Teaching a small 5 year old dog to only pee/poop outside
February 21, 2017 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Crazy cat lady here. I am taking care of a 5 year old chihuahua/terrier dog while his owner is in the hospital for an extended period (weeks? months?). Poor boy has mostly done his bathroom business on pee pads in the bathroom. I would like to learn how I can train him out of this behavior, at least while he's with us. Help a clueless and grieving dog novice!

Apologies if this has been asked or there are obvious resources out there that I'm not aware of. I am overwhelmed with family medical crises and while I am happy to be able to take care of this dog while his owner gets better, it's a foreign world to me. I know how to train cats, not dogs.

Here's the details. Sonny is 7 lbs and some sort of chihuahua/terrier mix. He's 5 years old and has lived with old people who never trained him to go outside. Fortunately in the last few months of petsitting him I have managed to leash train him and he will pee/poop outside when he goes out, but he still primarily uses pee pads when he's not outside. He seems to pee every couple of hours and can't hold it in which is problematic when I'm away at work or asleep at night. I guess my questions are:

1. How do I train him to let me know when he needs to go outside?

2. Is there anything I can do to teach him to hold his pee for 8 hours or to make him less likely to have to go so often? For example, I currently leave a water bowl out all the time; should I only have it out when I'm home for an extended period?

3. Anything else I can do to prevent accidents inside the house in the meantime? Is having pee pads out "just in case" going to entice him too much?
posted by joan_holloway to Pets & Animals (15 answers total)
Lots of little dogs can't hold their pee very long. It's entirely possible the owners arrived at the pee pad solution when they realized taking a dog out for a walk to use the bathroom every couple hours is not compatible with most humans' daily schedules, especially so if they're elderly and/or in ill health.

You refer to the dog as "poor boy"--are you thinking it's cruel to have the dog go to the bathroom inside? So long as the animal is getting regular exercise and is being cleaned up after, going to the bathroom in a designated indoor spot isn't cruel. (Making a dog hold their pee all day when they're used to going every couple hours and can't hold it longer...kinda is.)

I completely understand this from your perspective and you're doing a very kind thing taking care of this dog for your friends when you have so much going on in your own life, but the realities of the situation are that you may not be able to achieve what you want to achieve here. Training a dog on a new behavior takes time, and especially one that disrupts the dog's learned comfort level like this is going to be a whole other situation.

[Note: My dog is litter box trained. He pees outside without fuss, and seems to really enjoy peeing outside on literally every surface, but he's never been an enthusiastic outdoor pooper. He'll hold a poop on an hour long walk just to run straight to his box when we get home to poop in privacy and comfort. Can't blame the guy, who doesn't like to poop in peace?]

As a crazy cat lady, surely you're not averse to litter boxes? That might be a solution you can work with if you're just VERY against having a pee pad directly on your floor. Since he's used to going on a pee pad, try putting a pee pad down inside a litter box. Maybe having the situation contained while you're working on getting him used to a regular walking schedule will be a good compromise for you? I don't think you should go cold turkey on the pee pads unless you really like having a mess on your floor. Along with that, getting him used to going out at extremely regular intervals will help. Dogs love predictability.
posted by phunniemee at 9:26 AM on February 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

You do kind of have to treat him like a puppy--though one with better bladder control (but also a very tiny bladder, given the breed mix).

Typically the first step to training is prevention. Prevent the dog from going inside. Dogs do what works to get them what they want and right now peeing inside works just fine for relief. It's all the same to the dog. To prevent it from happening, you have to watch this dog like a hawk, which may be difficult for you given your current life circumstances. Often what people will do is keep the dog leashed at all times and attach the leash to your belt loop. As soon as the dog gets that "I'm looking for a good spot to let 'er rip" look, scoop up, take outside.

If you're not able to watch, then you must confine. It's up to you whether you want to try a crate (and it's got to be small enough that the dog can't pee in one end and comfortably hang out in the other), or if you want to take the slightly easier (but more confusing for the dog) route of confining to the bathroom with a pee pad (my recommendation if you do this would be to keep that bathroom door closed any time you ARE home). The more you try to take baby steps with the training by having pee pads still around etc..., the more confusing it is for the dog. Really what they're doing here is forming a habit more than "learning" something like we think of humans learning. You'll never logically convince a dog that peeing inside is bad. It's not bad to them. But what you can do is form strong associations in the dog's mind about what happens inside and that way build up a strong habit.

