Updated: May 29
Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting. - Joyce Meyer
So many phone calls I receive start out with, “HEEEEEEELP!!!!!”. Then a series of dog training problems repeated quickly, like the small print of a lease option on a car being read by a radio announcer. Somewhere in the explosion of problems, I hear “not even housebroken!”.
Most people assume that if their dog is going to the bathroom in the house, their dog isn’t housebroken. But going to the bathroom in the house is a symptom of the problem, not the problem.
Look at it like this: imagine you have a headache, so you go to the doctor. The headache is the symptom of the problem, not the problem. You could have a sinus infection, head injury, or cancer. Or did you drink too much last night? Do you have allergies? So many reasons for the same problem – a headache. Sometimes it could be more than one of these issues. Maybe you have a cold and drank too much last night. Same thing with housebreaking. So what causes a dog to do “it” in the house? Let’s take a look at common problems:
The dog isn’t housebroken. This is rather obvious, but sometimes overlooked, especially in shelter dogs. Most dogs will naturally refuse to eliminate in their cage, crate, den, etc. Most shelters dogs are either in their cage or taken outside for breaks. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily housebroken simply because they never go in their cage – it means that they were never given an opportunity to do otherwise.
The dog is stressed/anxious. Scent is a very important thing for humans. We bond through scent. We cradle babies by our armpits so they can smell us and be relaxed. We hug for the same reason – sharing scent. How often has a crying baby been brought in to snuggle with mom, and then, without nursing or anything, instantly falls asleep? They smell mom and feel soothed.
For a dog, nothing smells safer than pack. Pack is like a security blanket, and the bigger that blanket is, the better it smells. A dog’s own scent is mingled into the pack scent. In times of stress (read: separation from pack) they may try to self-soothe. That’s why you frequently see dogs urinating in their crate. It’s the equivalent of an infant sucking their thumb – they need to be soothed, and their doing it the best way they know how.
They are claiming something. Yesterday I had a training session with two gorgeous whippet mixes, Wyatt and Willow. About five minutes after I walked into the house, Wyatt (the dominant being in the house) lifted his leg and peed on a chair nearby. His owners were horrified! He had never done anything like that before. What happened?
Well, Wyatt was in charge of his pack, humans included. I walked in with strong, confident body language which he (correctly) read as my taking over the pack. This was his last ditch effort to claim something from me. It was, in essence a pissing contest (no, I did not participate). It was the same reaction a guy will give if he sees another guy across the bar eyeing his girlfriend – what does he do? Calmly places his arm around his girlfriend, stating to the world: she’s mine.
They know that going outside is good, but they don’t realize that going inside is completely undesired. It’s a simple mistake. They think that outside is merely preferred to inside.
They’re scared to go outside. So many of my clients tell me that their dogs will go No. 1 outside, but No. 2 is done in the basement or some unused corner of the house, almost exclusively. Why? Well, let me ask you this: why do you close the door when you go to the bathroom? “Privacy” is the answer I usually get. But what is privacy?
Privacy is when you are doing something that leaves you slightly vulnerable. That’s why (ahem) certain activities typically take place at night with the lights off. That’s why we close the door when we shower or, even more likely, go to the bathroom. We’re vulnerable. A dog is so much more vulnerable when they are going No. 2 rather than No. 1. Think about what they do the whole time they are going No. 2: scouting for threats. Looking all around to make sure there’s nothing about to pounce them while they are indisposed. Typically dogs who are not very self confident, or small dogs who are so much more vulnerable than their larger counterparts, have this problem. Orion 7 lbs. of nightmare to housebreak for this very reason. Sparta (all 100 lbs of her) was a dream to housebreak).
These are just a few of the many reasons why dogs will eliminate in the house. Your dog may have more than one reason for going in the house. Just remember, your dog is a dog – perfect! They are trying to live, as a dog, in a human world.
Knowing why your dog is acting the way they are can be important in deciphering how to address the situation. Again, sometimes there can be a combination of reasons why a dog does their business inside instead of outside perhaps they were never housebroken and they are trying to dominate. Let’s take a look at how to address each of these issues. Just remember the three steps to working with a dog in any situation:
Control Yourself. Anger gets you nowhere. When you are dealing with housebreaking, it actually tends to put you backwards. Get a grip, grab some paper towels and cleaner and realize you are dealing with an animal who is trying their hardest. My kids weren’t potty trained until they were 2-3 years old. Now remind me, you’re expecting what from a 10 week old animal?
Control the Situation. You can’t add stimulation to a situation to gain control of the situation. As it applies here: if your dog isn’t trustworthy yet to go to the bathroom outside, why are you giving them free reign of the house? Control what you can, and remove the rest until you are at a point where you can manage a bit more.
Answer the Question. Dogs are always asking questions, such as, “Can I go here?” or “Am I going to die if I try to poop outside?”. Answer their questions. Read how here.
So, now that you’ve got the groundwork laid, let’s start unravel ling this problem.
Your Dog/Puppy Isn’t Housebroken.
As I stated previously, this one is pretty obvious, but frequently overlooked. Just because you adopted an adult dog doesn’t mean they have been properly housebroken. Housebreaking a dog should be done with almost 100% positive reinforcement. You are trying to catch and encourage a positive behavior, and, ahem, eliminate the negative behavior which you don’t want. So we need to help them create as many positive behaviors as we can get.
