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Housebreaking Your Pet 101

Crate training is a great way to housebreak your puppy. See more pictures of pets.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

If you have indoor pets, you've probably dealt with housebreaking. It's a universal aspect of animal training. Whether your pet goes on to learn lots of commands or tricks, he or she needs to learn to obey this basic house rule. But sometimes this simple act can become surprisingly complicated.

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In this article, we'll see how elimination works in the wild and why some animals are easier to housebreak than others. We'll discuss some of the more popular ways to housebreak animals (focusing mainly on dogs), and we'll troubleshoot some of the most common housebreaking problems that trainers encounter.

Everybody Poops

Elimination of waste is the most obvious reason that animals produce feces and urine. The body must get rid of excess or unusable materials after digestion, as well as remove toxins and byproducts. Every animal does it. But did you know there are lots of other reasons that animals go? From communication to protection to bonding, it's all about doing their business. How and when animals go has a lot to do with their ecological niche. It's called "answering the call of nature" for a reason.

Did you ever wonder why that horse on the trail ride in front of you seems to have such bad manners? It's not actually his fault. When a species of animal spends its life out in the open, roaming across the plains, it can eliminate whenever it needs to without any ill effects. And that's exactly what many herd animals do. With no evolutionary reason to have bowel and bladder control, most hoofed mammals evolved with digestive systems that don't offer much. That's why you can't train your horse not to eliminate in the stall.

Animals that spend their lives living in the trees or flying overhead don't need bowel or bladder control, either. In nature, waste simply falls to the ground. This is why baby chimps raised by people usually wear diapers. Bird owners must simply accept messes as part of having birds. It doesn't have anything to do with intelligence, it's just biology.

Many mother animals will consume the waste products of their offspring. This may seem gross to us, but they have good reason to do it. Scientists speculate that they may do this to minimize any signs of young in the area that might attract predators. For example, American pronghorn does will eat the feces of their babies, probably to help protect them from scenting predators like coyotes.

In species that den or nest, consuming waste helps keep the bed area clean. In some species, newborn babies are physically incapable of defecating or urinating without the help of their mother. Both baby kittens and puppies need stimulation from the mother's tongue to eliminate until they are two to three weeks old.

For the first few weeks of their lives, kittens get stimulation from their mother in order to eliminate.
For the first few weeks of their lives, kittens get stimulation from their mother in order to eliminate.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

Many animals also use urine and feces to communicate with each other. Deposits of urine and feces can define an animal's territory and serve as a warning to intruders. A great deal of information is available in one good sniff. A wolf can determine gender, reproductive status and perhaps even the health of the last wolf to make a deposit.

If your pet is urinating all over the house, he may just be doing what his hormones are telling him to do by leaving his calling card. Many animals, especially males, mark or spray to define and defend their territory. They will also mark where other animals have gone before. If your pet is lifting his leg and/or spraying up high, or if he's urinating on new or unfamiliar objects, you're dealing with marking behavior. Female dogs and cats may also mark, and marking behavior is much more common in intact pets than those that are spayed or neutered.

Male dogs often lift their legs when urinating to mark their territory.
Male dogs often lift their legs when urinating to mark their territory.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

Animals may also urinate as part of a ritual display of submission, and some animals will excrete small amounts of urine when they are overexcited. Urinating can be a species-appropriate way of saying, "You're the boss!" If your pet is doing these things, the problem is not really a housebreaking issue; it's just an interspecies miscommunication.

This problem may actually go away if you ignore it. However, yelling or scolding your pet will just make the problem worse. If your dog wets the floor every time you come home and greet him, try ignoring him at first. Take him out and keep things low key until he's had a chance to empty his bladder.

Next, we'll look at the importance of location in housebreaking your pet.

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Cats enjoy sleeping in small, enclosed spaces.
Cats enjoy sleeping in small, enclosed spaces.
Photo courtesy Shanna Freeman

The basic goal behind all housebreaking techniques is to communicate to your pet that you want it to go one place, but not another. Some animals have a natural preference for using a certain type of surface or substrate (e.g., cats and kitty litter); others must be trained to use a certain substrate (e.g., dogs and grass).

