Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Potty Time! (Less mess, less stress...)

Potty training is a very popular and widely-covered subject when it comes to dog care, so there isn't much that I can add that you probably haven't heard before. Most trainers and dog owners are beginning to understand that the emphasis should not be on punishing the dog but on rewarding him/her for getting it right. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that the process of getting your dog to go in the appropriate place can be long, difficult, and stressful. When looking for a rescue dog, many people add "potty trained" to the top of their list. But what if it wasn't so stressful? How many more dogs would be adopted or not ever abandoned if their owners knew how to handle this subject?

Part of the frustration can be eliminated by being prepared and having realistic expectations. Some dogs learn very quickly while others can take a very long time to master the concept. Then again, most of the slow learners I've met were also getting very mixed signals from their handlers. Many owners think that they are sending clear signals when they actually aren't, and that is the first thing that has to be addressed. Limit how many signals you're trying to send. We tend to talk to our dogs way too much when it comes to training, especially this type of training. (Ever lean over a fresh spot on the carpet, cleaning it vigorously and finding seven ways to ask your dog why she had to do such a thing?) Your dog doesn't know English (or at least, not much of it). While she knows she's in major trouble when you eventually find the spot, she doesn't know that she was in trouble from the moment she made that spot unless you were there to catch her in the act. Calmly and firmly tell your dog "No" and take her outside if you catch her making a mistake, but don't dwell on just this. The real training happens when she's getting it right.

Cricket asks, "Cricky do good??"

And, here's the twist to my tale... you don't have to have treats ready or throw a verbal party so big that your dog stops mid-pee to join in the fun. You heard me correctly....and I am almost contradicting what I myself have taught in the past. I am NOT saying that this is the wrong thing to do by any stretch of the imagination. If your dog responds to a big party then by all means throw it! If a treat is working for you then keep up the fabulous work! It's never a bad thing to use positive reinforcement and clear communication to teach your dog what you want him/her to do. However, there are more powerful, yet subtle influences at work in the potty training game that we seldom take the time to think about or teach.

If you are following all of the necessary steps of keeping your dog from having accidents to begin with (using a crate when you can't actively supervise, putting a routine in place, and making sure your dog is getting enough potty breaks) then your pet's reward is going to be the opportunity to relieve herself all on its own. In training, this is one of those "life rewards" that will reinforce a behavior naturally. The dog needs to potty and wants to potty so you take it outside and let it do just that. Voila! Reinforcement of the behavior. And you know what reinforcement means? You've made this a behavior that your dog is far more likely to repeat. With time, she will repeat it without all the other rules of confinement and supervision attached. Outside will become the place of great relief and happiness and so she will seek it out for that purpose when the need arises.

This obviously still takes time and patience on your part (dogs do learn from repetition), but the more we understand a behavior the less we stress over when it's going to start "working" or why it's not. The patience that I have in my classes is something that comes from knowing that the dog is going to figure out what we want. I can see the tiny little signs that a dog is catching onto something even if he/she doesn't completely get it right there on the spot. There is a sort of song and dance we play with timing and repetition and I know that if we (myself and/or the dog's owner) find that particular rhythm then we'll see that little sparkle that comes to a dog's eyes the moment it finally "gets it." That is by far my favorite moment during training. There's nothing more exciting! Especially when the lesson learned is to not use the house as a toilet. :)

So, if you're one of the many people struggling to potty train your dog just take a deep breath and let go of the frustration. Accidents will happen along the way but you can (and should!) eliminate most of them with supervision and crate time. If you're hesitant about using a crate because it seems cruel, imagine the cruelty six months from now when your dog is still making mistakes and you've gotten so frustrated that you decide it has to be confined anyway. Crate training now means a LOT more freedom later. For those of you going "Omg I've been trying forever now and accidents are still happening" then I'm going to ask you the same thing I once asked a class out of frustration (because with some people, I admit that I don't always see the signs that they are ever going to "get it"): Is it a supervision issue? 

Yeah...no one likes to hear that. But the truth shall set you free and if you were too busy cooking to watch the dog (or puppy) then someone else should have been doing just that. Or, the dog should have been crated. We don't want your pet perpetually confined, but that is another tangent for another day that pretty much boils down to finding ways to more actively involve your dog in your every day life.

If crate training isn't possible for some reason, look into alternatives. For smaller dogs (if you're ok with this potentially being a very long term scenario) litter training can be a fabulous option. Larger dogs can often make use of a dog-proofed smaller room (such as a kitchen or bathroom) as "their space" when you're not able to supervise.

Set your routine, reinforce by getting your dog out as soon as it needs to go, and relax. It does happen as long as your are consistent.

For more information on alternative methods, feel free to leave me a comment or send an email to terri@alessoninphysics.com.

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