Meanwhile, you have to take the dog outside umpteen times (at first, then decrease once they start to "get it") to increase the probability of it peeing outside as much as possible. Each time it piddles outside: treats. Dog treats must rain from the sky, good things must happen. A favorite toy appears, a walk is taken, something the dog loves that ONLY happens after he's eliminated outside.

A small breed dog, however, is probably not going to realistically be able to hold it for 8 hours. That's a long time for a tiny bladder. Is there a neighbor or someone else around who can take the dog out mid-day?
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:27 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dogs (and cats, and all critters) need to have access to water at all times.

Is there a problem with just continuing to use pee pads? It sounds like he'll use them to do his business if he has access to them...it really could be a lot worse. Is it the principle of it that bothers you? I might not be fully understanding the question, but I'm having trouble seeing what the problem is.

If the issue is that he makes a mess when he uses them, you should consider these ones. This is the only brand that actually absorbs the pee and works as it is intended, in my experience. And if he really does go every two hours, even if he's only seven pounds, I'd recommend getting the super big ones, and maybe leaving two out for him. If the dog can't hold it for more than two hours, I don't really see what training him to tell you when he needs to go would accomplish anyway, it's not like you wouldn't still need to sleep and go to work, you can't take the dog out every two hours. Apologies if I'm not understanding your question!
posted by cakelite at 9:29 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here's a great blog post, complete with videos, on (1) training a dog to eliminate outside and (2) teaching a dog to ring a bell when he/she needs to go out.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:32 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

With kindness, training a dog out of behaviors that work for him in his forever home may be doing yourself a short-term favor while doing his owners a longer term non-favor.

I concur with others that if the dog is getting exercise, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with him peeing/pooping inside and also agree that you should be able to litterbox train him so that this is simpler for you to manage. And possibly having someone come and walk the dog once during the day to reduce reliance on when he needs to pee inside. And lastly, you may want to just get him checked out to make sure things are okay with him? While eight hours is a long time for a pet to go without peeing during the day, at night when they're asleep it's not outside the realm of normal (take him out right before bed ad again when you wake up with a pee pad for accidents) so you can get him more used to a peeing/pooping routine that doesn't include the indoors but anything that convinces him that peeing/pooping indoors is "bad" (or forming a negative association as soren_lorensen) says may not be in the best long term interests of the dog.
posted by jessamyn at 9:45 AM on February 21, 2017 [18 favorites]

This is a pretty practical 101 for housetraining an older dog.

It's just a reinforced habit. The only exception I take to the above guide is where she says "When your dog has finished toileting praise him but do not get overly excited." I mean, don't scare him, but dogs are super-attuned to your mood, even at levels you don't think they would be, so make sure your entire being exudes *thrilled* when he potties outside even if you don't say anything but a quiet "good potty" or whatever your trigger phrase is. Dogs want to please you, it's a reward when you are pleased.

On the flip side, don't be scary when there's an accident inside. If you didn't see it, just clean it up and move on. If you can disrupt (some dogs can't stop once they start, but if you can call or clap or offer a treat to go outside right then, do) in a neutral way and get him outside, that's helpful, but don't be menacing. They sense it.

But, with an older dog, this can take months. You're not going to do these things for 3-4 days and be done with it. One of my dogs came to us as a young adult, untrained and somewhat mistreated and it took 18 months to get 100% compliance, but she hasn't gone inside except for a couple of diarrhea incidents in 8+ years. (She still doesn't know how to ask to go out - if we're not on the couch, she gets near a wall or furniture and hits her tail on it until we get annoyed, and if we are on the couch she gets up next to us and tries to punch us in the face, so...dogs are weird, you take the good with the bad sometimes.)
posted by Lyn Never at 9:47 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

And yes, as Jessamyn says, you're not doing anybody any favors training the dog out of something they're going to be expected to do again in the future. I am operating under the assumption that you are operating under the assumption that this is probably forever, in which case go ahead and housebreak him.

But if he's going to go back to pads, you need to keep letting him use them. You can walk him at times you're likely to strike gold (dogs poop when they get a little exercise, generally, so it's likely to happen when you go walkies, and of course there's all that pee-mail they have to send while they're out and about) but you need to not ever take away the pads or discourage him from using them when he does use them, if he's going to have to use them exclusively again in the future.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:50 AM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Dogs absolutely need access to water at all times!

I know lots of small dogs who regularly have access to wee pads. Think of it like a cat with a litter box. It's way better than accidents scattered all over the house NOT on disposable pads.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:07 AM on February 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

A dog that pisses every two hours is not going to become a dog that pisses every eight hours - at least not easily, and not without discomfort. What you're suggesting is not very kind to the dog.

