The Background: 

Once, at the Everett Animal Shelter in Everett, Washington, we got in about twenty 12-week-old German Shepherd pups at the same time. I think they were seized from a breeder but the source really isn’t important. We put them in two side-by-side kennels. Five minutes later, the floors of the kennels were sloppy with pee and poop and the puppies were rolling and mock-fighting in the ooze. We dutifully switched them to two other kennels so we could clean up their mess. We intended to bathe them as soon as we could. That was a stupid thought. Five minutes into their next kennels they looked exactly like the first two. We moved them back to the now clean
kennels. Repeat.

They had absolutely no concept that pee and poop were at all things to be avoided. A lot of people say that a dog won’t soil where it sleeps. I have my doubts. I did see something odd, however. The puppies would break off play and stand stock still for a second, move a foot or two away from the fence and pee or poop. I didn’t know what to make of that at the time.

Background Part 2: 

A few months later I was called to a house where a woman had died. She was elderly and a former conformation exhibiter. In a sealed bedroom she had 19 purebred Cocker Spaniels in crates stacked two deep. I had to borrow oxygen from the EMT’s to be able to remove the dogs. The ammonia was at toxic levels. (I also made the mistake of having a conversation with the deceased. She was sitting in a chair perfectly still. The firefighters had a good laugh over my speech.) I took the dogs to our kennels and saw a repeat of the behavior of the German Shepherd pups. These dogs would get a funny look on their faces, move a short distance and pee and poop. They also had no problem with pee and feces.
It was all over them in ten minutes.

One Source for the Problem: 

There is a connecting thread here. Both sets of dogs spent a good portion of their lives in an area that had no separate potty area. The pups of both groups we raised in whelping boxes. Whelping boxes are designed to give relief to a mother dog who is being chewed unmercifully by nursing puppies. When the mom leaves, the puppies attempt to follow. That is what happens in the wild in a den. In a whelping box, they hit a brick wall. Then they pee and poop where they stand.

If they have any tendency toward eliminating other than where they sleep, they can only move away from where they are when they feel the need to go. That means they will have to sleep in the pee and poop of their litter mates. They soon lose any concern over stepping in or rolling in a soiled world.

Note: About half of the German Shepherd pups were adopted. All of the Cocker Spaniels were adopted because they were gorgeous and the local newspaper featured them. All of the Cockers were returned. Why? They couldn’t be housetrained. 

While common knowledge suggests that dogs do have some sense of cleanliness, it doesn’t really matter if you or your clients have one that doesn’t. The same is true of dogs that pee and poop in their crates. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t supposed to do that; it’s a problem that eventually needs to be fixed or the owners may decide to get a different dog. In that light, I offer you my foundational formula for such a dog:

Fundamentals: Ten Steps to Success

  1. Assume that a species that would ingest feces doesn’t mind stepping in it. Assume that your task is to create a behavior from scratch with no instincts to help you out.
  2. We know that the majority of dogs like food. Many dogs become insufferable beggars to get snacks and treats by looking as if they are starving. If a dog will freeze and wait for 20 minutes to get a scrap of your dinner, you have leverage over their behavior.
  3. The secret to housetraining a difficult dog is to correctly identify the task. This is best done with a clicker. It marks a single instant in time and denotes ‘end of behavior’. Yes, you can say “good boy” if you want. It will work, but it will take longer to connect the right behavior to the consequence. The goal is to mark the instant the last drop of pee or poop hits the ground with the click. Then shove a food treat into the dog’s mouth. Do not make noise or chant “go potty” while the dog is thinking about peeing or pooping. Keep your mouth shut.
  4. Use a single door (at first) as the exit connected with the potty area. Take the dog to the potty area and move around a little. Moving their muscles will speed up the sensations connected to elimination.
  5. Pick a surface that makes sense. If you have grass or gravel, pick one surface and stick with it. If you need to use a leash at first, do so. If the dog won’t go when it is on leash, get some temporary fencing at a home improvement store and block off part of your yard.
  6. If the dog does not soil its crate, use that to create periods where A) You don’t have to watch the dog constantly and B) The dog has no opportunity to make a mess in
    the house.
  7. Pick times when the dog is most likely to eliminate – after eating, drinking, sleeping or playing.
  8. Click and treat every time the dog pees or poops. When the behavior starts to be predictable, start saying “hurry up” or “go potty” BEFORE the dog does the behavior. You are initially just guessing. Only say the phrase once. Practically speaking, it is going to take a couple months before the phrase starts to trigger the behavior. Just stick with the program. It will pay off in the future.
  9. Ignore accidents. The worst thing you can do is scold a dog for having an accident in front of you. This will cause the dog to distrust your presence when it must eliminate. The most common result is a dog that sneaks off and pees in your absence.
  10. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Don’t change this pattern. Always have a clicker and treats available. Put them in a sealed container outdoors. Difficult dogs don’t get housetrained overnight. They get housetrained over the long haul. Remember, you are working with a dog that doesn’t care about where it pees and poops.

The Goal: 

The goal of any housetraining program is simple. You have to create a passion for peeing and pooping in a specific place or on a specific texture. All thoughts need to revolve around that goal. The specific actions aren’t that tough. Sticking to the program is essential. You are trying to create something from nothing. The outcome may mean the difference between a client keeping their dog or not. It’s worth the effort. ✂