6 seconds for a dog to correlate a behavior and a reward. That means if you want your dog to understand that the outside potty is what you want, you must reward within that second! (Rewarding for coming in and going to the cabinet teaches a dog to go out and come in or go to the cabinet.) Even if you have a fenced yard, you should go out with your dog during the training phase. Once your dog is trained and understands what is expected out of him, you can wean off the treats. You can also use play as a reward for potty. Keep in mind too that if your dog loves being outside, don’t immediately bring him in after potty, or he may associate potty as ending his outside time. Staying out and playing with your dog for a few minutes after potty will make him realize that doing his business is a good thing, not a trigger that ends outside time. Remember that we always have to look at things from a dog’s perspective.

Teach your Dog What “Go Potty” Means

You can also say “Go Potty” right when your dog is getting ready to go. This will put a command with the behavior he was doing anyway and make it quicker for him to correlate the verbal command with the behavior. Do notplay with the dog or allow the dog to play outdoors until after he does his job. Play can then be used as a reward. If you take your dog out and he does not potty and you bring him in and he does, then he’s training you. Stay out there until he does his business. If he doesn’t and you do bring him in, then put him in a room with you, in his crate (not for punishment but management), and try again in 15 minutes.

Think Area Training and Create a Smelly Area That Screams “Potty Here!”

Dogs thrive on consistency and use their nose and sense of smell, so you can use those skills in housetraining. Go out the same door each time for potty and to the same area. Think of it as area training. Once your dog goes #2, leave it in that area so your dog will pick up on his scent and think “Oh yes, this is where I go potty.” You can bag it up so you won’t step  in it since he will be able to smell it even through the bag. Hopefully you won’t have any #1 accidents in your home, but if he goes on a flat surface, take a sponge or paper towel, dab it up, and put it in his area too. Your goal is to make that area smell like potty. Get creative. If the dog is new to your home and you don’t have any good dog scents in your yard, put an old log or paper bag stuffed with newspapers in your front yard for all the neighbor dogs to put their scent on for a week. Male dogs especially do well with this trick. Now put that nice smelly log or bag in your potty area outside in your backyard.

Ooops…Accidents! Now What?

What if your dog does have an accident in the house? First, you must catch him in the act. I can not stress this enough. Remember earlier I said that you have 1.6 seconds for a dog to correlate a behavior and a reward or correction? It’s true!** If you do catch the dog making a mistake in the house (and you will, because you are micromanaging his behavior so accidents won’t happen), make a noise like “AAACCKKK”** and quickly take him outside. When the dog potties outside, immediately praise the dog and/or give a delicious treat. In this manner you are correcting or interrupting any unwanted behavior and praising the desired behavior, making your message clear from a dog’s perspective.

A Few Notes About “Correction/Interruption”

**We make a noise like “AAACCCKKK” as it’s a unique sound we don’t often use and we want a noise just enough to interrupt the behavior. If you are too loud or really startle the dog, he will learn to NOT potty in front of you even when outside so we want to “interrupt” the behavior, NOT scare the dog.

Other suggestions to make housetraining easier

Feeding

Feed a high quality food because it will be absorbed better and there will be less waste (i.e. fewer and smaller poops). Feed at a scheduled time(s) each day, allowing 15-20 minutes to eat. Do not open feed. There are many reasons not to open feed, and this is just one of them. Do not withhold water as dogs, like people, should have access to fresh water whenever they are thirsty. The exception is for young dogs. You can remove their water an hour or two before bedtime.

Elimination Schedule

Take the dog out first thing in the morning, shortly after eating, after confinement, after extensive play or excitement, and prior to retiring for the night. Keep a chart and log every elimination until you become accustomed to your dog’s schedule. Keep the dog on a set schedule. Dogs are creatures of habit and do very well when they have a routine to follow. Try to establish a set potty routine based on your dog’s needs and your schedule. A dry erase board by the door is great for this purpose if you have a family and must get everyone on the same page. You can also use a kitchen timer to remind everyone when the dog must go out for potty next.

Room to Move

Some dogs need to move a bit, especially if you don’t have a fenced yard. Try a longer leash. You can buy a 20-foot training lead at most pet stores. (Beware of Flexis. They can be very dangerous and startle a dog if dropped. From a training perspective, they also teach a dog to pull to go where he wants and ignore the person on the other end of the leash.) Giving your dog a bit of space and privacy and extra movement will often help them go potty quicker than if a human is looming over them, just a few feet away. Play with the leash length to find out what your dog needs.

The Myths of House Training

 MYTH: “My dog is sneaky and always sneaks off into the basement or the dining room to potty.”

TRUTH: Your dog is smart and just trying to relieve himself. Dogs will try to use areas in the house that they don’t view as part of the “den” or home, so they tend to pick areas that the family doesn’t spend a lot of time in and that are carpeted, if possible. Think about it from your dog’s perspective. If you pottied on 4 feet, you too would choose an absorbent surface. Gate off these unused areas or spend extra time in them, introducing them slowly so the dog begins to understand these areas are also part of the home.

MYTH: “My dog knows he did wrong! He cowers and sneaks off when I ask him what he’s done.”

TRUTH: Dogs are masters at reading body language, so if you say, “What did you do?” in a disgusted tone, your dog may hide, cower, etc. in an effort to diffuse your being upset, but he doesn’t know or feel guilt! They offer what we call appeasement gestures to calm us down. They don’t “know they did wrong.” They know by your tone and body language that you are upset. Also, remember that dogs don’t think potty is a bad thing like we do. Disgusting as it is, they often roll in it, eat it, etc. so while your dog knows you are upset, he doesn’t know he did something wrong. Remember that dogs live in the moment. They do not know past or present.

One last note on correction: Correcting a dog after the fact will only cause confusion and a fearful dog. Don’t put human emotions and guilt on dogs. They don’t know that carpet is different than grass. The only way they learn that they did wrong is to reward/correct within that 1.6-second window! I cannot stress this enough: Correcting after the fact can lead to a confused, neurotic, or fearful dog that doesn’t trust people. The outdated techniques of yelling or rubbing their nose in it just doesn’t work. Science and studies have proved it!

Good Luck! After reading this information, you should be on your way to a house-trained companion!

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