I mean, you can probably train the dog to go outside, and you can probably stretch the intervals between bathroom breaks. But eight hours is not realistic. If you want the dog to go outside, you need to find someone who can take him out during the day - at least one time, and possibly more depending on his bladder.

I'm sure you've been in a situation where you have desperately needed a piss, but for some reason weren't able to. It's not very pleasant, right? And it's not very good for your health if it happens a lot.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:36 AM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Very few small dogs can go eight hours without peeing. If you are wanting to train him out of the pee pads you are going to need to arrange to have him walked pretty much every 2-3 hours or have a dog door & a securely fenced yard.

You can encourage him to prefer to go out side to minimse your clean ups. By the simple method of taking him outside a LOT start every half hour or so & praise the every loving bejesus out of him for peeing outside, if he poops then praise him like he pooped gold. Seriously go over the top lots of treats etc. Continue & slowly expand the times between visits outside. Keep the pee pads down during this time. This would be a good compromise as you are not training him out of one solution, just expanding his range to include another one, so this won't effect his old owners if/when he gets to go home.

If he doesn't get to go home then you can slowly ween him off the pads by reducing the times of day they are down to only when you are out of the house or at night. If you are leaving him for eight hours you are going to want to keep him pad trained to avoid finding surprises when you get home, he's not going to last eight hours, very few dogs that small could, you may be able to get that out to 4 hours, but 2 is probably more reasonable.

Please don't cut back on his water, small dogs can dehydrate & die from that dehydration very quickly as they have no reserves.

Having the pee pads out is going to decrease accidents, unless you are considering the doing it on the pad an accident. You have to remember to the dog he is doing exactly what he's been taught to do.
posted by wwax at 11:05 AM on February 21, 2017

Wow, thanks for the perspectives so far! As you can tell, I know nothing about small dogs. It's a totally valid point that what I'm asking for may be impossible with a dog this small, and that since he may return to his original home it may not even make sense to break this habit.

The pee pads are kind of gross to me and I hate that it's taking over my already-small bathroom, but maybe I need to try different ones and get creative with containment methods (love the litter box idea).

I will continue to leave the water out 24/7 as well. I figured as much given my knowledge of cats but its good to be sure!
posted by joan_holloway at 11:50 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I adopted my dog when she was three. She had been trained to use litter pads, and i tried to train her out of it, but she never quite got the hang of realizing she had to go before it was an emergency, so we went back to the pads. You're right that they're gross, but...
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:11 PM on February 21, 2017

When my cat was too old to climb in and out of his litter box, we used pee pads placed in a washing machine tray. The tray protected our flooring, was big enough to contain wide-aiming issues, and could be taken outside and hosed down if needed. Maybe a temporary alternative if you have space?
posted by platinum at 2:32 PM on February 21, 2017

It depends on your house, as well. I don't know how it is set up. Do you have your own backyard? If so, that's simple. Pee pad by the door (sliding glass door even better).. and whenever they go to the door, just open it and let them out.

Also, there's nothing wrong with a little treat (small goldfish cracker or something) whenever they go outside in the right place.

Vigilance is key in the beginning.. You have to be on your game as much as possible.. as soon as they hit that door-you need to be up and open it. Treat for every time they do get outside before using the pad. Once they get the hang of it, you can start with a bell they can ring to alert you.

If you're in an apartment, then, well, that makes it tougher.
posted by rich at 4:18 PM on February 21, 2017

To reduce gross factor and further contain potential messes, I'm a fan of this silicone pee pad holder.

I have three little dogs, my 30 lb pack, aged 8 to 14. The tiniest is a 7lb tripod shelter rescue who came to us at age 5. Despite 4-5 walks a day, she has never quite mastered housebreaking. She still tries, usually making it to the doorway before she just can't wait for someone to arrive with a leash. We started leaving a pee pad near the door, which she quickly took to. However, sometimes she'd just barely make it to the edge of the pad and ... messy leaks. This holder solved that problem, as the holder lets you secure a pad with a slight upward curl on the edges, and also has its own lip that contains any spillage.

As the pack has aged, it has become obvious that she isn't the only one using the pad at night. The pad now moves at bedtime, to the hallway just outside the bedroom door. It's easier on seniors who truly want to be "good dogs" but (like their mom) don't have the urgency control they had when they were younger. As long as they always can count on the pad being where they expect, I can count on wrapping up dirty pads, rather than cleaning rugs.
posted by peakcomm at 9:57 AM on February 23, 2017

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