Teaching pets the difference between your home and a toilet


File photo. File photo.

Watching a happy puppy or kitten bounce around the living room, it’s hard to imagine anything that isn’t perfectly adorable about your new friend. Of course, the first time you find a pile of poop under the coffee table, you might adjust your assessment. And then you step barefoot in a warm puddle on your way to make breakfast. And then you have to throw out the ruined throw pillow. And…why did we get one of these things again?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Housetraining may take some time, and there are bound to be a few mistakes along the way, but a few simple pointers can help prevent eight months of frustration and carpet-cleaning.

Litter training a kitten is generally straightforward. Put a litter pan out, and show your kitten where it is. That usually does it. Honestly. It may be worth limiting your kitten’s range for a few days so she doesn’t discover any alternatives (flower pots are a common favorite). Cleaning the box every day will help make sure that she doesn’t get disgusted with her accommodations. And if you have more than one cat in the house, extra litter pans can prevent messy turf wars.

Dogs, as you’ve probably guessed (or experienced), are a bit trickier. The good news is that they inherently want to do the right thing. If your dog is still relieving himself in the dining room, it’s not that he hates you. It’s that he genuinely doesn’t understand what you want him to do. The old standbys of yelling and rubbing his nose in it are not only ineffective, they are entirely counterproductive. He isn’t making the connection you think he’s making. All your dog will learn is that you can sometimes be really mean for no apparent reason, and that’s an awful lesson to teach your new friend.

In most circumstances, crate training is the best way to get dogs squared away on bathroom etiquette. Many people are turned off by crate training out of a misunderstanding of what it is, so let’s clarify something straight away: The crate is not a punishment for making a mistake. That, in fact, is the last thing you want the crate to be. A dog’s crate should always be a peaceful resting place, and not a threatening prison.

The logic of crate training is simple. Dogs generally don’t want to soil their own beds. A properly-sized crate (one which gives them just enough room to stand up and turn around) keeps them from having accidents when you aren’t looking. This means that the only time they get a chance to go is under your supervision, which means you can focus more on praising them for doing it right, and less on getting angry when they do it wrong.

Younger puppies really shouldn’t be left in their crates for more than three hours or so. Those tiny bladders can’t hold much, and while your puppy may not want to soil her bed, she eventually won’t have much choice. And a word on leaving “pee-pads” available indoors—it’s best not to use them at all. They may seem convenient at first, but they will inadvertently train your dog to go whenever she sees fit, and that confusion makes housetraining more difficult in the long run.

If a pet seems unusually resistant to housetraining, it may be a signal that something is wrong. Bladder infections and intestinal parasites are common in puppies and kittens, and can make it much more difficult for your pets to control themselves. These problems are easy to diagnose and treat, and a call to your veterinarian may prevent a great deal of unwarranted frustration.
Nobody could ever accuse housetraining of being fun, but keeping the process clear, consistent, and fair will help make sure it doesn’t last any longer than it has to. The sooner you get through this, the sooner you and your pet can relax and focus on enjoying each others’ company. Not to mention all the money you’ll save on cleaning supplies.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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