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Understanding the Stages of Housebreaking your Puppy

Q: I am having problems with my dog and hope you can help.  My dog is a one-year old, male mixed-breed.  He has been crate trained since we adopted him in December 2010 at the age of about 7 months.  Usually he is in his kennel at night and when we leave during the day.  Due to some changes, I will be returning to work full-time outside the home.  I don’t want my dog to spend the majority of his life in a kennel because I need to leave for work 5 days per week.  Lately, we have been leaving him loose in the house when we depart.  We were increasing the time each day.  He did well for the first few days.  However, now, every time we return, we find that he has peed, pooped, or done both inside the house.  I always make sure he goes out before we leave.  He has his kennel open to him.  I leave the TV on.  I leave toys inside his open kennel.  He never has housebreaking accidents when we are home.  So, I don’t know whether the issue is his house training or something else.  How can we get him to a point where we can leave him loose and not return to a home soiled by urine or feces?

A:  Housebreaking is a multi-step process that we can logically compare to the process of potty training a young child.  The first stage in potty training a child is teaching the child, “Mommy and Daddy want you to use the toilet instead of your diapers.”  The second stage progresses to where the child says to himself/herself, “I want to use the toilet instead of my diapers.”

There is a huge behavioral difference between the stages.  Prior to the first stage, the child will routinely urinate or defecate in his/her diapers.  The only communication will be the malodorous after effects or wetness that a parent detects after the child has completed the act.

As a child progresses into the first stage, he/she will communicate a need to urinate or defecate, provided a parent is nearby.  Then, the parent can take the child to the toilet or instruct the child to walk to the toilet.  However, if a parent is not available or the child is in a public environment where he/she may be nervous about using bathroom facilities, the child will take the most expedient route to achieving immediate personal comfort, which is to pee or poop in his/her diapers.  During this stage, the child has a preference to use the toilet.  However, the preference is not strong enough to encourage the child to inconvenience himself if he/she needs to wait for access to a parent or access to an appropriate bathroom facility.

Fortunately, the child’s selfish motives evolve during the second stage.  Personal hygiene, parental pressure, peer pressure, and personal preference steer the child to prioritize using the toilet, rather than his/her diapers.  Moreover, the child so strongly prefers using a toilet rather than his/her diapers, such that the child will patiently wait for a bathroom opportunity.  Social approval and hygiene become more important to the child than the achievement of immediate personal comfort.

At the completion of the second stage the child is potty trained.  The child intrinsically wishes to use the bathroom, finds eliminating in his/her diapers repulsive, and will wait for a bathroom opportunity, even if waiting means personal discomfort until a bathroom opportunity arises.  Extrinsic controls via parental supervision are no longer necessary to ensure adherence to potty training protocols.

Now, let’s compare the above to housebreaking a dog.  Before Stage One, the dog routinely goes to the bathroom whenever he/she feels uncomfortable, wherever he she/is and regardless of whether he/she is indoors or outdoors.  As the dog progresses into Stage One, he/she develops a preference for going outdoors, but will still go indoors provided a human is not conveniently nearby to receive communication and/or open a door.  During Stage Two, the dog develops the mindset of “outdoors good, indoors bad.”  At the completion of Stage Two, when the dog is reliably housebroken, the dog finds going indoors repulsive and will wait many hours for an opportunity to go outside.

Most likely, your dog is still only in Stage One or is in the early days of Stage Two.  If you are home, your dog will communicate a need to go outside.  When you are not home and he is inside his crate, he perceives his crate as a den.  Therefore, he will wait until you return home, rather than suffer the inconvenience and discomfort of soiling his crate.  However, he does not yet perceive the whole house as his den.  Consequently, when you leave him loose, he soils your home.

The solution is to compartmentalize your home with baby gates and expand his “den territory” slowly as he demonstrates responsible behavior.  For instance, baby gate him to the room of your home where you keep his crate.  When he can go one week without an accident in that area, add a hallway or a contiguous room.  Gradually and incrementally expand his baby-gated territory room by room until he is responsibly left loose within your entire home.  Moreover, if he has an accident, reduce his territory to a prior level for several days.

The problem you are encountering is due to moving too fast in expanding his freedom from the crate to your entire home, with no increments in-between.  Although you adjusted the time he remained free, you did not incrementally adjust his physical “den space” during the times that he remained free.  Consequently, because your dog is still only in Stage One or has only recently entered Stage Two, he values immediate comfort.