Housetraining is one of the most frustrating behavior problems owners face. I think what makes it such a heartache for so many is the need to always be "on." It's not like training Sit or Down where you decide to work on it for 10 minutes six times a week. It's a day-in-day-out thing until the dog gets it.
But don't fear! Your dog can learn! Read on to learn how.
The formula for getting dogs to pee and poo where they're supposed to looks like this:
Prediction + Supervision + Reinforcement = Housetrained
Accurately predicting when he needs to go, means you can get him in the right place at the right time. Lucky for us, prediction is usually easy!
Adult dogs: When housetraining an adult dog, it's best to get a baseline for his level of housetraining by taking him out every hour. From there, you can increase the interval by 30 to 60 minutes at a time depending on the dog. How often you increase the interval depends entirely on how successful the dog has been.
In terms of long-term or a "finished" interval, I generally think about how often I use the restroom and extend the same courtesy to my doggy friends. Even then, different dogs have different bladder and bowel needs. One of my boarders would hold it 12 hours by choice despite having plenty of toileting opportunities! Not all dogs are like this.
Puppies. Puppies aren't physically capable of "holding it" like an adult dog. This means they must be taken out quite frequently and that you can be doing everything right and still have to clean up some accidents (fewer than otherwise, though!).
The most conservative timing guideline is one hour for every month (i.e. an 8 week old pup can physically hold it for two hours).
When the pup is outside his crate, I take him to toilet every 20 to 30 minutes (usually closer to 20 minutes after eating or drinking). If he’s playing, he needs to go out more frequently.
Most pups can usually hold it much longer overnight. Again, it will vary puppy to puppy, but on average, plan to get up at least once or twice in the night to facilitate a toilet break for the first few weeks.
This is the second most important part of keeping accidents to a minimum. Supervision happens in two areas:
Indoors. Although you'll be faithfully planning to predict your dog's toileting needs, there can still be the occasional off-schedule need--especially during the early stages. Supervision allows you to either: a) spot the pre-toilet signs (see below) and take the pup out, or b) interrupt and hurry the pup outside to finish.
Baby-gates and ex-pens are, hands-down, my favorite way to make supervision as easy as possible.
Outdoors. Prediction only works if you know when your dog last toileted. Unless you've got secret super-powers (watch out Marvel and DC!), that only happens if you go outside with the dog and watch him eliminate. PRO TIP: I recommend practicing toileting both on and off-leash to cover your bases for future needs.
Give your dog extra incentive to do his business outside. As soon as he finishes toileting, throw a verbal happy party and feed him three treats in a row. Make sure to do this outside so your dog will understand he's getting the treats for toileting.
"What about when my dog has an accident?" If you see him start to have an accident, as calmly but urgently as possible, hurry him outside to finish; consider reducing the toilet-break interval if this happens more than three times in a row. If you find an accident, clean it thoroughly with enzymatic cleanser (like Nature's Miracle) and figure out how your supervision slipped.
That old advice about whacking him with a newspaper or rubbing his nose in the mess is a bunch of whooey, and will make your housetraining infinitely harder. (Ask me about the dog who wouldn't defecate on-leash next time we get together)
"What about a dog door?" Wait to start this until after the dog is reliably housetrained. Dog doors make prediction and accurate reinforcement impossible.
"I want my dog to signal me when he needs to go." More than likely, he is already signalling! Here are pre-toileting signs to watch for:
Activity interruption. Was your puppy chewing cheerfully on his No-Hide and then got up and started wandering around? Take him out.
Frantic movement. This doesn't have to be an all-out wide-eyed rush around the house, but a simple trotting around the room.
Individuality. Your dog may have his own quirks that signal impending release. Go out with him every time he toilets and you'll begin to notice patterns in his body language.
Signals that have to be taught (such as bells or barks or spins) should be saved until after the dog is consistently toileting in the right place.
"How long does it take before they’re housetrained?" Longer than most people wish. Aside from the occasional oddball in either direction, plan for at least several months of success before awarding your dog the Housetrained badge.
"Can I just send my dog to a trainer and let them housetrain?" A trainer can housetrain your dog, but the dog will only be housetrained in the trainer's house. There's no guarantee those skill will transfer to your home. I've boarded dogs who had lots of accidents at their house, but had zero problems whatsoever at my house.
"My adult dog is housetrained, but she's started peeing in the house. How do I fix that?" If a previously reliable dog starts having accidents, we typically look at medical causes first. Get him into the vet for a check-up.
If that's all clear, then we look at recent changes in the home environment that might be creating stress and then try to relieve some of that stress.
In the absences of medical problems or new stressors in the home, we treat him like a puppy and re-housetrain.