House Training

“If physical or behavior problems develop, owners should take on the responsibility to care for the dog “as a family member,” and not treat it as an object.”  John C. Wright, Ph.D. Applied Animal Behaviorist, Mercer University

One of the leading causes for giving up our dogs to the uncertain fate of an animal shelter is incomplete house training.  According to several studies, elimination problems are the second most common behavioral complaint made to behavior consultants with aggression leading the list.  There are several problem behaviors associated with eliminative behavior that requires a careful diagnostic review and should only be done by a qualified behavior consultant or board certified veterinarian behaviorist.

House training problems can be easily prevented by following basic house training guidelines and using effective management especially when applied to puppies at an early age.  It should be noted when encountering incomplete, improper or unlearned house training with adult dogs the best course of treatment would be to follow the same general guidelines for training puppies.

A little about your dog’s physiology

Understanding how the elimination process works might be helpful later when I discuss when it’s necessary for response prevention, recognizing elimination patterns and the most appropriate times we need to attend to our house training responsibilities.  

According to Lindsay (2001), “numerous conditioned and unconditioned digestive reflexes are triggered as soon as a bite of food is taken into the mouth.”  Lindsay says, the “internal alimentary reflexes function under the influence of classical conditioning” and the external physiological conditions are controlled voluntarily through instrumental conditioning.  Lindsay’s opinion suggests through proper training and conditioning the ability to control the external muscles associated with elimination are regulated by “cortical inhibition” and “for urination to occur, the external sphincter must be voluntarily relaxed” which can be “strongly influenced by instrumental learning” which is why the importance for using appropriate training methods are necessary for achieving successful house training.

How learning can influence house training

It’s important for those of us who assist dog owners in resolving house training issues to understand how both the classical and instrumental learning processes affect both acquisition and extinction when solving house training complaints.

In spite of internal reflexive responses to external stimuli elimination cues can be effectively modulated and defined to specific locations and times ultimately resulting in the dogs’ voluntary control over their elimination patterns.

Elimination appears to be a self reinforcing behavior and does not necessarily require any external reinforcement in establishing a reliable habit, but in spite of this intrinsic reward during any initial training it is best to reward the dog according to my suggested guidelines for house training.

Is punishment effective during a house training procedure?

For successful house training to take place the use of any form of punishment should be avoided in all instances and the only exception i.e. might include successfully catching the dog in the act of inappropriate elimination.  In this instance the effective use of an interrupting cue could be an effective deterrent, such as a loud startling noise i.e. hand clap or sharp tone of voice.

The use of an interrupting cue or “inhibitory stimulation should be sufficient to disrupt urination momentarily” but avoid making it too fearful or cause the dog to run away.  It is then important to immediately remove the dog outside to the appropriate location.  During this change of location it is important the owner shift their voice and mannerism to one of positive mood that not only will encourage the dog to eliminate in the right location but to restore the dogs feeling of safety and well being.

An important part of any training program is providing clear consequences for our dog’s behavior.  This includes house training, so to be fair to our dogs we need to establish acceptable elimination locations while avoiding elimination in inappropriate locations.

Through providing rewards immediately after elimination in desired locations we are instructively letting our dogs know they are doing the right thing and by avoiding focusing attention on mistakes we avoid dogs learning to eliminate in our absence.  We want to establish a trusting relationship with our dogs, one of the keys to successful dog ownership should include our dogs feeling comfortable eliminating in our presence.

According to Lindsay (2005) a study by New et al., (2000) indicated 32% of people relinquishing dogs to shelters still believed “rubbing a puppy’s nose in its mess is a helpful house training deterrent” and an additional “11.4%” indicated they didn’t know whether it was effective or not.

Dogs have successfully integrated themselves into our homes and lives due to their natural inclination for “cleanliness” which in turn affects their responsiveness to house training and given sufficient time and training opportunities, the use of effective management and establishing schedules all dogs can successfully learn proper elimination habits.

Basics for good house training

Effective house training programs should include several guidelines such as effective management and supervision strategies, recognizing elimination patterns (observation) and establishing feeding and elimination schedules. 