Again, remember the steps: Control yourself; control the situation; answer the question. We need to catch the behavior of “going” outside as many times as we can, so we are going to make sure that’s the only time they can relieve themselves. To achieve this follow these simple tips:
No more reign of the house. They should be either in their crate (or in a small enclosed area), outside going to the bathroom, or attached to you with a leash. I loop the leash around my waist and allow the dog to follow me, freeing my hands. Yes, the first 20 minutes of this is pure hell as you constantly trip each other, but like all other things, pretty soon you get good at it.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. I can’t go my entire day with my dog attached to me! But here’s the thing: nobody said you had to . If you can’t take it any more, put them in their crate. Don’t be a martyr over this. It’s okay to give yourself a break, even for a couple hours. The key things we’re trying to do it catch when they’re eliminating. If you can’t see it, you can’t control it. A lot of dogs will sneak away to do their business, and you never know about it until you stumble upon it hours later. Give your dog plenty of opportunity to relieve themselves, but keep in mind certain key times: first thing in the morning and 20 minutes after they eat.
Okay, so now you’ve prevented them from going in the house. How do you get them to understand that outside is preferable? Every time you take them outside, while they are eliminating, repeat the same word over and over, like a drumbeat, “potty, potty, potty”, or whatever word you choose. The moment they are finished, start praising them and offer a high value food reward along with a big dose of love. Congratulations: you are now on your way to training your dog to go on command.
Gradually you can start to widen your dog’s area inside the house. Leave them off the leash for 20 minutes while you are keeping a close eye on them. If you catch them starting to lift a leg or to squat, immediately scoop them up, take them outside. There is no punishment for miscommunication.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Your dog is stressed.
This is overlooked for by a lot people. Orion is one of these dogs. He’s completely housebroken, but if he gets extremely stressed, his first reaction is to eliminate. How to work with this issue? Pilot them. Calmly. Excess energy is what’s causing the problem. You can’t add more energy to the situation to control it. Think about the stressful situations you may be putting your dog in: separation anxiety is stress driven. With Orion, even positive energy can do it, such as excitement over going for a walk. This is where maintaining calm is crucial. Positive things happen when your dog is calm. I will never put the leash on Orion when he’s anything other than calmly sitting and waiting. I won’t wrestle the leash on a hyper mess of dog.
Think about what might be stressful for your dog, and remove the energy from those situations. Also, look at your body language. Sternly standing over a very submissive dog can trigger these kinds of reactions. In these situations, approach your dog calmly. No yelling. No high-pitched whiny praise. Just good old calm, boring body language and calm, gentle praise. And never discipline them for their accident. The issue in these situation isn’t their improper elimination – it’s the lack of Piloting.
They are claiming something.
This one is a bit tricky. It’s usually done because your dog has more money in their Piloting Piggy Bank than you do. If they are Pilot, they rightfully own everything, or are allowed right of first refusal. They are doing what is normal and natural for a pack leader to do: put their scent everywhere. Favorite places include children’s rooms, couches, your laundry that’s on the floor or even your bed. This is the one situation you will use very mild negative.
But let’s look at the impetus for this problem: you aren’t Pilot. Start Piloting your dog, and usually the problem with naturally abate. If your dog is no longer Pilot, and you’ve taken all their money out of their Piloting Piggy Bank, a lot of times you won’t even need to address this problem directly!
However, that doesn’t mean that when your dog lifts their leg on your new couch you just sit idly by. Typically they aren’t doing it because they have to go…they are using their urine to mark their territory. To claim something. Well guess what – as Pilot, you don’t have to sit idly by. Claim it right back! Use calm, but firm, body language to back the dog off the item they are claiming. And work on your Piloting in other areas! If you Pilot your dog on a walk, when company comes over, etc., that transfers over to this issue as well. Round-about approach and all. It works.
They know that going outside is good, but they don’t realize that going inside is completely undesired.
Follow the steps to housebreaking a puppy. Again, gentle negatives can be used on dogs like this, gently backing them off from where they just went and removing them to where it’s preferred they eliminate. You are answering a legitimate question, “Is it ok to go here?”. The answer is “no”, not the verbal and physical equivalent of an interrogation.
They’re scared to go outside.
Again, this is a Piloting issue closely linked with a dog who’s problem is over-excitement. A dog can indeed be afraid to go to the bathroom outside, as they are extremely vulnerable at that moment. So Pilot them through the situation! Initially you may have to go outside with your dog with them on a leash. Follow the same steps for housebreaking a dog, but remember, this is also at heart a Piloting issue. If you can’t even answer your own door without your dog going berserk and interfering, then you can’t possibly expect them to trust you that hey, it’s okay to go to the bathroom outside where everyone can see you, including those big scary dogs next door. Pilot them in other areas, and this will fall in line.
As you can see, Piloting is integral to almost all areas of a dog’s life, including housebreaking. Work with your dog. Earn their respect and trust, not your fear and your wrath. Also remember, you are trying to communicate a very tricky concept to an animal. Lay the positives down thick every time you get your desired result: elimination outside.
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio