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Dear Sue: 

I adopted a dog who apparently was a discarded hunter. He must have been kept in a run and allowed to go potty any time he wanted because we are having a difficult time teaching him that he is now an indoor dog, and pottying in the house is unacceptable.  Do you have any tips that will help me help him? 

Thanks, Dianne


Dear Dianne:

Here are my suggestions, and thanks for your question.


Steps involved in housebreaking rescue dogs:

Step 1: Get Them on a Schedule

Step 2: Feed Appropriately

Step 3: Take up Water by 8pm

Step 4: Pick a "Potty Spot"

Step 5: Give the "Potty Spot" a "Name"

Step 6: Give Verbal Praise for Success

Step 7: Take on Frequent Trips Outside

Step 8: Be Consistent!

Step 9: Tricks of the Trade


Some Background: 

Housebreaking rescue dogs can be an interesting concept which could turn out to be easy or very difficult. In most cases it's easy; for the cases when it turns out to be difficult, it's usually not the dog's fault, but the owner's inconsistency, really! There are some exceptions to this if the dog is having a medical problem and just can't help it.

Rescue dogs can come from any number of backgrounds, ranging from strays (no human contact and usually fending for themselves to survive) to owner give-ups (which means people who get the dog with good intentions, then something happens and they have to give it up); these dogs generally have had no training, little socialization, and at some point were just left to themselves. Then we have abuse cases, which are really heartbreaking and a little more difficult to train, but not impossible. A lot of these dogs have been hit for having "accidents" in the house, and can be fearful of people; you have to approach these dogs with patience, a very soft voice, and a lot of praise, ignoring any accidents they may have. Just remember, in all cases, any "accidents" the dog has is the owner's fault. So please don't blame the dog.

One last thing to keep in mind: most rescue dogs have not been in a normal home environment; they have been able to "go" whenever they needed, wherever they needed to, and at any time they needed to. So the first step is:


Step 1 - Get Them on a Schedule

There are four times that a dog will HAVE to use the bathroom:

1 - First thing in the morning

2 - After eating

3 - After (or during) play

4 - Just before going to bed

Knowing this, you'll need to adjust your schedule accordingly. If you go to work from 8am to 5pm, it would be unreasonable to feed the dog in the morning because you'll only have about 20 minutes to give them for bathroom time. And if this is the case, you should try to make arrangements to have someone come in the middle of the day to take them out for a break.


Step 2 - Feed Appropriately

Don't "free-feed" until your pup is housebroken. This means don't leave food down for the pup all day. Feed one or two times a day, at the same time, and give him/her about 15 minutes to eat the food. After that, take the food up and don't offer again until the next feeding time. 

It's a good idea to feed in the early evening; this will give the dog ample time to relieve itself before bedtime. If you have a younger dog under the age of six months, most vets will recommend feeding twice a day. If you have one of the babies, you'll have to adjust your schedule just like if you had a real infant, which means you'll have to get up AT LEAST an hour earlier so you can give the pup time to "get it all out."  Also, you may need to get up in the middle of the night to take the pup out. If you're not willing to do this then don't get a puppy.


Step 3 - Take up Water by 8pm

This one's easy.  One exception: if you don't got to bed until 12am, then you can leave it down a little later.


Steps 4, 5, & 6 - Pick a "Potty Spot;" Give the "Potty Spot" a "Name;" Give Verbal Praise for Success

The whole concept of this is if you just put the dog outside by itself, it will wander around smelling the flowers, looking at the birds, chasing a squirrel . . . you get the picture. Remember these are rescues; they need to understand what you want them to do when they go outside.  Soooo, while you're training them to go "outside," you'll need to put them on a leash, pick a "potty spot" in the yard, and then take them there (and stand with them) every time you take them outside for potty. Put a name to it, say something like "Go potty" or "Do it," for example, then stand there and wait it out. If you get results, give calm verbal praise, NO TREATS; just say "Good job" and give them a scratch. Just think, once your pup learns the potty spot, you won't have to pick up "land mines" all over your yard. Yay!


Step 7 - Take on Frequent Trips Outside

Just because there are four mandatory times you have to take the dog out doesn't mean it won't have to go at other times. When your new pup arrives, it's a good idea to take them out every couple of hours. This is why we recommend "taking a few days off" when your new arrival comes home with you. The more opportunities you give it, the more success you will have. Need I say more?


Step 8 - Be Consistent

Dogs are creatures of habit; if you change that habit around they will develop a different habit, like going on your ancient Persian rug. If you don't want that to happen, it's extremely important to get them on a set schedule until they are completely housebroken. And just so you know, completely housebroken means NO ACCIDENTS within a two-month period.


Step 9 - Use Tricks of the Trade

Here are a few tips you may find useful:

If you do have an "accident," don't freak out on the dog. If you see the dog in action, calmly walk over, say "No," put the dog on a leash and take it to their potty spot. If they don't finish outside, then put them in their "room" (this could be their crate or a small gated area where you keep them when you're not home). If they do finish their business outside, then praise them and give them some free time.

As far as the accident goes, DO NOT let them see you clean it up. I call this the "husband syndrome" (no offense). Let me give you an example of my husband: he eats his dinner on the couch and leaves the dish on the coffee table (for hours mind you); I come along, pick up the dish and put it in the dishwasher. I have just taught him to be lazy. Same goes for the dog; if they see you clean up, they think it's okay for them to go.

Once you clean up (making sure you use an enzymatic cleaner), let the spot dry, then put pieces of dog food on the same spot. If push comes to shove, a dog will go where it sleeps, but will try much harder not to go where it eats. Would you?

People sometimes say, "My dog doesn't tell me it has to go out." Well duh, a dog can't talk! You'll have to give it a tool to use. I've had a lot of success with people using a bell. What you do is take a large jingle bell attached to a cord and hang it around the door knob. Every time you go outside for potty, ring the bell and say "Let's go potty!" It could take a couple of days to a couple of weeks for the dog to catch on, but it's worth it.

I hope this helps, and happy training!

- Sue