Toilet training your dog

Trainers refer to this as toilet training as opposed to house training. The reason being it is good to have your dog eliminate on command even though it may live mostly outdoors. This allows you to ask your dog to urinate if you need a sample for the vet, or show the dog which area of the garden you want it to perform its toilet in. Should you need to take your dog out in the car, you can ask it to perform its ‘business’ before you leave, avoiding stops on the side of the road which can be dangerous to both you and your dog.

If there's a problem with messing in the house, it's important to try and establish why the behaviour is occurring in the first place. When this is identified, it's easier to find a successful resolution.

Intact Male Dogs

If the dog is a male that hasn't been neutered, it's much harder to manage this particular behaviour. An intact male will ‘mark’ his territory as nature intended.

In studies done in SA by the late Professor J Odendaal, it was shown that just sterilising the dog resulted in a marked improvement (up to 60%) regarding inappropriate elimination without any behaviour modification being undertaken. Please note that sterilisation does not always show immediate results: depending on the age of the dog, it can take between 6-12 weeks for the testosterone levels to reduce sufficiently. You can ask your vet about this.

Medical Problems

Any underlying health problems need to be addressed first, or else training is simply a waste of time and energy. If your dog has always been toilet trained and suddenly starts having ‘accidents’, a visit to the vet is your first step.

To assist your vet in making a diagnosis, be aware of how many times the elimination is happening, is there a large or small volume, what colour is it (for urine -clear, yellow, dark yellow, brown, blood mixed in etc, and a similar description for stools) and also if there is an odour involved. Observe to see if your dog appears to be in any pain while performing and if there is more licking around the genital area than normal.  Watch your dogs drinking habits and see if there is an increase in water intake - this is often a clue that the dog may be diabetic.

Inappropriate elimination is a symptom in many diseases suffered by dogs. When a dog gets older, its bladder control lessens (not unlike humans) and it may have to go more often, or sometimes seem to ‘forget’ what is required. Another possibility is that the dog is becoming incontinent.

It would be better to discuss any possible illnesses with your own vet, but some of the diseases that may first be considered are diabetes, bladder infections, prostrate problems, kidney disease, tumours or Cushing’s disease.

Behavioural Causes

  • One of the most common causes of this behaviour is when a puppy has been kept in a cage (normally with several other pups) before being adopted. A dog is a naturally clean animal and will never soil where it sleeps. Unfortunately, pups like this, who are also often taken away from their mothers too young, don't learn where to soil as there simply isn’t any other place to perform the behaviour.  Another reason for only buying a pup from a reputable accredited breeder!  This situation is much harder to change and the pup may need to be crate-trained (small crate) first in order to teach it another elimination pattern. Pups like this have to be supervised constantly while the training is carried out – see a specific section on this at the end of the article.
  • Another reason why a dog may perform inappropriate elimination is out of fear. A fearful dog will often go into the submissive ‘playbow’ position when greeting another dog or human and eliminate at the same time.
  • Additionally, you may find that the dog will go outside to eliminate during the day, but messes at night. Something as simple as supplying a light in the area where the dog eliminates so often can make a difference.
  • In the case of rescue dogs, they may have been shouted at or even worse when in the process of elimination and are just plain scared, so tend to do their ‘business’ when nobody is around and often in the wrong place. This can also happen with non-rescue dogs where the previous owner has shouted or smacked the dog while eliminating inappropriately.
  • Excitement – sometimes dogs just get so ‘over the top’ that they can’t control themselves. 
  • Dogs suffering from separation anxiety or over-dependency on their owners often perform inappropriate elimination. If you suspect your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, you are best served to call in a professional to assist with this. Some of the key indicators that separation anxiety is present are that the dog refuses to eat unless the owner is present, it barks/whines/howls constantly when the owner is out, or the dog becomes destructive in the owners absence. The dog is not doing this to spite the owner as many people think – it simply can’t cope!

Cleaning existing soiled areas

The area that has been marked/soiled needs to be cleaned as soon as possible. Do not use any household cleaning products as they often contain pine scent, chlorine or ammonia and, although they may smell good to us, to a dog it makes the area smell even more like a toilet! Instead rather use one of the pet stain removers or simply use a mixture of one quarter white vinegar to three quarters water. Whatever method used, ensure that it is cleaned several times. A dog has a far superior olfactory sense than we do and if it smells the marking, the outcome will be that it continues to use the place as an inside toilet. Make sure that the mixture you decide to use will not stain your carpets or surfaces first.


When a dog has been taught to eliminate in a particular area, stools should be removed twice a day. This is for several reasons – dogs do not like their toilet areas to be full of stools and if they are, they will simply start ‘spreading them around’ – picking them up will encourage the dog to eliminate in that area again - the likelihood of disease from worm infestation is reduced as is the possibility of female flies laying their eggs in dry stools, thereby giving raise to further disease. It will also prevent any other dogs eating the stools.

How to train

I find it is much easier to try and figure out your dog’s natural routine before embarking on the training. You can do this over a weekend and see when it goes to eliminate. A dog is very much a creature of habit and normally this is easy to do.

With an adult dog, after you have a rough idea of its routine, take it out at the expected times and additionally – when dog wakes up, after eating, after playing, before going to bed etc. You may be overdoing it a bit, but as the old saying goes ‘prevention is better than cure’ and you will be more likely to succeed. 

