Joyce Kesling, CDBC
This post is actually a sequel of sorts to Housetraining, using a signal to indicate need to eliminate. The main point is dogs have the cognitive ability using simple associative learning to learn to “hold it” given the opportunity to learn housetraining correctly. Keep in mind, since dogs, owners and environments where they live are not all the same, it may be necessary to adapt these basic ideas, to fit your personal lifestyle, rather than relying on some sort of standard procedure.
The responsibilities for housetraining a dog can be overwhelming…especially when the dog’s owner is clueless or just plain LAZY. In this case, seriously, thinking about owning a dog should be considered, it is a long-term commitment, and the responsibilities of pet ownership should be given the same consideration as having and raising children.
Considerations for owning and raising a new puppy
Occasionally calls to board recently purchased puppies are received. The new owners failed to consider upcoming vacation plans, when they need to be home housetraining! It does not happen often, but it does, and caught off guard, I forget to quote double what I charge for boarding a housetrained dog. Why, I’m going to need to devote twice as much time and energy into taking care of an untrained puppy.
This is just one of many considerations potential pet owners should consider before purchasing puppies. Consider what you and/or your families’ schedules and demands are for the next few weeks or months, before rushing into a decision that you will live with for 10-15 years; that is if the dog is provided patience and training preventing them from ending up in a shelter/rescue because you failed to train them properly!
The housetraining process has many variables, sometimes determined by breed, size, and temperament. However, your success depends on your understanding the correct process, your dogs physiological development, cognitive abilities (learning), reasoning for confinement and close supervision, but most of all, how you contribute in teaching your dog to wait for you to provide them opportunities to eliminate in the right location.
Breeders Responsibility – Before you bring your puppy home!
Puppies around 8-12 weeks, generally the time we bring them into our lives are at a critical stage in their development, both physiologically and mentally. Some of your puppies housetraining actually begins at the breeding location. This is why we encourage potential puppy purchasers to look carefully at whom and where they purchase their puppy.
Selling puppies before the age of 8 weeks is questionable; some breeders and dog experts suggest 12 weeks might be a more appropriate age to sell puppies. This could present problems because the socialization period would overlap with ongoing breeder care and responsibility; so you want to make sure the breeder you select has done some if not all of the following no matter what age your puppy is at time of purchase. This will help in housetraining, when you bring your new puppy home.
- Individual puppies should spend time in a puppy pen with an open crate. This allows the puppy to begin learning where they sleep and where they eliminate.
- Each puppy should get one-on-one time with as many humans as possible
- Puppies should be isolated in a kennel for short periods of time (nap time), to prepare them for separation
- Breeders should begin introducing puppies to desirable substrates for elimination i.e. grass, crushed shell, sand, dirt, clay, concrete, anything but what is found inside a home!
- Puppies should be fed in individual bowls eliminating competition and possibility for developing food aggression later.
The time between 6-12 weeks is essential in developing a stable emotional temperament and affective tone. This is the period most responsible for the development of social and emotional deficits. This is why it is ill advised to remove puppies from their mother and littermates prematurely and why breeder selection is more important.
We have now reached that point, you have done your homework, you have qualified and purchased your new puppy from a good breeder, you have selected the right puppy and breed for your lifestyle, and they have now entered your world. It is completely up to you and/or your family to successfully finish the job of housetraining, teaching your puppy to “learn to wait” for you to provide his/her elimination opportunities!
A little about your dog’s physiology
According to Lindsay (2001), “numerous conditioned and unconditioned digestive reflexes are triggered as soon as a bite of food is taken into the mouth.” He says, the “internal alimentary reflexes function under the influence of classical conditioning” and external physiological conditions are controlled voluntarily through instrumental conditioning. He further suggests, through proper training and conditioning the ability to control the external muscles associated with elimination are regulated by “cortical inhibition” and “for urination to occur, the external sphincter must be voluntarily relaxed” which can be “strongly influenced by instrumental learning” and why using appropriate training methods are necessary for achieving successful house training.
The following sections demonstrate “learning to wait” is simply not a stimulus response based on a learned location and/or substrate. It is not the location and/or substrate the dog should ultimately associate with elimination.
Certainly preferred locations and substrates are part of the overall association. However, for the dog to learn effectively and reliably based on a real “need to go” versus an “adventure outside” is the association and connection with you and established cue!
If you have not read Housetraining, using a signal to indicate need to eliminate you may not fully understand the explanation and its importance to successful housetraining a new puppy and/or adult dog not reliably housetrained in the first place!
Shortly after writing that article, I read another article on housetraining that prompted me to initiate a dialogue with the author. The author suggested, the “[s]impliest [simplest] explanation is that they [dogs] are developing surface and location preferences for elimination and as dogs develop better muscle and nervous control over bladder and bowels they can choose when and where to relieve themselves.”
This next section should provide a better explanation for how dogs learn the housetraining process, based on simple associations, but include more than simply “surface and location” stimuli to cause elimination to occur.
Elimination Communication (EC)
In Housetraining, using a signal to indicate need to eliminate, I suggested housetraining dogs required the same kind of attention parents would give to potty training a child. After my dialogue with the other author, I did some research on potty training children, to my surprise, my Google search turned up articles on a fairly new child potty training concept called “natural infant hygiene” or “elimination communication.” The concept was inspired by “traditional practices of diaperless baby care” commonly used in third world countries and some natural based cultures.
The author of a recent blog posted The Evolution of Potty Training that uses his recent experience training a new puppy with his current experience using elimination communication training his child.
