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House Training Dogs

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A picture of a small dog on a red carpet, taken from the 2001 BBC drama Station Jim.

House training is usually understood to mean teaching a dog to urinate and defecate (pee and poop) in a place convenient to the owners.

This should be a very simple process, dogs are 'house trained' by their mothers while still only a few weeks old. Mum will encourage her puppies to eliminate on a surface different from the one they rest and sleep on. It is instinctive in all dogs not to mess in the sleeping area, so as soon as they are physically able, they will move away to pee.

All the new owner has to do to continue this is predict when puppy wants to pee or poop, give him access to two surfaces, and two surfaces only – his preferred sleeping surface (ie, what he likes to sleep on) and the owner's preferred toileting surface (usually, but not always, grass). As often these two surfaces are not available in the same place, owners can either supply puppy with both surfaces in the house, although this allows puppy to learn that they are allowed to eliminate indoors, or never leave puppy alone long enough so that they can't be taken outside when they need to go.

It is usually most convenient to use newspaper, although this means house training twice – once to teach puppy to pee on paper, and also what surface to pee on outside. They are usually done at the same time, which means it will take longer. The puppy will also continue to pee indoors as long as there is paper on the floor.

How Do We Know When the Dog Wants to 'Go'?

Dogs, especially puppies, will want to pee, and possibly poop, after:

  • Sleeping
  • Eating
  • Drinking
  • Playing
  • Training
  • Any excitement such as owners returning home, or visitors arriving

If none of these things happen for some time, your puppy should be taken outside around once an hour while house training is in progress, adult dogs once every two - three hours. Dogs fed dry food will drink more water, and so may need to toilet more often than dogs fed on a diet that includes moisture in the food. Dogs do not gain full control over their bladders until around eight months of age, so do not consider them fully house-trained until this age.

If you keep a diary of feeding, resting and elimination times, you should see a pattern after three days or so, and can work with your dog's natural cycles. Sticking to regular meal times can help, so don't leave food down all the time. It is better for a dog to gorge than to graze, but if you do intend to free feed, house training will be easier if you stick to set times for the first few months. Once your dog is house trained, mealtimes can be more random to fit in with your lifestyle.

After any of these events, at the time specified, or if you see your dog doing lots of sniffing, turning in circles, or both together, plus whining, or standing by the entrance that leads outside, take your dog outside and wait. If they are very reluctant or don't seem interested or understand what they should be doing, scatter some small bits of food in a circle - with some dogs, crumbs will do. The sniffing and circling action will encourage them to go. If they have peed or pooped anywhere else, using rubber gloves carefully transfer some of the mess to your preferred surface and let them have a good sniff. As they are circling and sniffing, or if you miss this, when they start toileting, give them a word such as 'be quick', 'get busy', 'toilet' or 'hurry up'. This can be used for pee and poop. If this is repeated each time they will soon learn to go on command. While your puppy is limited to the garden, this is an ideal time to teach them that toileting on command leads to lovely things – if you get it right at this young age you will never have to worry about picking up poop on a walk, or your dog peeing up every lamppost or going to the toilet somewhere they shouldn't. They can learn that being taken out for a walk is the reward for going to the toilet – not the reason!

Once your dog has been, you may reward him with verbal or physical praise or give a treat. However, the act of toileting will bring physical relief which your dog will enjoy, and often toileting happens after a period of solitude or sleep. If interactions with the dog are kept to a minimum before toileting, the reward for toileting in the correct place is the resumption of playtime, cuddles, just being with their owner. The ideal reward for toileting in the garden would be to immediately go out for a walk. Praise and fuss would always be given those times the act coincides with the verbal command.

Some dogs seem to prefer bushy areas, longer grass etc, so try to have a small variety of surfaces for your dog to choose from. Males have a natural urge to 'hang' their scent on vertical surface, but this will not start until puppy starts maturing (between 4 and 12 months depending on breed). If you would prefer them to toilet on a surface such as gravel, they may need to become accustomed to the surface first, particularly older dogs. For some breeds the gravel may be uncomfortable for their paws.

Teaching the Toilet Area

If there is one particular corner of your garden you would like your dog to use, this is relatively easy to teach, although needs much more owner interaction. It is usually easier in the warmer months, simply because rain, cold, snow and howling winds can put off even the most dedicated owner!

When your dog shows signs of needing the toilet, put them on a lead and take them to the chosen part of the garden, and repeat the above instructions. If your dog shows signs of wanting to move around more than you would like, don't correct them, the dog is learning so keep the lead short enough so he just can't move further than you would like.

After around a week, maybe more, maybe less (your dog will tell you!), extend their lead1 enough so the dog has some freedom to choose where they will toilet, but not long enough so if they chose incorrectly you can't quickly move them to the correct part of the garden.

When they are reliable, leave them off lead but still accompany them to the garden so you are on hand if needed. After around a fortnight your dog should be trustworthy.