  • Make a game of this by getting your dog's attention by saying ‘come Fido, weewee’s’ or a similar phrase and acting all excited. The dog will normally rush to go with you to this exciting event!
  • Have a handful of nice treats in your pocket as you rush outdoors.
  • Timing is crucial in this exercise, and the second your dog either lifts its leg or squats to perform, go overboard again ‘good Fido, good weewee’s’. 
  • As the dog finishes, offer a treat with further praise, repeating the new cue word. This is for the dog to start associating the behaviour with the cue and will make it easier to train this exercise.  

A dog always works for a reward and think about this from the dogs point of view – it is rewarded by running outside to this exciting event with its person – it is rewarded after the event with verbal praise – it is rewarded with a treat – the action of actually eliminating is rewarding – a full bladder is emptied! Now you can see how easy this can be – you are thinking 'dog'!

The secret of success with dog training is consistency. This must be done every single time! Gary Player, the famous SA Golfer once said ‘the more I practice the luckier I become’

Advanced training

You can even take this a step further and take the dog to a section of the garden where you want it to eliminate (every single time) and that will become the dog’s new toilet.

If you are battling a bit with this, an easy thing to do is to ask a friend that has dogs to keep a couple of ‘samples’ of stools for you (welcome to the world of dogs!). They are picked up with a plastic bag and frozen. You can then let the stool defrost (otherwise the dog does not get the full scent initially) and place them in the garden where you want the dog to eliminate. Make sure that the ‘samples’ are coming from a dog that is up to date with its inoculations and has no parasitic infections or illnesses.

I find this really helpful in getting a dog to perform and can be used in a flat/townhouse situation where dogs can't go out, by simply putting a bit or urine on an item such as a scratching pad for cats (for male dogs obliviously), or on some newspaper or sod of grass on the floor. This will encourage the dog to start using this area as it will ‘mark’ it itself therefore covering up the smell of the other dog. Use a new stool sample daily for a few days.

What to do if the dog does eliminate in the house

The very first thing you do is take a rolled up newspaper and hit yourself on the head for not taking more care!

Seriously though, don’t pay any attention to the ‘accident’ at all, as attention is attention to a dog.  If you are shouting or screaming the dog will take that as attention and be more likely to repeat the elimination again. Figure out why it happened – did you get home late? Did you forget to take the dog out? etc, and ensure this does not happen again.

If you see the dog smelling or circling, pick the dog up (this will cause the sphincter to contract) and run outside, and then do your ‘weewee’ routine, rewarding lavishly. Alternatively get all excited and run outside yourself calling the dog. This will depend on whether you need to carry a 58kg Rottweiler or a small dog. If you think your dog will make it outside in time, than rather go the excited route.

If you catch the dog ‘in the act’, pick it up quickly which will again cause the sphincter to contract and follow as above.

Puppies – Toilet Training

Toilet training will be the first training exercise that you do with the pup.  Although it sounds like hard work, all it entails is taking time and being consistent, following the procedure above means that in no time at all you'll have a toilet-trained puppy.  Remember, if you leave the pup to wander around unsupervised, there will be accidents as the pup can't train itself and needs your to supervise.

Where toilet training is concerned, the most important factor is timing. For this we need to be aware of the normal times a puppy will eliminate and simply bring in the training at the appropriate time.

On average, puppies eliminate within about thirty seconds of waking up and defecation usually takes place a couple of minutes after that. To make your life easier, wake up the puppy yourself when you see it begin to stir. Pick it up (to avoid accidents) and take it to the designated place, remembering to praise as soon as the behaviour has been performed, and pairing the new cue of ‘wee-wee/hurry ups’’ etc with it.

Not only will the puppy start to go to the place you require, you are developing an excellent habit of going to the elimination place on waking up.  Carry the treat in your hand or pocket as opposed to a bag. I once had a client who always used a moon-bag to carry food around in and it ended up that the dog would only eliminate when she was wearing the moon-bag – it associated the treats from coming from there – who said dogs aren't smart?

A puppy’s bladder has a capacity of approximately 75 minutes at eight weeks, 90 minutes at approximately 12 weeks and in the region of two hours at eighteen weeks. Therefore if you take your puppy to eliminate every hour on the hour and also after playing, after eating, after sleeping, last thing at night and first thing in the morning when starting this regime, you are well on the way to successful toilet training. Knowing that your puppy is likely to eliminate at these specific times allows you to get your puppy to his/her spot, and most importantly allows you to praise and treat every time it happens.

Another indicator that your puppy may need to eliminate is if he/she starts to smell the ground and walk in circles. Being really consistent with this exercise will ensure that we don’t have a house that smells like dog pee, be able to take our dogs with us on holiday and a much better relationship with our dogs.

Crate training for pups

Pups that have been kept in a closed cage or pen while for sale are normally harder to housetrain as they have been forced to soil their living area. I personally believe that this has a bigger effect on pups than we imagine and causes stress. 

With these pups I would definitely recommend crate training (restricted to sleeping area only) in order to control the situation, and you would be even more observant as to when the pup is about to eliminate and ensure that the pup is being watched 100% of the time. And initially, the owner goes totally overboard with praise and gives several ‘jackpots’ to encourage the reoccurrence of the behaviour you do want.

This is a revised extract of the article Toilet Training© written by Scotty Valadao, Accredited Behaviour Consultant (ABC of SA), for the Friends of the Dog website.

(Joanne Hart, Health24, March 2011)

For more information see the Pet Centre

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