Elimination communication has four components, timing, signaling and body language, intuition and cueing. All four components can be applied to housetraining dogs, but given some human work requirements and schedules, time allotted away from work for puppy owners versus stay at home parenting and parental leaves certainly raising a puppy will require some adjustments.
Let’s address timing first and similarities
In potty training human babies, mothers learn when their babies need to eliminate based on feeding schedules and activity. Proper housetraining puppies require the same considerations. We learn through observation when puppies are more likely to need opportunities to eliminate. For puppies, elimination is usually necessary first thing in the morning with the last opportunity before kenneling at night. Other frequent times occur after eating and drinking, during playful activities and after napping during the day. Initially new puppies may need to go out during the night, but this subsides as the puppy’s biological clock adjusts according to their physiological development.
Puppies’ development for this process occurs more rapidly than their human counterpart that may take as long as 2-4 years depending on the individual and method used. So consider yourself lucky if your only responsibility is training a new puppy!
Signaling and body language
An interesting association made concerning human parenting and using elimination communication is those who use this process suggest they become more attune to the needs and associated signals communicated from infants, suggesting this enhances the bonding process between mother and child. To facilitate this type of training mothers must carry their infants around making these associations easier to recognize thus respond.
Training puppies requires we keep constant attention and supervision as well and watching for any signals of elimination behavior. For dogs, this often includes sniffing, circling, whining, odd facial expressions and in some instances heading toward locations where the dog eliminated in the wrong location. This should not occur if you are managing your puppy correctly!
Contrasting, child elimination communication, we suggest puppy parents use short-term confinement using kennels, exercise pens that may include an open door kennel, naps (down time) scheduled throughout the day (used for impulse control), tethering via a lead to us and/or anchoring your puppy to a heavy object but remaining in close proximity to your location. This allows us like humans parenting children to keep a watchful eye on our puppies and getting them outside before they have a chance to eliminate in the wrong location, setting them up to succeed.
Mothers using the elimination communication suggest the “close nurturing relationship” helps them know when it is necessary to get the child to the potty location. This is simply an unconscious knowing through observation and establishing the bond between mother and child that allows mothers to notice subtle behavioral change that may indicate specific needs.
This is not at all unlike dog owners who have established close attachments and secure bonds with their dogs. However, this does mean we have to be in touch with our dogs and since dogs live in the moment, we need to learn to be equally observant of their behavior.
Communication elimination or natural infant hygiene used around the world requires a two-way communication between mother and infant. The communication is formed using classical conditioning. Human mothers having learned to recognize signals from the infant their need to eliminate is then paired using a verbal sound or cue, generally in human culture “shhh” or “sss” is used, some parents may use different signals for urination and defecation. Other cues may also be associated with the elimination process such as holding the child in specific positions and locations. In some instances, the child may eventually learn to signal the parent using the verbal cue.
There are some key differences however between teaching communication elimination between human children and dogs. One of the most distinct differences is that dogs often learn through improper housetraining procedures and unwitting owners to use cues simply to get outside to play! I doubt human parents experience this behavior, but it happens often enough with dogs, so dog parents need to be savvy enough to out think their dogs behavior. This is where rewards, consequences, and confinement help establish successful housetraining for dog owners.
Finally, the ability to “hold it”
Just like human children, dogs also go through stages of physical development that increases one’s ability to control their bodily functions. This development occurs much faster in dogs and explained previously in “physiological considerations.” The same occurs with human children who learn the “ability to retain” but at a human infant’s developmental pace and growing consequence of their awareness.
Dogs possess the cognitive ability to associate and learn to control their sphincter muscles through similar conditioning as human children learning when/where access for elimination is available and by conditioning an associative cue to the process.
Potential problems and why I don’t recommend using doggie doors!
Housetraining issues are common and second common reason dogs end up in shelters aggressive behavior is number one! Often the client is using doggie doors! Do you really think after all this discussion, puppies still know to take themselves outside to eliminate, and that only outdoors is the acceptable potty location, without your help and guidance in the beginning?
Do you understand now how parents successfully use the same strategy to train infant children? Dogs need your help just as much as human children require parents to be there, observing their signals, body language, and teaching cues associated with elimination, how is your puppy going to learn if you’re sitting on the couch learning how to train your puppy from the “dog whisperer” while assuming they understand what a doggie door means!
A couple of facts
- Female dogs are just as capable of marking as males; an earlier issue of Journal Veterinary Behavior suggested this behavior does exist. Thus, owners must be aware of their dog’s elimination habits through close observation; this means YOU need to be present!
- When owners use doggie doors before their puppies elimination behavior is reliably trained, dogs may run in/out for all kinds of reasons, responding to noises, playing, perhaps even following you out there, but this doesn’t mean your dog understands without your guidance what she/he is supposed to do there! Lack of supervision and being present when your dog eliminates can explain why so many owners using doggie doors end up with dogs that never reliably learned where the proper potty areas are located.
Being a professional dog trainer, certified in dog behavior, I can reliably say that in all the years before becoming a professional in this industry, I never relied on dog doors to provide access for elimination purposes. My dogs were always taken out on lead. I think it is important dogs are supervised and their elimination behavior observed. The only other option provided for my dogs is a securely fenced yard and still under my supervision.
Responsible Dog & Cat
Training and Behavior Solutions
Combining Art and Science for Training Animals
Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC
P.O. Box 15992
Sarasota, Florida 34277
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Mahatma Gandhi 1869 – 1948
Copyright Responsible Dog & Cat 2009