Confinement and supervision strategies

The best known and probably the most effective tool in establishing and managing initial house training procedures is the dog crate.  However, there are other effective solutions to good management such as crate combined with a pen, using a loose lead, or using tethers (tie-out stations) and gates.

Crate confinement  

As I suggested crate confinement can be an effective tool during the initial stages of house training and for establishing further management strategies one should keep in mind excessive dependence on using crates can be counter productive to establishing good house training.

An important objective for effective house training should include generalization to the entire house and an over dependence on crate use, improper placement resulting in isolation and excessive confinement can easily lead to other behavior problems.

The use of crates within exercise pens, baby gates used to prevent access and strategically placed tethers can provide opportunities for generalization to the remainder of the home environment.

How to effectively use tethers for generalization

Tethers strategically placed provide an excellent opportunity to training the puppy or adult dog to the remainder of their inside environment while managing and preventing unwanted behavior problems.  Tethers can be secured with heavy furniture, eye hooks placed in the walls or using a heavy object that can be moved to different locations.

The suggested initial length for tethers should be the approximate sum of the dogs height measured to its withers plus the distance from the nose to the base of the tail.  Tethers should not be placed where the dog can damage any furniture or walls or become tangled or wrapped around any other objects.  The idea is to provide sufficient length to keep the dog secure while preventing any inappropriate behavior.  Providing some type of comfortable bedding along with appropriate chew items will help make the dog more comfortable and at the same time provides opportunities for teaching him acceptable objects to chew.

The wonderful benefits provided through the use of tethers give dogs more opportunity to remain near owners while preventing unwanted behavior thus “maximizing positive attention and socialization” while “minimizing punitive interaction” (Lindsay, 2005).

In addition to preventing unwanted eliminative behavior, tethers provide great opportunities for children to escape from mouthing and jumping puppies

Learning to recognize elimination patterns

Along with successful strategies to prevent unwanted elimination it’s also important we learn to recognize signs of elimination behavior.  These signals can include “facial expressions” occurring in the past and associated with previous elimination, along with body language indicated by moving toward previous sites of elimination, sniffing, circling and whining and during times of confinement in the crate or while tethered.

When are dogs likely to eliminate?

Similar to us dogs are likely to need opportunities for eliminative behavior at certain times and more so than others.  The most common times we can expect dogs to eliminate are when first awaking in the morning, after play, during play if prolonged, during or after any excitement, after eating or drinking and again within 20-30 minutes and after any long period without being allowed the opportunity to eliminate.

Establishing house training schedules

This is probably one of the most critical parts of the house training program.  The successful establishment for schedules of meals and elimination opportunities will be helpful in not only managing elimination behavior but establishing predictive control expectancies which help provide dogs with a clear understanding between their behavior and its consequences.

Lindsay (2005) suggests the most appropriate placement for a new puppy or adult dog during the night is in the owner’s bedroom, but this is not universally thought to be the most appropriate place.  I would rather suggest leaving this up to the individual owners discretion but always keeping in mind dogs are social animals and in most cases would prefer to sleep close to those people they feel most comfortable.  One could always begin with confinement in another location and allowing the dog access to the owner’s bedroom as part of the generalization process.

The puppy or adult dog should be given sufficient time and opportunities to eliminate during a full day.  Puppies and untrained adult dogs should be given a last opportunity to eliminate before night time crating along with providing a short 5-15 minute walk as a reward for elimination.

During the night and during initial new puppy training owners should be prepared to respond to whining that may indicate a need to eliminate.  This may occur for a few weeks, but should slowly subside as the puppy’s “biological clock” changes and according to their physiological development.

To make this transition an owner should wait momentarily before responding to puppies whining, slowing and progressively requiring them to wait longer.  The puppy’s improvement and reliability will be noticed by the longer and longer periods required before elimination is necessary.  This reliability is an indication that more freedom might be in order.  Perhaps change from crate to tethering during the night along with providing a comfortable resting place.

Upon waking up the puppy should be taken by lead to the desired elimination location and prompted to eliminate using a previously trained cue associated with elimination.

