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Housetraining Myths, Mistakes, and Misconceptions

Relationships between people and their pups/dogs can suffer terribly when house training isn't going well. This information will shed light on - and dispel - the most commonly held misconceptions many folks have when it comes to the "how to's" of house training.   If you need more help with house training your dog or puppy, see the link at the bottom of this article for more free resources.

Common Myths (and mistakes!) associated with the house training process:

By Lisa Patrona,  Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC 

Myth: “My dog knows that he shouldn’t potty in the house because he looks guilty when I scold him.”


Fact: Believing this will really jeopardize your progress, not to mention the damaging effects it could have on your relationship with him because you believe that somehow he’s doing this on purpose to upset you. 


Fearful body language like cowering or, as we humans like to call it, “looking guilty” has nothing to do with the dog “knowing that he’s done something wrong.” Such dog body language only communicates one thing; that your behavior is frightening to your dog. Continuing to scold him will not improve the house training problem -- it'll make it much worse and other fear-based behavior problems are likely to develop.


Myth: “Taking my dog to the mess and rubbing his nose in it while yelling at him will teach him not to go potty in the house.” AND “If rubbing his nose in it doesn’t work, then taking him over to it and spanking him will.”


Fact: I think that both of these common mistakes in thinking can be addressed at the same time. For starters, taking him "over to the mess" implies that the mess is already there....which means that he eliminated there at some point earlier. It's way too late to do anything about it and trying to do so really constitutes abuse, since there is no way for your dog to understand why you're acting the way you are toward him, much less what on Earth you're so upset about. 


Believing either of these serious misconceptions, is one of the best ways to train your dog to be afraid of you. And you'll still have a dog who is eliminating in the house.


Myth: “Discipline (spanking or screaming at him) when I catch him in the act first, then putting him outside will teach him not to go in the house.”


Fact: One thing’s for sure, this approach will teach your dog that it’s definitely not a good idea to eliminate when you’re anywhere nearby. By delivering such an intensely frightening experience while she was in the act of eliminating (no matter where it happened to be occurring), you'll teach her something valuable indeed--that eliminating in your presence is not something she should do -- ever again. So, thanks to this approach, she's learned that when she feels the need to eliminate, it's safest for her to either wait until you’re not around, or even more likely, to sneak off to a “safe” place free of you (or humans in general), like a basement or another unoccupied room to do her business where nothing scary can happen as she relieves herself.


This approach will do nothing to help her understand where you'd prefer her to eliminate -- it'll only teach her to hide or "sneak off" when she needs to pee or poo -- and it's almost guaranteed to create other serious fear-based behavior problems. 


Myth: “I can’t get her to just go potty outside, because she is spiteful and stubborn.” 


Fact: When words like “spiteful” and “stubborn” are used to describe a dog’s behavior, the translation must be - not trained properly, or effectively. There is no mystery here and nothing more or less to be discovered. 


Myth: “Do not clean up the “accident” in front of the dog because they are getting your attention, which rewards the behavior of going in the house. They also see this as your “approval” to continue eliminating in the house.”


Fact: Ok, now let’s think about this one. What does cleaning up pee or poop have to do with giving your dog attention? Dogs have no moral code when it comes to their behaviors…they simply repeat the ones that have been reinforced in the past. Cleaning up a potty mess in no way reinforces the behavior of going potty (in the house or anywhere else!) and I can assure you that doing so won’t have any impact on your dogs’ elimination habits! Thoroughly clean any mess with a good enzymatic cleaner, and remember, it's your responsibility to do a better job supervising and preventing accidents.


Myth: “My dog just refuses to “tell me” when he has to go out.”


Fact: Many people view this as a problem. It isn’t really a problem at all if you remember that house training is the sole responsibility of the human. Blaming a dog’s incomplete house training behavior on his not “telling” you when he has to go outside is a good way to set your dog and yourself up for a big failure -and he still won't be house trained. 


Once you have done your part and you've consistently trained your dog where you want him to eliminate (presumably outside), and prevented him from eliminating anywhere else, he will begin to act in ways that signal his need for you to let him outside to relieve himself. Some signs may include just hanging around you more, going to the area near the exit point to the yard, whining, and/or pacing. 


As your dog’s ability to “hold it” improves, and the connection solidifies between feeling the need to eliminate and needing to get outside to do it, he will also begin to learn to “hold it” for longer periods. 


Warning: Unless your dog is already fully house trained, we do not suggest training him to ring a bell on the door as a “signal” for you to let him out to potty. Let’s say that the dog has rung the bell and no one hears it? He rings again and no one comes. Now he has an “accident” by the door.  He’s surely learning that ringing the bell to be let out isn’t very reliable, but more importantly, the habit of eliminating right by the door has just begun. Also, unless the dog was trained to ring the bell to be let outside as he/she was experiencing the feeling of needing to eliminate, (reinforced by your letting him out and the subsequent relief from eliminating) then he will not associate ringing the bell with getting outside specifically to eliminate! Many who have used this approach learned the hard way -- that all they've really done is trained him to ring the bell to get chase the squirrels, bark at the neighbors,etc. - and he's still not house trained! 


Myth: “I have a small dog and she just can’t be house trained. Books I’ve read and people I have talked to say that I will not be able to house train her because she is small.” 


Fact: Small dogs are just as capable of becoming house trained as their larger counterparts. The principles of learning apply to a Maltese or Toy Poodle the same way that they apply to a Great Dane! A common reason that small/toy dog people report problems is that their small dog “doesn’t like to go out when it’s cold or raining.” It is understandable that we don’t want our dogs to be uncomfortable, so here are some suggestions that can help:


1. Buy a doggy coat for extra comfort when it’s chilly out. 

2. Build a small sheltered area right outside the door and train your pup to use it

3. If there's snow outside, shovel an area right outside the door to make it easier for him/her to do her business as comfortably and quickly as possible.

4. Install proper behavior early on, so that the dog will very quickly do her job so that she can come right back into the warm, dry house!

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