To most people, the word “house-trained” refers to a dog who has been trained not to urinate or defecate indoors. For my parent’s generation, this bit of training was usually accomplished by Mom, who stayed home while the rest of the family went to work or to school.
As double-income families became the norm, the home-alone dog was faced with a serious problem. By the time you add a lunch hour and commute time onto an eight-hour work day, a house dog may have to “hold it” for as long as 10 hours before someone finally comes home to let her out. Her legs are probably tightly crossed for at least the last two.
From my first job as a riding instructor at a Wisconsin hunter/jumper barn, through 20 years at a California animal shelter, and now as a trainer/behaviorist, I have been blessed throughout my entire life with careers that welcomed the presence of my dogs. I never knew what a problem the home-alone housetraining issue was until I became a dog trainer and realized how many people are faced with the logistics of what to do with their dogs during the long workday. Plus, there is a whole world of people who live in high-rise apartments in cities, who don’t have easy access to the outdoors – an alien concept to me, forever a country girl. There’s another subset of dog owners with physical problems who are unable to take their canine companions out to potty on a regular basis, and still another of people who live on houseboats and sailboats, where grass is a very rare commodity.
A well-housetrained adult dog should routinely be able to be confined, in the house, for eight hours. Any more than that and you’re asking for accidents, or possible damage to bladder or kidneys. A healthy adult dog who is not as well housetrained can usually handle the same length of time in a crate without flooding her bedding. But since the average wage earner is gone for eight hours and then some, the doggie door was invented. Great idea – the dog can let herself in and out as needed!
However, I am decidedly not a member of the doggie-door fan club. There are huge drawbacks to giving your dog free access to your backyard. She can bark and disturb your neighbors. She can escape when she gets bored, by digging under, jumping over, or chewing through your fence. Someone might let her out – accidentally or maliciously. She can be poisoned, shot or stolen, hit by a car, attacked by other dogs, bite someone . . .
You also risk visits from other intruders, such as opossums, raccoons, and skunks – some of whom may carry rabies, distemper, and other diseases and parasites that can transfer to your dog – or you. Plus, the dog door doesn’t help the apartment dwelling Dachshund on the 48th floor of a high rise in New York City.
The paper chase
Paper training also became popular, recently replaced by the commercially produced puppy pee pads. These were initially marketed for puppies whose owners couldn’t be bothered to take the pup out on a regular schedule even when they were home. But some owners figured that this was a reasonable compromise for dogs whose bladders were made of something less substantial than iron. This was no doubt a great relief to the dog who had been crossing her legs for years, or suffering the ire of her owners when they got home and discovered that she really couldn’t hold it for 10 hours on a hot day when she had needed to drink a lot of water to stay cool.
One of the drawbacks of using newspapers was that dogs develop a substrate preference for their bathroom deposits, and at least some dogs are incapable of distinguishing between paper laid on the vinyl floor for them to pee on, and the Sunday paper that slides off the sofa onto the Berber carpeting in the living room. Puppy pee pads solved this problem with their greater bulk and different composition, but puppies seem to love to play with them. Many a puppy owner has arrived home from work to find urine-soaked shreds of pee pad scattered across the puppy room. And many a dog owner has despaired over ever teaching his dog to go to the bathroom outside, once the dog has developed a preference for peeing on paper or pee pads. There had to be a better solution.
Thinking outside the box
Cats have been using litter boxes for years, so why not our canine companions? Only recently did someone finally “think outside the box” and suggest using a litter box for dogs. There are some distinct benefits to the litter box concept, but unfortunately, also some kinks to work out.
We found only one company manufacturing a special litter and litter box for dogs, but perhaps the size of the company – the Nestle Purina PetCare Company – has discouraged copycat manufacturing. The product, “secondnature Dog Litter,” is now widely available at pet supply stores and supermarkets.
