Housebreaking

Housebreaking is one of the more common problems dog owners face. The basic principles of housebreaking are relatively simple, although applying those principles to your individual circumstances can sometimes be a little tricky.

Let's start off with some simple solutions, so I can help some owners right away.

Does your dog only have accidents at night? By accidents, I mean the dog goes to the bathroom in the house. Night is defined as from when you go to bed until when you wake up. If the answer is yes, try the following suggestions.

The dog should not be permitted any food or water at least two hours before bedtime. Additionally, take the dog out for his final walk and elimination as late as you possibly can. Often, this is all that's needed.

If your dog is going to the bathroom in the house more frequently and clearly doesn't understand where he should eliminate, you will need to put him on a proper housebreaking schedule. For most people, crating the dog is the most effective way to housetrain. The crate should be small enough that your dog can stand up and turn around, lie down and comfortably stretch out, but no larger than that.

Crate training works because most dogs do not like to eliminate where they have to lie. This is sometimes misunderstood by owners, who think their dog won't eliminate where he sleeps and eats. A dog would happily eliminate in a large bedroom, even if he slept there. He will also eliminate in his crate, if the crate is large enough for him to still lie down in a clean spot. If the dog is confined to the right size crate, he will probably not eliminate in it. This is extremely important information. If you can prevent the dog from eliminating, you can then take the dog out to where you want him to go, with a much greater likelihood that he will do so.

Fifty percent of housebreaking involves positively reinforcing the correct behavior—that is, praising the dog when he eliminates in the proper place. The other 50 percent is management, so you can prevent the dog from going in the wrong place until you can take him out to eliminate in the right one.

The basic scenario for housebreaking goes like this: Confine your dog. After a few hours, take the dog from the crate to the location you want him to eliminate in. Remember to take the dog out the same door to the same location every time you want him to eliminate. Wait 10 minutes for him to do so. If he goes within the 10 minutes, praise, reward (a small treat) and wait an extra two or three minutes to make

A typical crate. It should be large enough for your dog to lie down and be comfortable.

certain he's done everything he has to do. Then take him back in the house and give him 20 to 30 minutes of supervised "free time." Use a timer and be very strict about not allowing the dog more than 20 or 30 minutes of freedom. When the timer goes off, you have a choice. You may take the dog back out to eliminate again, and if he goes, repeat the process of praise and free time; or you can confine the dog again.

Mistakes are made when owners give their dogs too much free time, fail to take the dog out again, fail to reconfine the dog when the time is up, or fail to wait the extra two to three minutes after he eliminates the first time.

If you take your dog out and the dog fails to eliminate within 10 minutes, he should also be confined again. It is important to understand that this confinement is not punishment. It is simply a way of preventing the dog from going to the bathroom in the wrong place.

Consistent feeding and watering schedules are also vital to your housebreaking efforts. Dogs should be fed at fixed times and given no more than 10 to 15 minutes in which to eat. Free feeding—leaving food available for your dog to eat all the time—is not recommended when you are housebreaking your dog. Water may be given during free time and when you take the dog to eliminate. It can also be given sparingly when the dog is being confined (although not for two hours before bedtime or at night). The reason feeding and watering schedules are so important is that free access to food and water will make it almost impossible to predict when your dog will have to eliminate. It will also make it far more likely that your dog will eliminate in the crate. By controlling when your dog eats and drinks, you make house-breaking much simpler.

Please note that young puppies may find it very difficult to avoid eliminating for longer than three to six hours. A good guide is to add an hour for every month of a puppy's life. That is, a three-month-old puppy can hold it for three hours, a four-month-old for four hours, and so on. Be careful about allowing the dog water during these long periods. Also, never confine the dog in direct sun or for longer than eight hours.

If your dog eliminates in the crate, you may have confined him too long or the crate may be too big. Remember, the crate should be large enough for your dog to comfortably lie in, but not so huge that he can walk all the way to the other side and be well out of the way of any mess he made. If you are unclear, contact a local professional trainer.

If the dog has an accident in the house, correction after the fact is not only a waste of time, but is counterproductive. Correcting your dog after the fact just confuses the dog.

Instead, ask yourself what you could have done differently to prevent the behavior. Did you give the dog too much freedom? When the dog eliminated outside, did you give the dog an extra three minutes to make sure he did what he had to do? Does he have unlimited access to food and water? Generally, your dog will need to eliminate outside consistently with no accidents in the house for two to three weeks before he understands that outside is the only place he should eliminate. Please remember that some dogs will take longer to housetrain than others.

Once your dog learns it, you can increase the amount of free time the dog gets. For example, instead of 20 to 30 minutes of free time, increase it to 40 to 60 minutes. After a few more weeks, you can increase the time even more. Consider, whenever possible, a dog door, because it makes housebreaking much easier in most cases.

Paper training is generally not recommended, except when the dog cannot be given access to the outside for periods greater than eight

A housebreaking student in a Puppy Go Potty (PGP) tray with absorbent "litter."

An exercise pen with two housebreaking students.

hours at a time, or in areas where it is unsafe, too cold, hot, etc. If this is your situation, consider a potty training kit such as Puppy Go Potty. These kits contain absorbent paper "litter" and a waterproof tray. The materials are similar to a cat litter box and are much cleaner than using old newspaper.

To train your dog to use the box, you will also need a puppy exercise pen. This is a metal collapsible pen that you can put on the ground or floor and place your dog in. The pen can be expanded to form a circle approximately six feet in diameter. (If you have a small dog, make the exercise pen smaller than six feet.) Place the waterproof PGP tray on one side of the circle. This is where the dog needs to be when you are not there to supervise him. When the dog can no longer control his bodily functions, he will most likely defecate and urinate in the tray. When you are home, the housebreaking procedures I have already outlined should be followed.

Avoid dietary changes during the housebreaking process. If such changes are unavoidable, try to switch the dog gradually to the new food, to avoid stomach upsets. (Diarrhea makes it extremely difficult to housebreak. If your dog gets diarrhea, you should immediately call your veterinarian.) A good general formula is to feed two-thirds old food to one-third new food the first week, two-thirds new food to one-third old food the second week and completely new food the third week.

Housebreaking can be a bit tedious, but it is not complicated, provided you are consistent as well as patient.

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