When the puppy is reliably eliminating in the initial desired location owners should begin to take the puppy to new locations and encouraging elimination in those locations.  This is the beginning of generalization to other novel locations.  This generalization process allows the dog to learn to eliminate in other locations, on other substrates and around novel stimuli.

If at any time during the training phase the puppy or adult dog fails to eliminate they should be taken back inside and managed either by crate confinement, tethering or using a loose lead and taken back out for additional opportunities approximately every15 minutes.

The opportunity to eliminate should be controlled to not more than 3-5 minutes, this way the puppy or adult dog learns to eliminate quickly.

For the remainder of the day dogs should be given sufficient opportunities to eliminate and rewarded for their good performance in those locations and otherwise their behavior should be managed with close supervision, crate confinement or using tethers.

How long can puppies be expected to control their eliminative functions?

 According to Lindsay (2005) “the average maximum length of time that a puppy should be expected to hold between daytime outings is calculated by dividing its age in weeks by 3.”  This is a general rule of thumb suggestion with some puppies requiring less time and some able to exceed this limit.  However, it should be emphasized that pushing young puppies beyond what are normal accepted limits may be stressful and unhealthy and in some cases may force them to eliminate in the confinement of their crates or cause them to eliminate in undesirable locations.

It’s important to place some limits on elimination opportunities so young puppies and even adult dogs learn to inhibit elimination behavior by teaching them to “hold in response to internal elimination signals” (Lindsay, 2005).  When puppies are taken out too often they may not “acquire this aspect of house training” and instead “learn to respond to such internal cues as signals to eliminate or defecate” rather than learning to “defer elimination to appropriate times and place” along with learning to “cope with the mild discomfort of holding a filled bladder or bowel.”

Using a signal to indicate the need to eliminate

Lindsay (2005) suggests on the surface training the dog to indicate the need to eliminate with using a signal (i.e. ringing a bell) may seem like a noble idea, but when we give this idea more thought this may sometimes present a questionable practice.

If one of our goals is to train our dogs to learn to wait using the effective use of training schedules, by allowing them to signal their need to go out may be counterproductive.  In addition, this “need-to-go” signal is dependent on the owners’ presence and their ability to respond to the dog’s request.  This can cause problems later when the owner fails to respond to the dog’s signal thus causing the dog to eliminate near by or in another room.  This may occur because the dog has been set up through learning to give a signal prompting the owner to respond and then letting the dog out, thus allowing the dog to eliminate, which is the reward.  Additionally, using such a training signal often sets dogs and owners up to respond to insignificant requests other than for the purpose of elimination (Lindsay, 2005).

The best preventive strategy for initiating the house training program 

From a preventative viewpoint probably the best way to implement a new house training program would be taking a “two-week vacation” that coincides with the new puppies’ arrival.  Then after this initial phase has been successfully implemented and the puppy or adult dog is showing reliability owners should plan to be home at noon to allow opportunities for feeding and elimination and if this is not possible an alternative might require hiring a reliable dog walker, neighbor or day care facility that can accommodate your new dogs needs. Otherwise prospective dog owners should give these considerations careful thought before introducing a new puppy or adult dog to your home (Lindsay, 2005).

Setting the stage for incompatible behavior to occur in previous offending locations

Lindsay (2005) suggests using incompatible behaviors as an effective way in changing the significance for any previously inappropriate locations used for elimination.  He suggests changing the location to include playing in that area, feeding, providing water and tethering the dog with some comfortable bedding and chew items.  All these suggestions are incompatible with elimination responses and capable of providing an effective change in the dogs’ expectations in those previously soiled areas.

Some of the most common problems associated with house training

The following includes brief descriptions and etiology for the most common elimination problems according to Lindsay (2001). If you find your dog’s behavior is indicative of any of these elimination problems you should either consult with your veterinarian, a board certified veterinarian behaviorist or qualified behavior consultant.

Urine marking – urine marking can usually be identified by small amounts of urine directed towards or on vertical surfaces or objects.  The problem is commonly seen in adult male dogs and commonly in toy breeds.  Often the offending male dog is still intact.

Elimination in owners’ presence – this is usually an indication of inadequate or incomplete house training and contributing factors may be excessive reliance on crate confinement and generalization in the home environment.