The “secondnature” concept closely mirrors the feline litter box, with a litter pan and pelleted litter made of recycled (70 percent post-consumer waste), biodegradable newspaper. The pellets are advertised as “super-absorbent” and containing a “highly-effective odor control system”; we found them smelly, exuding a strong, perfumey odor obviously meant to mask dog odors. The boxes are made in three sizes: Toy, for dogs up to 6 pounds; Miniature, meant for dogs up to 15 pounds; and Standard, meant for dogs up to 35 pounds. And that’s it!
The litter pellets, on the other hand, come in just one size, which we found to be overlarge and uncomfortable for dogs to step on. Their size – about the diameter of most pencils and anywhere from a half-inch to a couple of inches long – made us dubious about their ability to absorb liquid before it hit the bottom of the litter box and spread, but they actually are fairly absorbent. When we poured a full glass of water onto the pellets in the middle of the box, the moisture did not spread throughout the bottom of the box, but soaked into the pellets in the middle. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, removing the wet material from the box without taking many of the dry pellets is much more difficult than with the much-smaller sized material generally used for cat litter. We found ourselves wondering what the problem would be with simply using cat litter, instead.
Another problem with litter boxes is that male dogs who lift their legs to urinate may well pee on the outside of the box or over the edge of the box. Carefully locate the box somewhere that this wouldn’t pose a cleanup problem.
Another alternative for housebound dogs capitalizes on the fact that most dogs feel perfectly comfortable relieving themselves on grass. At least a handful of entrepreneurs have taken a stab at selling a litter box that involved turfgrass. One product that seems to be doing well is called “Nelson’s Backyard,” a system of boxes that contains about four inches of soil with turf planted on top (for a more thorough review of this product, see sidebar).
Developed in Florida by Audra Winston, the product is meant to provide apartment dogs with a “balcony bathroom,” rather than an indoor litter box. Because it utilizes real, live, growing grass, Nelson’s Backyard needs sunlight to live, and won’t do well indoors.
The grass litter box concept is intriguing, and avoids some of the problems we would anticipate with the “secondnature” system. Most dogs will readily recognize it as, ahem, worthy of their attention, and feel comfortable stepping onto the box. Feces is easily picked up and discarded; urine soaks into the dirt, where its odor is neutralized by the microbial action of the soil. According to Winston, the longevity of the grass depends on how often your dog uses it, but four to six months is average. After that, the grass can be ripped up and discarded, and new sod can be planted.
The biggest disadvantage to the concept is that it’s not really designed to be used indoors; it’s absolutely brilliant when used as designed, on an outdoor patio or porch that the dog can get to any time she needs to. While some clients have reportedly had success using grow lights to maintain the grass indoors, this is much less successful than when the grass lives outdoors.
How about buying two Backyards, and rotating them in and out of the house? A person could, but they are sort of heavy, particularly after watering.
The people who are most in need of a litter box for their dogs – again, people who are away from home for particularly long stretches of time, high-rise or sailboat dwellers, and disabled people – will likely be motivated enough to figure out solutions for the accompanying problems presented by their choice of litter box. Their next task is litter box training, and we can help!
Litter training your puppy
Cat owners have a big advantage in the litter box training department. Kittens naturally dig and eliminate in dirt or sand, so for most felines, the litter box just happens without any real contribution from the owner, other than keeping the box clean. Puppies, on the other hand, will go almost anywhere, so dogs take a greater commitment to housetraining on the human’s part, whether indoors or out.
It’s easiest, of course, to start with a puppy who hasn’t already been programmed to go in a specific spot or on a particular surface. You simply take a standard housetraining program and substitute the indoor litter or grass box for the outdoor bathroom spot. (See “Minding Your Pees and Cues, WDJ December 2001). Your puppy’s box should be large enough that she has room to move around and explore a little. Every hour on the hour, and every time your puppy finishes eating, playing, wakes up from a nap, or just looks restless, take her to the box, put her on the grass or litter, and wait for her to go. If she hops off, gently put her back and wait. If she seems wary of the box, use yummy treats to lure her onto it.
