Pretty much every dog we see that has a problem with house breaking really has an owner with a problem with scheduling. In addition to bathroom related troubles, keeping your dog on a schedule helps add an element of predictability in your dog's life. We are all about predictability whenever possible. It helps you and your dog know what to expect, which reduces anxiety and increases clarity for everyone involved. Keeping your dog on a schedule comes down to a few key areas:
- periods of confinement
- access to food and water
- bathroom breaks
- having both active and passive time with your dog
An appropriately sized crate will generally help dogs learn to hold their bladder and bowels because most normal/healthy dogs (other than puppy mill dogs or other dogs who were essentially taught that they have to go to the bathroom in their living/sleeping quarters) do not want to soil where they sleep/eat. For all the gross things dogs do they are generally clean in this regard. An "appropriately sized" crate for the purposes of helping a dog learn to hold it would be one that is large enough for the dog to turn around in, but not so large that they could ever pee or poop and then avoid having to lay in it. If you have a mansion of a crate where your dog can go to the bathroom on one side and then sleep comfortably on the other... that is half your problem with bathroom related training.
We also use confinement to create contrast with other events that I want to be, by comparison, fun or exciting. Crating a dog for an hour prior to a training session will immediately make that training session far more engaging than it otherwise would be.
Lastly, crating your dog while you are home is the first step to resolving crate related problems when you are gone. While you are home, you are able to intervene when your dog is doing things that are undesirable, and you are able to reward your dog for calm behavior while confined. If your dog is only ever put in their crate right before you leave or go to bed, it becomes very easy for them to pick up on that pattern and form a negative association with the crate because it indicates those other events are going to happen.
Food and water
Feed and water your dog at scheduled times. Generally speaking if your dog is eating the same food every day, you can begin to predict how long after eating they will need to go to the bathroom. This is especially true if you make the minor effort of keeping a little log of feeding and bathroom times. We can then anticipate our dog's needs better and get them outside in advance of accidents.
I know lots of places tell you that your dog needs access to water at all times. But if your dog is in a climate controlled house, I don't really agree. You should make sure that they are getting enough water each day (1 oz per pound of body weight seems to be good) but they don't need to have access to it around the clock.
Every dog we've ever worked with that had problems with housebreaking had free access to food and water, and/or were not kept on a leash when they were out of confinement.
Since we are scheduling food and water, in a short time we will be better able to schedule bathroom breaks. When we take a dog out to use the bathroom, we do so on leash. This helps dogs learn to go to the bathroom while... on a leash... which is helpful if you ever travel with your dog and don't want to wait around at the rest stop for 45 minutes until they finally decide to go (because they are used to being turned loose in the backyard).
Another thing that helps teach them to make haste when making waste? Teach them that nothing else happens until you go to the bathroom. Lots of people use walks as bathroom time. Many then complain the dog will go for a long walk and then go to the bathroom in the house after it is over. Instead, take them out to the nearest bathroom spot. Give them the full 6 feet of leash while you stand still and be boring. Give them 5 minutes to go to the bathroom. If they do not, they go back in the crate for a while. We'll then take them out of the crate and straight outside to use the bathroom again. And we'll repeat as necessary until they go to the bathroom. Only after that will we go for a walk, allow them liberty/play time, or do some training.
Having just returned from a road trip to North Carolina, I can tell you that it is very convenient having a dog who you can let out at a rest area, tell them to "hurry up" (my cue for "go to the bathroom), have them produce in 5 minutes or less, and be back on the road. And like all other things, we have that ability because we made a point to practice it.
It takes most dogs a week of this routine or less to understand that "nothing fun happens till I poop." If you have a puppy (6 months or younger) consider that activity and excitement get things moving, and that they will likely have to go after any period of rest. So puppy owners should take their dogs out to use the bathroom:
- after being crated
- after waking up
- after training, or playing
- after anything that they find exciting
- before being put back into the crate
Training only works if you do it. And if you don't use it, you lose it. The two easiest ways to make sure that your dog gets some routine training are to: use meal times (and the meal) as training rewards or to use it a little bit throughout the day.
In the morning and evening you can spend 10 or 15 minutes training your dog and using small handfuls of their food as rewards. Whatever isn't used up during training can then be given to them in a bowl. Alternatively, and my personal preference, is to build it into all of your everyday activities:
- lay down and be quiet to be let out of your crate
- sit to have your leash and collar put on
- sit and wait to go out the door
- alternating between heeling and freely moving on walks
- waiting for your food
- sitting politely while being petted
- hang out on your bed while I vacuum or eat
- down stay in the dining room while I cook
Active vs. Passive
Your dog needs active time and passive time. They need exercise and play and training that teaches them TO DO things. They also need lots of time learning to just be, to allow the world to move around them without having to respond to everything that goes on. These start out as separate "events" or training sessions. Over time, we want our dogs to be able to discriminate when it is appropriate to do so and be able to move from an aroused state to a calmer one (something fancy-pants dog trainers call "drive switching"):
- You can chase this ball but not that squirrel.
- You can bark when someone comes to the door, but you need to stop when I tell you.
- When you are off leash in the yard you can interact with the other dogs present but when on leash and walking through the city, ignore them.
- We just got done playing, now I need you to lay down quietly while I have coffee with a friend.
Dogs generally enjoy and are predisposed to want to be active and engage with things in their environment. So we have to spend a lot of time teaching them to be passive. One of the best ways to do that is to teach them that passive behavior is rewarded with opportunity for active behavior.
The school analogy
We don't give it much thought, but think for a moment all of the training and social conditioning your went through while in school. Your day was broken up into many hours of highly structured socialization and education where rules were enforced, you were expected to respond in appropriate ways, and you were around others but not allowed to directly engage with them in at that time. Then you'd have some time to be a bit more creative but still in a structured format (music and art class). You'd also have a little bit of very active time where you focused on team building in again... a structured manner (gym class). And then every day you got about an hour to cut loose where the only rules were to make sure nobody was bloody, on fire, or had bones sticking out (recess).
And you followed that process, every day, for years. This is why most of us are reasonably well adjusted and socialized people. Contrast that with the average dog who does one of two things: either sits in a crate/room all day or goes to dog daycare (also typically called lord of the flies, mosh pit place where dogs go to learn that there is no such thing as boundaries or appropriate social behavior). And then they have a very abridged, maybe, version of the above school analogy. And this is why most of them are good dogs, but struggle a little bit with things they shouldn't: not enough practice at the right things, and/or lots of practice at the wrong things.