Housebreaking 102: The Buddy System

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This guest blog was written by one of our volunteers, Brittany.

Phoenix is a two-year-old Pomeranian that I adopted after seeing an ad on a local website. He was the product of an unplanned litter and he is definitely the most loving dog I have ever encountered.  He loves taking walks, hiking, and playing fetch.

Phoenix came into my life with a couple of “behavior” problems.  First, he wasn’t house trained. Second, he had severe separation anxiety. These two problems are amongst some of the most significant reasons why owners give up their dogs. I’ll get to his separation anxiety another time.

Today, I am proud to say, Phoenix is officially housebroken.  He was trained in a little over a week.  How did I do this? Well, I am going to tell you.


Phoenix as a puppy

When I first brought Phoenix home, I was living in a small studio apartment, with an even smaller concrete balcony. Phoenix would lift his leg and pee on everything. He peed on my bed, my desk, the toilet, you name it. When I brought him outside to the balcony, he refused to pee.

I read some books about housebreaking and took their advice. I took him on frequent walks – if I was home from work, we were walking. On our walks, Phoenix would mark everything in sight. I thought there is absolutely no way he has any urine left inside of him. My problem was solved!  However, as soon as we walked back into the apartment, he peed on the coffee table leg.

I tried every trick in the book. Frequently taking him out and giving him treats and praise when he went. Immediately scolding him and saying NO when he would lift his leg indoors.  None of it worked. When I moved back home with my parents, we tried a new method that they had used on their dog, Butters. Phoenix now not only goes outside, but does it in a designated area, on command. Yes, he pees and poops, on command. Here’s how we did it.

1. The Buddy System

I know this may sound extreme, but believe me it is necessary. When Phoenix was inside the house, we kept him tethered to one of us at all times. This gives you as the owner the ability to keep an eye on your furry friend while taking care of business around the house. As time goes on, you can start to loosen the leash, so-to-speak, and give them less supervision.

pomeranina lying on the floor

Phoenix using “the buddy system”

2. The “Potty Spot”

Along with keeping your dog next to you inside the house, you must also designate a “potty spot.” To do this, you do not, I repeat, do not let your dog have free roam of the backyard when you are trying to get them to do their business. You must take your dog out on a leash to the spot that you want to designate as their “potty spot.” This tells your dog that this is where he goes, and not anywhere else.

3. “Go Potty”

This is an important tip when housebreaking your dog. When you take your dog to the designated potty spot, say “go potty.” You can use whatever verbal cue you like as long as it’s consistent.

Your dog is probably going to look at you curiously. Rest assured they will soon know exactly what you mean!  As you walk them around the potty spot, continue to say, “Go potty.” When your dog finally “goes potty,” immediately praise him in unison with the phrase “good potty.” This associates the action that your dog just did with the term “potty.”

pomeranian using a dog door

4. Treats and Praise

With any type of training, positive reinforcement, praise and treats are important factors. Your dog begins to realize that when they “go potty,” you are happy with them, and they get something yummy. They also learn that in order to receive this treat and praise, they must go in the designated “potty spot.”

5. Correcting Unwanted Behavior

Lastly, you must correct unwanted behavior BEFORE it occurs. This is why the buddy system is necessary.  If you see your dog starting to lift his leg somewhere besides the potty spot, immediately pick them up, take them to the potty spot, and again say “go potty.” A dog’s memory does not go beyond a few seconds. This is why scolding your dog after the fact in not effective. They do not connect the scolding to the action. If you interrupt them during the deed, they are able to realize that their behavior is unwanted.

pomeranian with a stuffed monkey

So happy to be housebroken!

Many people believe that after your dog is no longer a puppy, the housebreaking becomes more difficult. Phoenix is a great example that this notion is just not true! I’m not saying it’s easy. House training takes a diligent effort from all members of the household. After a week of 100% dedication to this method, Phoenix gladly goes out his doggy door, to his potty spot, all on his own. He has not had one accident indoors.  All I have to do is point to his potty spot, and he will go and do his doggy business before prancing back inside to collect his treat and praise.

Read more articles about housebreaking articles in our pet care section.