To housebreak your pet, you need to watch her very closely. When she goes on the correct type of surface or in the correct spot, you should praise her. You should try to prevent her from going in the wrong places, rather than correcting her after it happens. Housebreaking is more about prevention than correction. You can also train your dog to eliminate on command by using a key word or phrase like "go potty" when he goes where you want him to. On potty breaks, don't walk around. Stand in one place and let him know this is a business trip.

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Ever notice that your dog likes to hole up under the porch or behind your favorite chair? Dogs feel comfortable and safe in small, enclosed spaces. Many cats are the same way and like to sleep in cardboard boxes or kitty condos. Most animals that naturally den, like dogs and cats, can be housebroken. They have a natural desire to be clean, so they don't want to eliminate where they sleep, eat or play. You can use this fact to your advantage when housebreaking your pet.

When training a dog, typically your aim is to teach the dog to do all of its eliminating outdoors. But with very young animals, very small animals, or animals that will always be inside, the "go spot" can take other forms.

Crate Training

 

Crate training is probably the easiest and most effective way to housebreak dogs because it exploits their natural denning instinct. Essentially the crate serves as an indoor den, or doghouse, and most dogs will not willingly soil their den. Using a crate will keep your dog from eliminating (and from destroying anything) when you cannot supervise him.

To crate-train your pet, the first step is to select an appropriately sized crate (see sidebar below for tips). Crates come in two basic types: the enclosed plastic airline kind and the collapsible wire kind. Which one you use is largely a matter of personal preference. If you think you might ever want to fly with your dog, you will probably want the enclosed plastic kind. If you decide to use a wire crate, you may want to drape a blanket or sheet over the back to help your dog feel more enclosed and secure. Place some type of bedding or blanket inside the crate so your dog can be comfortable.

A collapsable wire crate and an enclosed plastic crate.
A collapsable wire crate and an enclosed plastic crate.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

 

The crate should not be used for punishment, because it is your dog's special house. You can help your dog feel good about the crate by offering a small treat to him whenever he goes in and by feeding him his meals in it. Children should be taught that the crate is the dog's "safe space" and they must respect his privacy when he's in there. Never crate a dog wearing a choke chain or training collar; she could get it caught and hurt herself.

When first introducing the crate, toss a treat in and let your dog go in to get it. Leave the door open. When he seems happy to go in the crate, you can close the door for short periods and then let him back out. It's important that you only let him out when he's being quiet and well-behaved. Letting your dog out of the crate when he's barking or scratching rewards the wrong behavior. It may be hard to ignore your crying puppy, but it's better to suffer through it in the long run. Otherwise, you may inadvertently teach your dog that being loud will get him out of the crate.

Like people, animals need to eliminate after waking up, after eating and periodically throughout the day. When you let your dog out of the crate, take her immediately to her designated potty spot and praise her when she goes. Also take her there after she eats, after she wakes up, after she's been playing, and every hour or so throughout the day if she's out running around.

Next, we'll learn about two other types of housebreaking: paper training and litter box training.

The first step to crate training your dog is letting him get used to the crate.
The first step to crate training your dog is letting him get used to the crate.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

A crate is a wonderful tool, but you must be careful not to abuse it. In general, it is best not to crate any dog for more than a few hours. Dogs need to stretch their legs too! If you work a full day, you may need to find a dog sitter who can come by your house and let your dog out midday for a potty break.

Puppies fewer than six weeks old don't have fully developed digestive systems and should always have access to somewhere they can eliminate. For older puppies between two and eight months, a good rule is that you can crate a puppy for about as many hours as it is months old. So you can reasonably expect a three-month-old puppy to stay crated for three hours without soiling. Any longer than that and your puppy may be physically unable to hold it. Asking them to do so is cruel and bad for your training efforts, because a dog that is repeatedly forced to soil its bedding will be much more difficult to housebreak in the end as its natural desire to be clean erodes.

