Why Dog Potty Training Fails: Helping Your Clients Through The Mess

Why Dog Potty Training Fails: Helping Your Clients Through The Mess


One of the most frequent problems dog training professionals face is potty training failure. Clients are getting incomplete information from a number of sources: online searches, Veterinarians, friends, and previous experience. A lot of these sources conflict, so clients are cobbling together a plan and it doesn’t always work. Let’s help them out.

Potty Training Basics

At it’s core, potty training is teaching dogs that when they feel pressure in their bladder or bowels they go to a specific place to relieve it. This requires some specific skills, both on the human and dog end.

Dog Potty TrainingHuman Skills:

  • Predict when there is a high probability of the dog needing to relieve themselves.
  • Showing the dog where they would like the dog to relieve themselves.
  • Teaching a signal that dog can use to ask to go to the location.
  • Reinforcing the dog for relieving themselves in the correct location.
  • Looking at failure as a failure in the plan, not in the dog.

Dog Skills:

  • Must have muscle tone enough to hold urine or feces long enough to get to the proper location.
  • Must know the route to the proper location from all household locations.
  • Must be able to signal to humans to open a door if a dog door is not available.
  • Must be able to recognize the substrate as something they can relieve themselves on.

The Problem With Potty Pads

One of the most frequent problems I see is when clients are using potty pads. They’re using pads for a number of reasons, so asking “why” is very important. A lot of clients are using them because outside is unsafe and they’re waiting for full vaccination before teaching the dog to go out. Some have busy households and they can’t quite spend enough time watching the dog carefully.

First, clients are teaching dogs to go to the wrong location from the beginning. If one of the skills is knowing the proper route to the appropriate place, they’re teaching the wrong one. Clients also frequently splash potty pads all over the house, so that “one location,” is now understood to be the entire house. If the client is set on using potty pads make sure it is located as close to the door the dog will need to exit to go out when they are ready.

Second, potty pads contain a “dog attractant.” Since dogs use their sense of smell to tell them where they should relieve themselves, clients are teaching the wrong smell from the beginning. If the client is set on using potty pads make sure they use the dog’s scent instead of the attractant to teach them where to go. This means leaving feces and urine for a bit and making sure the pad is large enough for the dog to relieve themselves on the other end.

Finally, dogs seem confused by the substrate and similar household items like rugs. The non-woven fabric layer contains cotton, which is also in a lot of rugs and clothing, so there can be confusion when smelling for that perfect spot. Again, scenting the pads can help dogs understand what smell they should be looking for. Translating this to outside, they will mark and over-mark their last spots.

Learning The Routes

Clients are obviously worried about accidents between the time they know the dog has to relieve themselves and getting to the right spot. This means dogs are frequently carried to the spot instead of learning to walk it on their own. This is particularly common with puppies and small dogs.

Make sure the client is letting the dog walk. If they have had problems with accidents make it a fun Run To The Door party, so the dog is learning to walk or run quickly to the exit. Make sure the client is doing this from multiple locations in the house, not just the pen or crate area.

A Really Big Signal

The most common breakdown is when dogs need to ask the human to open a door so they can get to the right location. Most people expect dogs to figure this out themselves, but what ends up happening is a quiet dog sitting next to a door that no one sees. Dogs also come up with destructive signals such as scratching or loud barking.

Talk about what works for your client. Bells in either manual or electronic form almost always work and can travel with clients on vacations and outings if needed. Some clients like the bark, so teaching the dog to Speak! would be needed. No matter what the signal, it’s important to teach it as a separate skill. Signal = Door Opens.

Teaching a bell is great for passive learning. The human rings the bell, opens the door, and takes the dog out. Most dogs learn that the bell opens the door in a week or two all on their own. If you need to teach the bell ringing as a skill, watch the dog interact with some targets first. Do they use their nose or their paw? Choose the one they use most often and make sure the bell is hung low enough for them to use that body part.

Make sure clients aren’t asking for a Sit before the door opens unless the door opens into an unsafe environment. We want the Signal to mean the door opens, and asking for patience with a sit may delay the door opening to the point of an accident happening.

Understanding The Right Spot

There are a myriad of reasons why a dog might not want to use the right spot to relieve themselves. Substrate preference, wetness, competing smells, and fear responses can impede potty training to the right location.

If at all possible start training on the substrate the client would like them to eventually use. If you’re training a puppy or small dog without muscle tone to hold it yet, still try to replicate the substrate. This means instead of potty pads you’re going to use a litter box with the appropriate material. Sod pieces and gravel are much easier to clean and cheaper to replace than potty pads. In a perfect world this is close to the eventual exit door, but puppies may need one close to their sleeping location for middle of the night potty breaks.

It’s important to keep the right location scented but clean. This means not picking feces up right away so the area is scented, but no leaving it so long that the area is soiled. If there is more than one dog in the household make sure that they both are comfortable using the area. Some dogs aren’t keen to over-mark other dogs, so they may need their own spot. If there is wildlife in the area, make sure the area is cleaned or watered a few times a week if the dog is suddenly reluctant to go when they had previously gone.

Outdoors can be scary. Dogs outside during fireworks or thunder or trash trucks can associate the location they heard the sound with the sound. Dogs can also be afraid of the dark, so they may go out during the day but after dark have a problem. Dissecting fear responses can take some time, but desensitizing the sound or adding more light in the yard can get the dog back to a place of feeling safe.

Distractions can impede potty training. Be sure that during the learning phase that Door Opens = Go Potty First is taught from the beginning. Getting to sniff and zoom and play should come after they’ve relieve themselves. This may mean using a leash to prevent the dog getting distracted until potty has happened, then the leash comes off and the dog can roam and play as they like. For some dogs coming back in is boring, so make sure you pay attention to what the dog is communicating about staying outside vs. going inside. If they are reluctant to go back inside, make inside play time. Toys fly, food mysteriously appears to be hunted, and it’s fun to be indoors.


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  • Anna Sakila

    Thank for the article. I think dog skills are very important because that is the reason why some dogs are potty geniuses but others aren’t. Some dogs have it and some don’t. I’ve had three dogs in my lifetime and I’m split down the middle on how they learned. One of them were easy and the others were not. Still love them all though.