While many pet owners now seek dog-friendly methods to teach basic obedience skills, some of us are still mired in the Dark Ages when it comes to housetraining. During a recent presentation about dog care, I was stunned when the participants told me, quite earnestly, that the only way to housetrain a puppy is to wait until he makes a mess, rub his nose in it and toss him outside. Surely you jest.
Where had they obtained this erroneous information? Most students said, "That's how my dad does it."
I hate to diss anyone's dad, but the "nose rubbing" technique was disproved long ago as ineffective and potentially damaging to the dog/owner relationship. After-the-fact punishment never works with dogs - they just don't have the capacity to make the connection between your anger and an event that took place even two minutes ago.
Intrigued by the students' lack of ideas for alternative housetraining methods, I decided to conduct my own personal Galloping Poll to determine the depth and breadth of this fecal phenomenon. In my focus group of friends and acquaintances, a whopping 100 percent either, a) had employed the nose-rubbing technique in the past, b) still thought it was the way to housetrain a dog or, c) had been told it worked, but never tried it. For an inadequate technique that is -- let's face it -- gross, this one certainly has legs.
It's time to shed some light on this unproductive dog-training myth and eradicate it from our collective consciousness.
Why the Myth Persists
Dogs, by their very nature, are loathe to soil their living quarters and usually make every attempt to pee/poop away from where they eat or sleep. Eventually, when the dog starts going outside to take care of business, we may incorrectly assume he's doing so as a result of the nose-stuck-in-poop sessions. Actually, these tidy denning animals gradually mature and learn to take care of toilet issues outside as soon as they realize that our homes -- where we eat, sleep, and hang out -- are just giant "dens."
This is not to say you must suffer through squishy smelly landmines on the carpet while your puppy matures. On the contrary. I consider any misplaced pee or poop a potential disaster -- one that could quickly become a habit. Instead, work with nature, not against it. Take advantage of your dog's denning instinct with the use of crate training, baby gates, and rigorous monitoring to make his inside world smaller, instilling the message, "Hey, we eat and sleep in here, potty outside."
Potty Training Pitfalls
Even savvy dog owners encounter housetraining problems by allowing a new family member full access to the house too soon. The puppy wants to keep his living quarters clean, but our homes ("dens") are HUGE in canine terms. Left to his own devices, the pup will probably avoid messing in the vicinity of his food bowl or bed. But if he eats in the kitchen, he's likely to assume the dining room is located on the outskirts of the den and designate it Canine Bathroom Zone. Of course, what makes perfect sense to him drives us nuts.
Poor timing is another culprit in housetraining missteps. Dogs, especially youngsters, have to eliminate right after they eat, right after they wake up, and after/during a period of activity. Your job is to make sure your dog is in the right place at the right time, guaranteeing success. Take a page from the Boy Scout Handbook and be prepared.
Rewards - Timing is Everything
Immediately reward your dog for going potty in the correct location. That means have his reward on your person so you can say, "gooood dog" and give him a treat the nanosecond he finishes squatting. Don't make the mistake of standing silently by while your dog executes a perfectly placed pile outside, then run inside to get a treat from the refrigerator. Keeping in mind that dogs live in the moment, which action was rewarded? Answer: the last one. In the dog's mind, he was rewarded for coming back inside! It won't take long before he skips the "going outside" part of the activity in order to stick close to his reward center. Once again, the dining room comes to mind.
Messages That Make Sense
If you catch your dog in the act of soiling the carpet, say "Yikes!" and quickly take him to his appropriate location, praising cheerfully as he resumes outside. The object is to interrupt the behavior and turn it into a learning experience. If you punish and scare the dog, he might decide going potty in front of you is dangerous and start sneaking off to eliminate in secret, say, behind the couch or in your closet.
If your dog develops the habit of soiling in the wrong place, try this: thoroughly clean the area with a commercial cleanser designed to neutralize odors. My personal favorite is Nature's Miracle. It's important to remove any residual odor so the dog will not be attracted to that spot again. Once the area is disinfected, feed your dog his next three or four meals there. That's right, simply set his bowl atop the scene of the crime as if to say, "Dude, remember? We eat here."
Removing the Training Wheels - Little by Little!
Here are a few guidelines for starting to trust Sasha and Rex in the house:
-- Proceed slowly by relaxing each of the housetraining constraints separately.
-- Practice rigorous "supervised freedom" when you expand the pup's household privileges. Keep her in your visual proximity and plan to take her outside every hour ... more often if she's active.
-- Keep it short and sweet when leaving the dog unsupervised in the house. Start with one hour in a restricted, easy to clean area. If he was successful, try increasing the time to two hours.
-- Consider the laws of nature. Is your dog less than a year old? Is she a small breed? Has she had several accidents in the house? Have the accidents been recent? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, your dog isn't housetrained.
-- Remember the big picture. You have a decade or more to grant Buddy unlimited household privileges, yet only a small window of opportunity in which to instill bombproof toilet habits.
Carla Jackson is a certified pet dog trainer who has Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training/behavior consultations. Check out Cari Bowe's and Carla's DVD, "Your Family Dog, Leadership and Training," an interactive DVD featuring over 60 locally owned dogs learning new behaviors in beautiful Shasta County locations. The DVD is available at many local veterinarian offices and through dogwise.com or jacksonranchfordogs.com.