Elimination in owners’ absence – this behavior may indicate the dog has the ability to hold eliminative needs while the owner is present but in their absence they may either feel safe or it may be associated with separation anxiety

Refusal to eliminate outdoors – this behavior probably indicates either lack of any house training or inefficient house training.  The dog has simply not yet learned acceptable locations that may include preferred substrates or environmental concerns.

Excitement elimination – this type of elimination behavior is usually associated with arousal levels and the dogs’ inability to control their bladder under these types of conditions.  This type of urination is distinctively different from submissive urination when context in which the behavior is performed is evaluated.

Submissive urination – this type of behavior can often be seen when owners, strangers or guests enter or try to engage the dog.  According to Lindsay (2001) this behavior is often seen in certain breeds (i.e. Cocker spaniels, Golden retriever and German shepherd) and females may be particularly prominent.

Fear related elimination – fearful events can often cause elimination and in some cases “highly nervous dogs” may develop problems associated with diarrhea caused by “increased peristaltic activity.”

Dietary causes – overfeeding, poor quality food, ingredients that may cause increase water intake such as salt or protein, food changes, food containing large amounts of fat.

Physical or medical problems – Structural deformities or disease of the urinary tract i.e. renal failure, diabetes insipidus, cystitis, and obstructions, urinary tract infections (uti’s), functional incompetence of the urethral sphincter, incontinence, and cognitive dysfunction associated with geriatric dogs.

Genetic predispositions – Some breeds may be predisposed to having house training issues that might include Beagles, Yorkshire terriers and Bassett hounds. 

Effective cleanup to eliminate future elimination mistakes 

If you have already found yourself with ineffective house training it is important to ensure proper cleanup has been performed to eliminate any further use of those locations, substrates, and environmental cues and any scent attracting qualities.

It will be necessary to locate all the previous inappropriate elimination sites.  The use of a black light, moisture detecting probes or biological dyes can be helpful in locating all the offending locations.  This should then be followed up with a thorough cleaning of all these locations otherwise any effort to change the dogs behavior will likely fail.  

What to use 

Using the right clean up procedure can make a big difference in removing any offending urine that may attract further elimination to that area and by following the suggested clean up procedure correctly will go along way in helping you solve this unpleasant behavior problem.

Elimination in carpeting:

Step One – remove as much urine as possible from the carpeting.  The use of newspaper balls wrapped in paper towels can be very helpful in soaking up urine.  After soaking up as much urine as possible the next step is to dilute the urine and further remove it from the soiled carpeting.

Step Two – pour a quarter cup of warm water on the spot and continue soaking this up using more newspaper balls.

Step Three – pour a solution of warm water and baking soda using ¼ teaspoon baking soda to ¼ cup of warm water and let soak into the carpet for 1-2 minutes followed by sponging up all excess liquid and letting dry overnight.

Products on the market that may be helpful

The following is a list of a few products suggested by Amy Shojai nationally known pet care specialist, and author of more than a dozen pet books that may be helpful in cleaning up any elimination spots.

  • Anti-Icky-Poo (
  • AtmosKlear Odor Eliminator (
  • Petastic (
  • PetroTech Odor Eliminator (
  • Urine-Off (
  • Oxy Solutions Cat Stain and Odor Destroyer – this product is specially designed for cats but they also make a formula for dogs and both can be purchased at PetsMart.  I have personally used this product and found it effective.   

A couple of important points might include never use ammonia or ammonia based products and remember the object is to remove any residue that may attract the dog or cat back to those locations.  The best products will not only remove the smell but will neutralize the natural chemicals found in dog and cat urine.

Suggested House-Training Chart

See the accompanying “House-Training Chart.


Lindsay, Steven R.  Handbook of applied dog behavior and training.  3 Vols.

Iowa:  Iowa SP.  2001.  Vol. 2.

Lindsay, Steven R.  Handbook of applied dog behavior and training.  3 Vols.

Iowa:  Blackwell.  2005.  Vol. 3.


Joyce Kesling, CDBC

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant

Dog Trainer, Dog Behavior Specialist

Sarasota, FL