Another way is to fence off one part of the garden, and restrict access to everywhere else until your dog has toileted. The area needs to be big enough for the dog to have room to have a really good sniff around and choose their spot. With a male dog they may still want to 'mark their territory' as soon as they gain access to the larger garden.

Never tell your dog off for toileting in the wrong place. This is never your dog's fault! They learn what they are taught, and if they are taught nothing they will make their own decisions. Dogs do not understand the difference between your best Persian rug and the grass outside, except that it is not where they sleep and therefore it's an appropriate place to toilet.


Very young puppies will not be able to hold it all night. A crate is ideal for helping to house train dogs. Owners should be prepared to get up and let the dog out to toilet, or allow them a surface to toilet on while they are left alone. When getting up to puppy at night, don't make a fuss and turn this into playtime. This is a toilet break only; then it's straight back to sleep. While puppy is making a noise, potter around the room, doing something calmly, but something that your puppy can hear (such as putting the kettle on and preparing a cuppa). If puppy is in a crate he will go quiet to listen; after a short period of quiet, or if puppy is loose, following you around while you ignore him, take him out to the toilet. Don't make a fuss and don't excite your puppy; just take him to the toilet area, wait for his toilet, a quiet word of praise and then take him back to bed and leave the area without any fuss. There may be a short period of noise again, but puppies need around 20 hours of sleep a day so will soon settle down again.

If this is the preferred method, puppy's overnight accommodation should be two thirds sleeping surface (carpet with a blanket on, for example, where water bowl and any toys can be left), and one-third a surface not usually found in a home, for example newspaper, for puppy to toilet on. This should have no food, toys, bowls etc on it at all. Nothing should ever be put in this area, so some way of making sure toys, if puppy is allowed them overnight, or blankets cannot roll or be pushed onto the paper. This is also the ideal set up for a breeder. If the breeder has kept the puppies on one surface, mum won't have been able to start the house training process, making your life much more difficult.

Do not be tempted to remove water during the evening or overnight in the hope the dog will sleep through the night. Toilet training, including overnight visits, goes hand in hand with a new puppy and needs to be dealt with. If an older dog who should be able to control their bladder overnight is drinking vast amounts of water leaving them unable to avoid toileting at night, check with the vet before taking any action.

Older dogs can also be house trained in this way – if done correctly it should take less than a week, unless a previous home has left them with no routine whatsoever.

Hiccups in the Training Process

If you catch your dog going to the toilet in the wrong place, they can be interrupted. Don't just let them finish! Either gently move them physically or startle them with a sharp 'No!', and take them outside to finish (waiting with them if necessary). You may not be able to interrupt a poop - if you chase the dog he may drop a bit somewhere you can't find it! Never punish the dog, and ideally, don't clean the mess up with the dog in the same room.

Don't use ammonia-based products to clean the area, as this will encourage your dog to revisit the scene of the crime. Pet shops sell products specially designed to clear up pee and poop, both stains and smells, although the scent of a new smell in the house can make some dogs decide to cover it up with their own smell again. In these cases the ideal cleaning product is a biological washing powder with the same scent as the one used for your own laundry. This smell is already in the house so the dog won't notice more of it, and as it is biological it will break down whatever is left in whatever surface the dog chose to toilet on.

Older dogs who have learned it's okay to mess their sleeping area will be very difficult to get out of the habit and professional help may need to be sought. Start a diary of elimination times, exercise times, your dogs preferred toileting surfaces etc. Your chosen specialist will be able to use this to help you cure the problem.

It is rumoured that very small dogs such as Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers cannot be housetrained. However, they can be. They just need to be let out more frequently. It can help to monitor their water intake (not limit it). If they drink, say, a cup of water, they will need to 'go' much more quickly, and probably more than once before that water is all gone - a dog with a larger bladder such as a Great Dane probably wouldn't even notice that amount!

Some dogs may develop the habit of messing indoors, to the extent that they will not go outside. If you stand outside with your dog for hours, only for them to go immediately they come indoors, check whether they are going out of your sight or not. If they are happy to go in front of you, try this method. Keep your dog on a lead. Take them outside for 10 minutes or so. Come back in with them. Immediately go back outside for ten minutes. Repeat. For some dogs with a serious habit this can take a long time, but eventually the automatic relaxation the dog has upon returning indoors will catch him out and he'll do it outside! If your dog will only go out of your sight, try giving him more privacy in the garden. Fence off an area so he can't see you, even use an old windbreak if needed, and put some of his preferred indoor surface inside this area. This can gradually be reduced in size over time, until it can be removed altogether. If this doesn't work on its own, you may need professional help to break the cycle.

If you are really struggling for any reason, consider an 'umbilical line' for your dog. This is where your dog's lead is attached to you (it can help to use a slightly longer than normal lead), and he has to follow you wherever you go around the house. This will allow you to see when he starts indicating he wants to go, or you can at least catch him in the act and move him outside.

1As long as it is safe, some household string or old washing line will do, there is no need to buy expensive equipment unless you feel you will use it for other purposes.

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