Since the crate is primarily a housebreaking tool, it is no longer necessary once the dog is trustworthy in the house. However, having a dog that is comfortable with a crate has other benefits. A crate-trained dog may be easier to travel with and more welcome in hotels. A crate gives you a safe place to contain your dog if you have visitors that aren't compatible with dogs. If you have multiple dogs, feeding everyone in crates can eliminate fighting over food.

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Paper training is a good way to train puppies where to eliminate indoors.
Paper training is a good way to train puppies where to eliminate indoors.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

Paper and Pads

The most important instinct that dog owners have going for them is a dog's natural desire to eliminate as far as possible from its core living space. When training a dog to eliminate in a specific space indoors, restrict the dog to a certain area and then locate the newspapers or puppy pad as far as possible from its food and bedding. Alternatively, you can paper the entire area and once the puppy has identified newspaper as the "correct" substrate, gradually reduce the papered area.

Many puppy pad manufacturers claim their products contain special scents that will naturally attract puppies to use them. You can accomplish the same thing by placing a paper towel or piece of newspaper with urine on it on top of the place that you want your puppy to go. These scents tell your dog that this is a good place to eliminate. Conversely, you want to remove elimination scents as much as possible from the places that you don't want your dog to go. If your puppy has an accident, clean the area as soon as possible with an enzyme-based cleaner. Avoid products with ammonia as their primary ingredient, because the smell can mimic the smell of urine.

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Just as in training dogs to go outside, you should take your puppy where you want him to go after he's eaten, when he first wakes up, and periodically through the day. Watch him carefully for signs that he needs to go, such as sniffing around or circling, and take him where you want him to eliminate. Always praise him if he goes where he's supposed to.

Litter Box Training

Cats prefer substrates with a grainy or sandy texture so they can bury their waste.
Cats prefer substrates with a grainy or sandy texture so they can bury their waste.
Photo courtesy Amazon

Cats chose their location based primarily on the substrate. They're picky about this, because they like to bury their waste. This gives cat owners a huge advantage over dog owners when housebreaking. All cat owners have to do is to create a bathroom area that offers a more appealing substrate than anything else does, and then teach the cat where to find it. Most cats would rather use commercial litter than just about anything else, and so most kittens are "naturally" housebroken. Typically, housebreaking a cat is more about teaching the cat where the litter box is than how to use it.

When you bring home a new cat or kitten, confine him in a small space or room with his litter box. You can set your kitten in the litter box and gently making scratching motions with his paw if you want, but usually this is unnecessary. After a few days, if he's using the litter box, you can gradually increase the number of new rooms that your cat can go to, always leaving him access to the litter box area.

A good rule of thumb is to provide one to two litter boxes per cat in a household. If your house is very large, or has multiple floors, you may need to provide multiple kitty bathrooms.

When people have problems with housebreaking cats, it's usually because they aren't cleaning the litter box enough or because the cat has found a new substrate that she prefers. Some cats enjoy using the dirt around plants, and others develop a liking for carpet or sheets of plastic. The easiest way to eliminate these problems is to eliminate access to the problem areas. Sometimes it's as easy as adding decorative stones to the base of a plant. If eliminating the inappropriate area isn't possible, try changing its context by putting food or bedding there.

Confining your cat to a small space with its litterbox should be enough to housebreak her.
Confining your cat to a small space with its litterbox should be enough to housebreak her.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

Litter box training a dog is complicated. Commercial dog litter is available, but since dogs have no innate desire to either bury their waste or look for a litter-like surface they have to be trained to use their litter box in the same way they'd need to learn to use any other kind of substrate.

Doggy litter manufacturers suggest that you keep your puppy in a large crate with bedding on one side and the litter box on the other to encourage him to use the box. This is counter to the basic idea of crate training, but in this case, the crate functions more like a very small room. Using a large open wire crate may help the dog feel comfortable using the litter box.

We'll discuss some common housebreaking problems next.

