Toilet training is one of the most commonly reported issues to veterinary staff (Golden and Hanlon, 2018). Whilst it is most frequently discussed in relation to puppies, adult dogs (often rescues) will also sometimes need to be taught to toilet in a certain location. “Toilet training” is the process of teaching where we want a puppy or dog to toilet, and not emptying their bowels or bladder until they are in that environment. It can also be useful to train dogs to let us know when they need access to the toileting environment.
Depending on the lifestyle of the dog (and humans involved), toilet training may take place on a balcony, concrete surface, grass garden, or simply anywhere but the indoor home. The first step is working out where that location is – somewhere that is easily accessible and practical. Most dogs will prefer to toilet on a grassy area if it is available.
As with all training and behaviour modification, the first stage of toilet training is to set the puppy or dog up to prevent them from rehearsing the undesirable behaviour. This might mean:
- Setting up the environment to restrict access. Ensuring the puppy or dog can always be observed reliably by the owner, blocking areas where they might have already shown a preference for toileting, considering restricting access to the area closest to the preferred toileting location and preventing access to rooms with flooring difficult to clean or otherwise valuable from a human perspective all contribute to success
- Frequently taking the puppy or dog to the preferred location so there is reduced likelihood that they will toilet in the undesirable location. Caregivers will need to take the puppy/dog out first thing in the morning and last thing at night, as well as many times through the day – puppies and small dogs as frequently as every 45 minutes (getting owners to set an alarm to go off at these intervals can help prevent forgetting), as well as whenever they wake from sleep, after eating and drinking and after playing – yes, that is a lot of times a day!
- Observing signs that might indicate when the puppy/dog is looking like they might need to toilet and getting them to the toileting location quickly, picking them up if this is possible without causing the puppy concern. Signs can include pacing, wining, barking, sniffing different areas, generally appearing unsettled, focusing their behaviour around the route to the toileting environment and circling in one area – every individual will have their own signs prior to urinating and defecating
Alongside management, reinforcing toileting behaviour in desirable locations is imperative. Caregivers need to be advised of the importance of going to the area with their puppy or dog (not expect them to take themselves there – a very common expectation in summer with back doors left open) and to take food or a toy with them. Whilst the dog goes to the toilet, the owner can quietly praise them (not to the extent of distracting them) and produce the treat or toy when they have finished. Other reinforcers can be used, including going straight off for a walk as soon as the dog has toileted or spending time partaking in another activity the dog or puppy enjoys. It is important that the dog does not associate going to the toilet with the walk or garden time ending (if they enjoy spending time outside).
It can be useful to put toileting behaviour on a verbal cue. When in the preferred toileting location, once the puppy or dog starts to exhibit signs they are about to toilet (sniffing the ground, circling, squatting etc), the caregiver can start to add their chosen cue (ie when they can predict the dog is just about to go to the toilet). Again, this should be said quietly to prevent the risk of distracting them from continuing with elimination!
Owners can also teach their puppy or dog to alert them when they want to go to the toilet. Toilet training bells are common but the signal can be a button that the dog presses to make a sound or any other behaviour the owner would like to teach. To start with, the owner needs to train the dog or puppy the behaviour (eg targeting the bells or button) which is reinforced and then they are immediately taken to the toileting location.
Puppy pads can be useful overnight if required – ideally, the puppy/new dog will have company initially at night and the owner wakes to the sound of activity and is able to get them to the toileting area, but if this is not possible (or the owner a deep sleeper!) then pads might protect flooring and provide an area to encourage indoor toileting, (although every attempt should be made to prevent the dog or puppy toileting in the house, so setting an alarm in the night can help the process). The pads can gradually be phased out by moving nearer to the exit to the toileting location.
Troubleshooting tips include:
- In situations where an owner hangs around the preferred toileting area for some time and the puppy or dog does not relieve themselves, they can try walking back into the house and immediately retreating back to the area. This can prevent the situation where owners state they come inside and the puppy or dog then immediately toilets
- Distractions in the garden can cause a puppy or dog not to toilet. Owners can try using a lead to limit access to environmental distractions, ensure no toys are left on the floor in the area, and restrict the number of people in the toileting area (just one ideally)
- If a puppy or dog feels anxious in the toileting area due to neighbouring dogs or activity outside the territory (for example), screening can be added to block visual access along the periphery
- Faeces should be picked up regularly from the toileting area, as this can inhibit some dogs from using the area – after each defecation would be sensible
- A section of artificial grass can be useful to provide on patio, decking, gravel or balcony areas if there is a grass substrate preference. It also has the benefit of being able to be cleaned.
- A pee-post can be useful for male dogs who like to cock their legs to deposit urine if the preferred location has no vertical areas for the dog to otherwise do so
If a puppy or dog does toilet in the house or in an area that is not desirable for the caregivers, it is important owners are not chastising or rubbing the puppy or dog’s nose in any faeces. Although it can be a frustrating process for owners, positive punishment can cause the dog to become scared of toileting near the owner and therefore will only toilet when the owner isn’t around or looking or finds a spot out of sight of the owner (eg behind the sofa), as well as having implications on the human–animal bond.
If an owner catches their puppy or dog in the act, they can quickly take them to the appropriate area to finish (and reward if there is success). Accidents can be cleaned with a solution of biological washing powder and warm water.
Key factors of toilet training are persistence, practicality and ensuring everything is kept positive. Some dogs and puppies will pick it up faster than others – each puppy/dog will be learning at their own individual pace. When toilet training adult dogs, it is crucial to take into consideration what they have done in the past. For example, if they were in a rescue kennel environment, they may not have had a designated location to toilet. They may have also previously been left in a home to toilet indoors and therefore not understand that toileting is an outdoor activity in most cases, or they may have been told off for toileting at the wrong time or place and therefore be very anxious about where to go. Whatever the reason, it should never be assumed that just because a dog is not a puppy, they are confident with the concepts of toilet training. Any new dog in the home, regardless of age, will need some assistance learning where to go to the toilet and how to let their owner know.
Of course, it is always important if the undesirable toileting problem is ongoing to check urine and faecal samples. It can be a sensible idea for the practice to provide handouts to give to owners due to the quantity of information that so often needs to be covered in a consult.