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More Musings on Puppy House Training by Dr. Ian Dunbar: How To Teach Your Puppy to “Hold It”

Without a doubt, showering your puppy with praise and numerous tasty food rewards for eliminating in an appropriate toilet area is by far the best way to teach your puppy bladder and bowel control and to want to wait to eliminate outside and on request. It’s as if your puppy muses, “Wow! Cool! Fantastic! I can cash in my urine and feces for liver treats!!! Hmmm! I’m going to save up my pee and poop for when my owner takes me outside.”  

Your puppy will soon learn that he is always handsomely rewarded after eliminating outdoors with you, whereas eliminating indoors receives no fringe benefits and so, your dog will prefer to eliminate outside and so, is motivated and learns to hold it.

Each time your pup eliminates outside, praise and give three food rewards for a pee and five rewards for a poop. To maximize the reward value of the food morsels, do not give them all at once but rather, count them out as if they were gold coins.

A few years ago, an eleven-month-old Beauceron. Zou Zou entered our lives. She had been living outdoors and she had absolutely no concept of bladder control. She would demurely look you in the eye and then in a flash, quicker than an eye-blink, squat and flood the living room like a horse. Not that I’ve ever had a horse flood my living room but I think you get the picture. To make matters worse, although she was a pretty quick pooper, when outside, she would take an age to pee. (I think maybe she had been scolded for eliminating indoors, and so, was inhibited about eliminating around people (because they often got angry when she urinated).

On that note, should you ever catch your dog in the act inside the house, simply say, “Outside!” in an urgent voice. There is no need to shout or get angry, that would only inhibit your dog from peeing in your presence and force her to become an owner-absent house-soiler because the dog only feels safe peeing in your absence. When dogs make mistakes, turn it into a learning experience. Yes, you want the undesirable behavior to cease but equally as important, you need to reaffirm what she should be doing. Just say, “Outside!” and hustle your dog outside.

So back to Zou Zou … after we had had her for a few months, I took her outside after she had been in her crate for one hour and I waited nearly 25 minutes before she urinated BUT … then I gave her 16 treats. I can remember the number because I counted them out. (It’s the most number of treats that I have ever given a dog for peeing.) This got Zou Zou’s attention. She was impressed and I think we had a breakthrough. She finally got the message. Nowadays, I am happy (and relieved) to say, she is housetrained and lives in luxury with full free-roam of the house and garden.

When I say “praise” your puppy for eliminating outside, I mean act as if you are actually grateful.

Amazingly, a lot of people, who get angry when their dog soils the house, barely say a word of thank you when their pup eliminates in an appropriate area.

Some ignore their dog entirely, others say “good dog” in a gruff, unthankful voice, sounding like a moribund toad with laryngitis and others … well, others terminate the walk. Duh! No! You want your puppy to hold it when he’s inside, not when outside on a walk! Ending the walk after a poop teaches your dog to delay their elimination until she is ready to end the walk!

Instead, celebrate whenever your dog pees or poops outdoors. Praise, giggle, laugh, give a thumbs-up, high-five, dance, jig, jiggle, twist, tango and rumba while twirling the poop bag around your head. I would like my legacy to be that, “Poop Dancing” started right here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I want to see people being happy when outdoors with their housetrained dogs. I’m not being silly here. Well, actually I am being a bit silly but also, I’m being quite serious. You’ve got to give your dog good reasons to prefer eliminating outdoors with you, rather than indoors when left alone and the best two reasons are: 1. She is handsomely rewarded for eliminating outdoors and 2. She knows that it makes you deliriously happy. I want your dog to think, “Wow! I didn’t realize that my owner’s so easy to please. Good Heavens, if it makes him so happy, I’ll poop for him outside anytime.” Housetraining can be fun — for you and your dog!

I remember a cold December night after my first wife Mimi and I had returned from the Ballet and I took my Malamute, Omaha outside to eliminate. He urinated quickly but didn’t defecate, although I knew he had to go. I kept repeating his poop command, “Omaha, mbwa cho”. (I had trained him to eliminate in Swahili because I didn’t want any confusion if anyone indoors said, “Hurry up, Jamie”, or “The Raiders are Number One!”) Eventually, Mimi came out to help. She pleaded for our pup to poop and then, I think we actually lost it because the two of us started circling Omaha as in an Indian Rain Dance, chanting, “Mbwa cho, mbwa cho, mbwa cho …” And miraculously, Omaha pooped and we both collapsed laughing. The situation seemed beyond comical: here we were at midnight, an Englishman and a Chinese woman, chanting a Poop incantation to an Alaskan Malamute named Omaha in Oakland, California. And it worked! What better reward? He pooped outside and we laughed and giggled. See, housetraining can be fun!

I also used to have a riot with Oso (the delightful mixed-breed on the cover of my book, How To Teach A New Dog Old Tricks). Oso was a digitigrade pooper — he pooped on tippy toe, unlike plantigrade poopers that have metatarsals flat to the ground. Also, he liked to back uphill and his compact rabbit poops would roll down the hill and through his legs. His four legs always reminded me of the four goal posts in Australian Rules Football and as each poop rolled down hill, I would score him — a polite “thank you” for poops that missed the goal, the appropriate handvsignal and mild applause for poops that rolled between a fore leg and a hind leg, but a Gooooo-aal hand signal and thunderous applause for poops that rolled between his front legs. Some neighbors thought I was crazy but Hey! My dog’s housetrained. How about yours?

A bit of a digression there, I’m afraid, but understandable … when I came to the US in the 70s, I spent 10 years researching dog behavior and one study comprised analyzing sexual differences in defecation and urination postures. For example, have you ever wondered, whether adult male dogs lift their right leg or left leg when they pee? I did. And so, I tested it out with a group of about 45 male dogs. Just in case you’re interested, approximately 30% of dogs exclusively lifted their left leg, 30% dogs lifted their right and the remaining 40% of dogs were ambipedal and would lift either leg, (although they did seem to have a preference). The fascinating thing about uni- and ambipedal leg-lifters is that they approach the target differently. Unipedal dogs approach a tree or post in a banana curve, so that their preferred leg is closest to the target, whereas ambipedal dogs tend to approach straight on and then vacillate from side to side, as if the dog is musing, “Think I’ll do a right leg pee” and so, the dog rotates to the left, “No, I think a left leg would be better” and the dog rotates to the right, “No, I was right the first time, given the slope and the angle of the dangle, it’s gotta be a right leg lift” and the dog rotates to the left … and pees. Cracks me up. I often wonder what is going through a dog’s head when he’s peeing and pooping. When they poop, they look like they’re meditating. We’ll have to get some canine cognition researchers to investigate this…

This study was never accepted for peer-review publication. One reviewer at a journal for applied animal behavior said that the study had no “applied” merit whatsoever. I think he was biased. (I knew who he was). I disagreed and wrote back, “Of course you need to know which leg a dog lifts when peeing. Who would want to walk a right-leg lifter on the left hand side? But I guess it’s all water under the bridge now. I’ve moved on to other things.