Not a day passes that I don’t get a phone call from someone frantic to finally cure their dog’s housebreaking problems. This is almost always a long-standing problem. The reason the owners are trying to solve it varies from their spouse threatening to get rid of the dog, to them moving into a new house (or getting new carpets), to their in-laws moving in, to them finally realizing that no one can live with this problem forever.
Remedial housetraining will generally not be a cakewalk, like training a new puppy. Thank goodness our dogs are as resilient as they are, for many are able to bounce back from poor early management and learn the appropriate behavior. For purposes of this article, I am considering a dog a candidate for “remedial” housetraining when they are adult dogs that have never been housetrained and have had at least a year to practice the wrong behavior. Dogs who have been maintained outdoors (even for years) can usually be housetrained much faster and easier than those who have a history of years of eliminating inside. What’s done is sometimes hard to un-do, and only the most committed and motivated of clients will follow through long enough to see a good result.
Several years ago, I wrote up this plan for Bonnie and Bella, two Schnauzer sisters. It worked well for their owner and for many since, so I am passing it on to anyone who might find it useful. It is a plan that is highly adaptable, and would be even easier to implement by an owner who could be home more during the day. Their owner was gone during the day on a regular basis and couldn’t leave them outside, which made designing a doable program even more of a challenge.
Weeks 1 and 2
Bonnie and Bella are not to have any freedom to roam the house. They must always be supervised, or in the crates, in the utility room, behind the gate in the kitchen, or on house lines out in the family room (or anywhere else).
A house line is a lightweight line or leash that you keep on the dog’s collar when he is inside (only under your direct supervision, of course). It should be sized according to the dog you have (i.e. a Rottweiler can have a six-foot houseline, but a Papillon might need a four-foot one). The house line acts as an extension of your hand. You can easily watch the end of it, and if you see is sliding around the sofa, get up and follow the dog so he doesn’t have a housetraining accident. If you have a dog that puts his paws up on the kitchen counter or tries to get on the sofa, you can simply step on the line or pick up the end to prevent or correct the behavior. It is also good while teaching a “wait” at the door.
Dragging a house line not only makes housetraining easier, but is also good for taking pushy dogs down a notch or two. It is a wonderful tool when you need to allow a dog a little freedom in the house, but not run of the house. The dog will always be in eyesight, so there are many opportunities for the handler to praise appropriate behavior (i.e. downing calmly), as well as prevent/correct inappropriate behaviors (i.e. picking up the remote or getting on the bed). I recommend house lines a lot! The nice thing about the house lines is that the dogs will never be out of your sight; thus, you will not have any more accidents, unless you are very unobservant. You must hold on to the lines, tie them to your belts, sit on them, whatever, but the dogs must be attached to you. Get help for this if you can’t do it alone.
Weeks 3 and 4
If you have had no accidents in the first two weeks, you may stop attaching the lines to you, and just let the dogs trail or drag the lines around. You still need to keep the dogs in view, since they can get tangled. If there are accidents, go back to what you did the first two weeks. If there are no accidents (which means no accidents for four weeks), you can remove the house lines altogether.
Weeks 5 to 8
Continue to “back up” the boundaries for the dogs. Keep bedroom doors closed, and if the dogs go from the family room to the breakfast nook for example, follow them or make sure you can keep visual tabs on them. This will be a challenge with two dogs! If there is any backsliding, you will need to re-attach the house line on the offending dog.
Be sure to take the dogs out after eating, drinking (keep water outdoors; it’s easier), playing, waking up, or after any change in activity. Go out with them and praise them verbally when they go. You may give a little food treat. At other times, cut back on the treats, because we want them eating only at mealtimes, not throughout the day. You might give your cookie in the morning, for example. Clean any soiled areas with an enzyme (biological) type cleaner; follow directions exactly.
If they don’t go, confine in crate or on house line and try again in 15 to 20 minutes. The dogs don’t get any freedom in the house until they have gone potty. When you take them out, try not to play with them until they “go.” You may need to take them out on a leash (I know this is a pain with two dogs) if they just play around. Play with the dogs for a few minutes after they go potty, if you can. This play can be a reward for eliminating outside. Use your “command word.”
You may want to attach some jingle bells to the doorframe and teach the girls to ring the bells to alert you to open the door for them. Make sure you don’t mind being “the doorman” if you try this tip, as smart dogs will take advantage of you! Sometimes just covering the bells with a dishtowel will signal the dogs that the doorman is off duty.
Keep the dogs in the utility room during the day. You may want to crate them in your bedroom overnight. If you can make the patio into a safe area, that might provide a little break for them on work days.
Take up all water in the house. Give water throughout the day when you are home and first thing in the morning. They can go a few hours without a drink. Schedule the food and feed in separate bowls. Leave it down for 10 minutes, then remove. Always take the dogs out to potty after eating and drinking.
Stay on this plan for the entire eight weeks. If you have good luck (no accidents), then you can start allowing the girls more freedom of the house, but still be very watchful. I would, in any event, keep them somewhat confined when you are at work. The day will hopefully come when both of them can be out in the whole house while you are away, but since you are gone all day, it won’t be a disaster if you don’t get there. You might want to have someone (neighbor, dog walker, friend) come in at least once a day to let the dogs out; this would speed up the rehabbing and sure make it easier on the dogs.
Of course, I also recommend that you get started on the “Leadership Program” right away, and consider registering for one of our basic classes as well.