Housebreaking 101

There can be many nuances to housebreaking that are applicable to your situation but if you follow these general guidelines, you have the greatest chance of success in training your dog to relieve itself with grass under its feet and the sky above its head. The two basic principles to follow are supervise or confine. My clients get into trouble when we don’t see eye to eye regarding the definition of supervision in the case of housebreaking. Additionally, there is an assumption regarding the usefulness of confinement for housebreaking. In order for confinement to be a useful component the dog must be deterred in relieving itself because of its confinement. We’ll tease out those issues. Lastly, your dog needs a way to let you know it would like to go out.


Let’s first come to terms on the definition of supervision for the purpose of housebreaking your dog. Supervision must be direct. It cannot involve multitasking. You can’t simply exist in the same room. You must have eyes on the dog so that you will notice when it begins to give off subtle signs that it might be needing to relieve itself. Keeping your eyes on your dog is a simple but time consuming task; the one equalizing resource we are all short on. Regardless, this is what you must do. When you have all eyes on your dog you may as well be training it to do something, anything. Make good use of this time. You can train obedience commands, work on prey drive or play tug-o-war while you work on “drop” and “okay”. While you’re at it don’t forget to work on the bells. More on that later. 


Now we get to focus on the concept of confinement. The way I describe it to my clients is like this. Confinement is any type of physical boundary that discourages a dog from relieving itself. A crate is what comes to most people’s mind and this is one of the two ways I encourage my dogs to confine their dog. The other way you can confine your dog is by keeping him very near you. This is most commonly done with a leash. There is a place in between as well. I’ll explain. If I’m on my bed or my sofa I can place the dog on the furniture with me along with his toys. This is quasi-supervision and confinement. Kept close enough to you the dog is not likely to relieve itself. I often do not need a leash for this but occasionally I do. Frequently my clients are looking for black and white rules about this. I encourage them to do what makes sense in the moment. Sometimes your dog is calm and peaceful and doesn’t need to keep a leash on while sitting next to you on the sofa and sometimes you get the exact opposite. Let’s return to the concept of crating for the purpose of housebreaking. Personally, I do not like to overuse the crate. I definitely want to use it at least once during the day but the pup doesn’t need to be in there the majority of the day. As just mentioned I like to use the crate for containment at least once per day anywhere from 5 minutes to a couple of hours when I’m home to help the dog become accustomed to being crated during the day. In this way, we are killing two birds with one stone. 1. We’re getting the pup used to crating during the day and 2. Preventing a potty accident simultaneously. But outside of this routine I try to only use the crate when I’m unable to divide my attention between the task of supervising a puppy and a number of other tasks life demands of us. I also use it when I need to regulate myself emotionally. Raising a puppy wrong or right can be a lot at times. Use the crate to contain your pup so that you may rest your body and mind as needed. 


In the moments in between supervision or confinement you’ll be escorting your dog to the potty spot. Here are my rules for visits to the restroom. 


  1. Always go with your dog.
  2. Always give them at least 5 minutes.
  3. Don’t act like you’re in a hurry.
  4. Don’t be interesting. 


You cannot know what your dog has done if you don’t go with him and he doesn’t want to be without your company anyway. But if it appears as though he does want to be without you I can assure you nothing good will come of it. New landscaping? Not anymore. Chaise lounge? Now in Swiss cheese style. Sprinkler heads? New dog toy. People that live in buildings in which they need to take their dog out on lead succeed at a much greater rate than those that have a private yard. You don’t send a child that is potty training into the bathroom, shut the door and walk away. You shouldn’t do that with a pup either. Don’t be  impatient. Take your phone and notice the time. Entertain yourself with it while you keep an eye on the dog. Give them at least five minutes to take care of business; no more than ten. If they are sunning themselves at the end of five minutes they are likely not going to do anything you wanted them to do in five more minutes. Go ahead and head back indoors with your pup. Additionally,  while you’re waiting during the granted 5-10 minute break don’t stand by the back door acting annoyed. Go sit down in one of those groovy MCM chairs. No chair? Go lean against the fence. This will encourage the dog to relax so he can focus on sensations his bladder and bowel may be sending him.  On that note, don’t  engage with him too much either. The only engagement that is useful is to attempt to get him to move from one area to another if something has his attention. Walking and boredom do wonders to encourage a pup to relieve itself.  The number of times you take your dog out to use the restroom can be anywhere between 6 and 100 during housebreaking. You can get it down to four when the task is complete assuming they’re healthy. I’m always asked what the schedule should be. Every hour? Every 2 hours? I reply that this is not a good way to go about housebreaking. Instead, consider the biological activities that have taken place and act accordingly. Did the dog just eat? Take him out. Drank a bowl of water? You’ve got about 20 minutes at best. Just wake up? Go out. Zoomies concluded? Better head toward the door.


While you’re building up your dog’s good habits you can teach him how to ring his Poochie Bells to let you know he’d like to go outside. This is the easiest way I’ve found to teach a dog to let me know he’d like the door opened. Take a look at this video to follow my step by step instruction to teach the dog to ring his bells when he wants to go outside. I don’t like the stationary bell because it can be a little too difficult for the layperson to teach and not every dog is blessed with the intellectual capacity or confidence to learn how to ring it easily or at all. The jingle bells are easily seen by your dog and they are a breeze to pack when traveling with your pooch. Once your dog has been taught to ring the bells when suggested with the word “outside” you can begin to apply this skill almost every time you take your dog out. I don’t want you to take time for this when you feel the situation is urgent. Just get to the grass. This is most likely to be the case first thing in the morning. When your dog finally understands how to put the bells together to engage in the bathroom habits you helped to create it will all come together beautifully. Sometimes my clients experience what I call “bell abuse”. I typically advise that while they’re still in the throws of housebreaking, answer the bells each and every time even if you know you’re being played. We want to convince the dog that the bells work each and every time. Further, the status of being housebroken is so precarious; we can’t take any chances. 


Finally, permit me to pepper you with some dos and don’ts.


Don’t use pee pads or litter boxes unless that is what you intend to use for the rest of the dog’s life. 


Don’t scold or punish. It’s a biological need that is not in their physical control in the early months of life. If they are having accidents past four months of life please assess where you need to make an adjustment to your protocol.


Do carry them to the restroom in their early months of life first thing in the morning. This goes for elevators too. Especially, in elevators. 


Do keep a second crate on hand to contain them when you’re cleaning the primary crate. 


Don’t put others in charge of the protocol if they are not up to the task. 

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