When you can see that she is about to urinate or defecate, use your “go potty” cue. The instant that she is done, Click! your clicker (or say Yes!) and feed her a treat. Be sure she is done – if you Click! while she is still going she may stop in midstream, eat the treat, and then pee on the rug when you take her back to the living room.
Unless you are positive that you want your pup to only go to the bathroom indoors for the rest of her life, be sure to also train her to go to the bathroom outdoors. Who knows – you may someday dock that houseboat, move to Kansas, and want her to poop and pee on the Great Plains.
To avoid housetraining accidents, young puppies should be under constant supervision when they are not in their crates or pens. The best housetraining programs never give a puppy the opportunity to make a mistake. Immediately after your pup has emptied herself in the box, you can give her 10 to 15 minutes of supervised freedom – then she should go back in her crate until the next litter box trip.
As she gets older, you can gradually lengthen the time between bathroom trips, and give her longer periods of time out of the crate, decreasing the amount of direct supervision as she earns that privilege.
In case of accident
If an accident does happen, examine your training program and figure out what you did wrong. Too much time between litter box trips? Too much freedom, a little too soon?
Resist the temptation to get angry with her if you catch her in an accident – if you punish her verbally or physically, you are likely to teach her to hide from you the next time she needs to go to the bathroom. There is also nothing to be gained by punishing your puppy after the fact – she won’t make the connection between the punishment and the behavior. If you catch her in the midst of an accident, just interrupt with a cheerful “Oops!” and carry her to the litter box. It may take a few minutes before she is ready to finish – some dogs get a little flustered when they are interrupted mid-potty.
As your pup gets older, you should start to see her heading for the bathroom box on her own. This part is actually easier than outdoor housetraining, since she’s not dependent on you to give her access to the bathroom spot. Be sure the box is kept in a place she can get to easily, and that any doors to the doggie bathroom are left open. Continue to follow her to the box and reward her on a schedule of random reinforcement, with high frequency at first, gradually decreasing the rate of reinforcement until using her bathroom box is routine.
Litter training an adult dog
The most difficult dogs to train to use a litter box are those who have fully accepted the concept that they should never go to the bathroom in the house. These are the dogs who suffer when housed at a kennel or animal shelter that doesn’t allow outdoor playtime on grass – those who would “hold it” for days and burst their bladders rather than soil their dens. Convincing these dogs that it is now appropriate to go to the bathroom in the house can take some doing!
If you use pellets, try spreading some outside in your dog’s regular bathroom area. Spread them lightly at first, increasing the amount as your dog becomes comfortable with the new bathroom surface. Then set her litter box up outside and encourage her to use it, by taking her to the box on leash, luring her in with treats if necessary, and clicking and rewarding her when she urinates or defecates in the box. If you use a grass box she is probably already familiar with grass as her bathroom substrate, so just set the box up outside and encourage her, on leash, to use it.
When your dog is willing to use the box outside, you’re ready to bring it indoors. Do this on a weekend, when you can spend a day or two on the training project. Bring the box in Friday night, and prepare to start the next day. Wake up your dog in the morning, take her to the bathroom box on leash, and ask her to use it. If nothing happens, cheerfully put her in her crate, feed her a treat, and then give her breakfast – in the crate. After she eats, bring her out and try again. If she still doesn’t oblige, return her to her crate – still being cheerful. You cannot intimidate her into using the bathroom box.
Every couple of hours, throughout the day, take her to the box on leash and use your “go potty” cue to encourage her to use it. Make sure you keep the process upbeat and happy, accompanied by a generous supply of treats.
If she hasn’t accommodated you by bedtime, take the box outside, have her use it there, then bring it back in and try again the next day. If you still don’t succeed by the end of the weekend, put the box back outside and have her use it outdoors at every opportunity for the next week. Then try again, indoors, the following weekend.
When the breakthrough comes, ply her with treats and praise, but be careful not to get so excited that you scare her into never using it again!
-by Pat Miller
Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and recently published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training.