20 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    Thanks for sharing your tips. I have tethered my girl for a very long time, several months. She did good for awhile but is now having accidents again. I am going to go back to tethering and try a crate/playpen for when I am gone. Brittany, your Phoenix and my dog could be twins! And my girl has severe separation anxiety in addition to the potty problems. They could be related! Nice to know there is hope. I am tired of cleaning up her messes.

  2. Claudette says:

    How do you tether a puppy? What do I need to buy and where do I get it? Thanks!

  3. Lisa says:

    thank you Annie

  4. Lisa says:

    Great tips. Once the dog pees inside they will no longer have to go. So when you bring them outside and they don’t go, what does that each them? How long do you wait outside for them to go? Thank you

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Lisa, by using the buddy system, you should be able to get them BEFORE they pee inside. Try taking a 15 to 20 minute walk instead of standing and waiting around, walking stimulates a dog’s system and smelling other scents encourages them to remark the area.

  5. Ashley says:

    Thank you so much! As a foster, we have problems with housebreaking all the time. We’re struggling right now, too. We will try to implement your strategies. One question- What about when you’re gone? Our 2 small foster dogs have to be crated when we’re at work because otherwise the hawks in the area will get them if kept outside. We’ve noticed they’re peeing in their crate sometimes, too…So we can’t really scold them about it when we aren’t there! If you have any ideas, that would be great. Thank you!

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Ashley, That is a tough one, even though dogs are “hardwired” not to go in their “den” some dogs do anyway. If you have males, have you ever tried a belly band (AKA Tinkle Belt)? I suspect they never completed the housebreaking process so they are confused about what they are supposed to do exactly, and/or, since they are small dogs, they may not be able to hold it for that long. I was surprised to learn that small dogs have to go much more frequently than larger dogs. Age plays a role too. When they are not crated, do they signal to you that they need to go outside? If so, keeping track of how often they ask to go out might give some insight into how long they can hold it. Hope this helps!

  6. dusbal says:

    thanks for all the information guys

  7. Bill Stavers says:

    Hi Annie, in your informative article about house training, you wrote: “If you see your dog starting to lift his leg somewhere besides (other than) the potty spot, immediately pick them up, take them to the potty spot, and again say ‘go potty.’ After 30 years of working with owners in Los Angeles, I’ve one little suggestion: after interrupting a pup from going potty (preferably for sniffing and circling as if getting ready to go,) wait two minutes before taking to the potty zone. Taking the pup immediately to the potty zone transfers the interruption (technically ‘punishment’) to the zone. Which is why owners report that pup won’t go, and then it returns inside and goes! Ideally, after interrupting, wait two minutes, then take the pup to the zone. For dogs to associate two events the events must occur within 2 seconds; to disassociate two events there should be two minutes between them. Hope this helps. Bill

  8. Linda Moore says:

    Wonderful tips .. do you send out emails ?

  9. LuciLu says:

    Sounds like a great system, but how do you make it work with a full time job???

    • Annie M says:

      That is a great question LuciLu, I suggest combining the buddy system with crate training. There may be some helpful information for you in this crate training article. A “crate” can also be a gated off room. Use the crate training methods during the day while you are working and the buddy system when you are home. Hope that helps!

  10. Natalie says:

    Great tips! Thank you!!

  11. wil vinn says:

    took in dog temp. to help sick homeless friend. Dog is great except hates one of our 2 small dogs.Tries to bite it. Other small dog is chihuahua & is dominant over big dog. What is best way to control?Takes all strength to hold dog from trying to (kill?) or at least bite little guy. Thank you. / Question – what is best & safest way to keep newly aquired -taken in on a temporary basis- from trying to kill small dog that has been part of family for years.

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Wil,
      Keep them separated. Gate off rooms with baby gates and keep the dogs secured in separate rooms. By using a gate, the dogs can still see you so that may help lower their anxiety. You can read this article on making introductions to see if there are any helpful tips. If you are only a temporary caregiver, the most important thing is to keep the dogs safe from harm. Hope that helps and that your friend gets back on his feet soon! – Best

  12. Bennett Anderson says:

    Some really amazing tips! I am definitely sharing this with some of my friends who want to adopt a dog but are afraid of training them… Thank you! I couldn’t have explained it better myself.