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After a successful potty break, praise her while she's still outside.
After a successful potty break, praise her while she's still outside.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

When a dog that was previously housebroken suddenly starts having accidents, it's important to look for a physical cause. Bladder infections are common, particularly in female dogs. Kidney stones can cause straining and spotting for many male cats. Older pets may "leak" a little in their sleep. Diabetes may mean your pet is drinking more, and consequently urinating more than he used to. If your pet is having accidents, it's important to rule out a physical problem with a trip to the vet. Most of these problems can are treatable once they are diagnosed, but a few are life threatening if ignored.

If you've ruled out all physical causes for your pet's problem, the issue may be poor communication. For dogs to make the connection between one thing and another, any input has to be immediate. If you catch your dog in the act of eliminating in an inappropriate spot, tell him "NO!" in a firm voice, immediately take him to where you do want him to go and praise him if he does. However, if you come home to piles and puddles, or if your puppy goes when you aren't paying attention, it's too late to do anything about it. Simply clean up and resolve to pay closer attention next time.

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Taking your pet to the scene of the crime and "showing" her the mess does not effectively communicate what you want. Your pet may act "guilty," but what we see as guilt or contrition is actually just submissive behavior. By cowering down and lowering her head, she's acknowledging that you're the boss and that she knows you're upset. The problem is that she doesn't know what she did wrong. For more information about effective dog training, see How Dog Training Works.

When a dog seems to be sneaking off to soil the house, there are two main causes. If a dog has been caught and corrected for eliminating in the house, she will learn that she's not allowed to go in front of you, but she may not understand that you don't want her to go in the house at all. She will think she's obliging you by going off and taking care of it privately. This problem comes from correcting the dog without adequately rewarding her for performing correctly.

The other primary cause of this behavior is that the dog does not identify all parts of the house as "den" and therefore off limits for elimination. She's looking for an unused or remote location, as far as possible from the main living space. In both cases, the solution is to close off areas of the house where you can't supervise, take the dog out often and heap on the praise when she goes where she's supposed to.

Sometimes the problem is that we've trained our dogs to do something we didn't intend. Giving a dog a treat when they come inside after a successful potty break falls into this category. You've actually rewarded the dog for coming inside, not for eliminating outside. Dogs that have learned they get a cookie when they come in may be reluctant to stay outside and eliminate. Typically, verbal praise when the dog is outside in the act is more effective than food rewards, but if you want to give a food reward, offer it when the dog is still outside.

Some dogs are harder to housebreak than others are. Dogs that come from situations where they were unable to escape their own waste, such as puppy mills, may have lost the natural inclination to stay clean. They just go wherever they are because that's what they were forced to do. You can still housebreak puppy mill dogs using all the same techniques we have discussed, but it will take longer. Some of these dogs may never be completely reliable left unattended in the house, but with careful training, you can minimize accidents.

Small and toy breed dogs may be more difficult to housebreak than larger dogs. Many small breed dogs come from puppy mill or pet store situations like those described above, or they may come from homes where they were allowed to go the bathroom wherever they pleased. In either case you're not starting from scratch, you've got to help them unlearn bad habits while you're teaching new ones. Use the same techniques but expect progress to be slower.

It may be harder for a tiny dog to see the entire house as "den" space because it's so big relative to them. Tiny dogs also have tiny bladders and simply can't hold it as long as bigger dogs can; they will need more potty breaks to avoid accidents.

If you have a small dog and are gone all day, it may be kinder to restrict him to one room and train him to use a pad or newspaper in your absence, just as you would with a young puppy.

Among animals that are physically capable of being housebroken, the process is relatively straightforward; you just need to train a preference for a certain substrate. Praise your pet for following the rules, try to minimize accidents, correct promptly if they occur and give your pet an opportunity to go in the proper place. How long it takes will depend on your pet's size, age, and background. But more than anything it will depend on your consistency. A little extra effort in the beginning will pay off down the road!

For lots more information on housebreaking and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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