Canine housetraining, Part 1: Humane and age-appropriate strategies

Better outcomes are achieved when clients are knowledgeable and have realistic expectations
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Aug 01, 2011

Housetraining dogs is really quite simple. The hard part is ensuring that clients understand dogs' needs. Clients also need to understand how a dog's developmental stage may affect its behavior. This helps clients to have realistic expectations. Without this type of tutoring, dogs are at risk for being abused by clients who are teaching them not to eliminate in the house.


Get your clients in line: Housetraining is simple if you start clients off on the right foot. (Nicole Hill/Getty Images)
It's worth remembering that we used to call this housebreaking, but the dog was the one usually broken. In trying to communicate what they view as the wrong place for their dogs to eliminate, clients may hit their dogs for the first time. A similar scenario occurs in people who are anxious to toilet train children. In both cases, the first smack or shake facilitates the second, so it's important that we prevent that initial smack or shake.

It's easiest to approach the housetraining issue by age. So deal with puppies separately from adult dogs. Because the housetraining strategy recommended for puppies is based on ontogeny, this is a good opportunity to discuss other early developmental responses that can become problems for dogs.

Whether the clients are impatient, not knowledgeable or truly problematic in the manner in which they treat dogs (and likely people), we need to remember that a lack of housetraining kills dogs. Clients have low thresholds for constant cleaning and the damage their dogs do to rugs and floors, so anything we can do to provide them with realistic expectations can only increase the probability that the dogs will remain, happily and humanely, in the household.

Sensitive periods for social exposure

Puppies become adept at interacting with other dogs between the ages 4 and 8 or more weeks and with people between the ages of 5 and 10 or more weeks. They're especially able to learn to explore complex new surroundings between 5 and 16 weeks, and if they're not exposed to such stimuli by about 10 weeks, they can become neophobic (fearful of the unfamiliar).

Because of these sensitive periods—periods in which puppies learn quickly about new social and physical experiences—the recommended time for bringing a new puppy home starts at about 8.5 weeks. Before this, dogs are really honing their dog-dog skills and need the stimulation and solace of their parents and littermates. Dogs with a good social background have more tools for understanding increasingly complex worlds.

If a breeder is willing to expose a dog to new environments and housetrain the puppy, it can stay with the breeders through 12 weeks of age without detrimental effects. The real advantages of having the dog stay with the breeder has to do with social experiences with other dogs.

As long as the puppy is engaged in an active vaccination and preventive healthcare program, there are other ways for this interaction to be achieved, including puppy play parties, play dates, puppy day care and puppy kindergarten. If there's an adult dog in the home already, the pup will learn best and fastest from that dog, so anyone who already has a dog and is bringing home a puppy needs to make sure their adult dogs are well-behaved before adding a puppy.

Dogs that miss these sensitive periods for interaction and development do not necessarily develop problems associated with lack of experience, but may be more at risk for developing such problems. Dogs may not get adequate exposure because they are kept in isolation at the breeder's or because they're sent to their new home too early.

The more we learn about effects of the early learning environment, the more justification we have for trying to minimize risk for puppies in terms of the social and environmental exposure. Doing everything right does not guarantee you a perfect dog, but not doing what we know you should puts your dog at risk for behavioral problems.