Ask Crystal: Re-Training a Potty Habit

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Dear Crystal,

I have a two year old Chihuahua who is a full indoor dog. We do go outside from time to time, but for the most part I keep puppy pads inside the house for him in a few rooms. Sometimes he actually uses the mats but a lot of times he won’t. Is it too late to properly potty train him? What can I do so he won’t pee all over the carpets? Please help us!!


Potty Training Pup


Dear Potty,

I think a lot of people are under the impression that dogs are naturally attracted to potty pads so all they need to do is plop them down and the dog will start using them. I hate to burst that bubble, but it is a process of training the dog to use the pads. The method for training a dog to use potty pads is pretty much the same as you would use when housetraining a dog to go outside. It will likely be more difficult than training a puppy because he has had a couple years to form these habits so you will have to put the work in to get him to make this change.

You need to decide if your goal is for him to only use the potty pads or to go outside. I personally don’t like the use of pads for dogs if the goal is for them to go outside. I think it is confusing and just one more thing to fade out. The only time I use them in that instance is for puppies who can’t physically hold their bladder or bowels. There are certainly reasons why potty pads might be the best choice for some people. If you are unable to get the dog out frequently because of mobility issues or your housing setup, it can be the best option. I am going to assume here that your goal is to have the dog going to the bathroom solely on the pads except for the occasional outside outing.

If he has been using your carpet as his bathroom, you are going to need to get the carpet cleaned. If it smells like his urine, he is going to continue to be attracted to using it. Consider renting a carpet cleaner and using a pet neutralizing cleaner to get the urine smell out. Avoid a steam cleaner as the heat can set the smell in the carpet. If the urine has soaked through the pad, you may need to replace that part of the carpet.  Dogs also develop a substrate preference as a puppy, which will be whatever substance they used most often, and it seems like his preference is the carpet. Pads are similar to carpet so hopefully he can make that transition.

Step One is that you will need to pick a spot to place his potty pads. I assume you would rather not have pads laying all over your floor and it will be easier to train him just to go to one particular spot. Dogs are very routine oriented so take him to the same place every time. I would suggest a utility room or some place that has tile floor and is out of the way if possible.

Step Two is management. Anytime we are trying to change a dog’s behavior, we need to prevent the unwanted behavior while creating a new behavior. He needs to be in the same room with someone who can watch for the signs that he needs to go to the bathroom. You may want to put up baby gates or puppy pens to block his access off to the other rooms. I like to employ the use of leashes in the management stage of training. You can use the umbilical method to attach the dog to you at all times. If you buy a carabineer, you can clip the leash to your belt. You can also attach the leash to an eye bolt or piece of heavy furniture. The point being that the dog should not be allowed anywhere that someone cannot keep eyes on him at all times. When you are not home to watch him, you can train him to stay in a small crate or set up a puppy pen in his potty area with pads on the floor or block off the area with a baby gate if possible. He should not be given the freedom of the house until he is trained. In the beginning, you will want to cover the floor with several pads. As he starts to learn the behavior, start taking pads away gradually. The goal is to only need one pad on the floor at a time. Be sure to pick up and replace any dirty pads as he will be less likely to want to use a dirty pad.

When you see signs that he needs to use the pad, walk him over to the pads and place him on them. I suggest adding a cue for the behavior. You can do this by watching him closely and say your cue the moment before he starts to urinate or defecate. I personally like the phrase, “go potty”. It is very helpful to have this behavior on cue when you are in a hurry or those times when you are pretty certain he will need to go. When he does go to the bathroom on the pads, be sure to have amazing treats on hand to reward him either as he is going or immediately afterwards. This step is really critical. In order to make the behavior occur more often we need to give him a really amazing reward and praise is definitely not going to cut it. Besides watching his bodily cues, there are certain times when it is going to be highly likely that he will need to go so you will want to take him over to the pads at this time. Every dog has a different bodily schedule so the times will vary depending on him, but you will start to notice a pattern in when he goes potty. In general, those times will be upon waking, 15 minutes after eating, after a play session, when you come home and before bed. It will be helpful to have him on a feeding schedule rather than free feeding so you will have a better idea if when he will need to defecate.

If he starts to have an accident in front of you, clap your hands and say “eh-eh” to interrupt the behavior and walk him over to the pads. Dogs have an association period of approximately 1 second so there is no point in yelling at a dog that has had an accident. Just realize that you were not watching him closely enough and try better next time. Blot up any urine with paper towels and then clean with an enzymatic cleaner.

I don’t think it is impossible to train him at this point. Just understand you are fighting his 2 year history of going potty on the carpet. You need to prevent him from being able to use the carpet as a bathroom and make it very rewarding and exciting to go potty on the pads. It is going to take diligence on your part and there will probably be set backs but stay the course and be consistent and you should be able to get there.

Until next time,



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