It never fails, when people see that cartoon smile on a gladiator of a dog, they can't resist rescuing the American Pit Bull Terrier (abbr. APBT also known as the American Staffordshire Terrier or AmStaff). But once they get home they may find the lovable cast-away ill-trained, possibly confused and anxious because of the rapid change in circumstances and consequently eliminating all over the house. Adoption centers have pit bulls of all ages, genders, temperaments, and sizes. Whether you adopted an adult APBT or bought a puppy from a breeder, this tutorial will walk you through potty training your pitbull, step-by-step.
There are many things you can do to get your dog to eliminate outside, however just because your puppy started peeing outside does not necessarily mean he's trained to NEVER eliminate inside. A fully trained dog should never eliminate or "mark his territory" in the house, on a walk, or while working. He must know where his elimination zone is and be able to signal his handler when he needs to go.
Certain dogs are more challenging to train than others. The number one consideration when assessing a new dog for training is temperament. Is your dog calm or super energetic; attentive or all over the place; dominant or submissive; aggressive or anxious; mean or fearful? Your approach should differ slightly from dog to dog depending on the dogs temperament. As a breed, pit bulls are confident; their natural temperament is energetic, curious, brave, good-natured, gentle within the family and mildly protective of the family. They are eager to please and fairly intelligent with high pray and pack drives. Pit bulls are a dominant breed; they have a strong will, they love to compete and they have a natural desire to lead the pack.
Leader of the Pack
It is important when working with any dog of any breed or temperament, that you establish yourself as the Alpha, or pack leader. There are easy, non-violent ways to establish this position and it could be the point of its own article. However, in the following paragraphs I will go over some tips that will be useful to you as you get to know your new pit bull.
Avoid commanding or correcting the dog until you've gained his trust. Do not fuss over the dog; be calm and content, but confident that this dog can not change your mood or direction. When you enter the room, let the dog come to you, let him smell and evaluate you. Don't move to much during this evaluation, just let him feel you out. The dog pays very close attention to body language; by invading your space he is attempting to force a reaction out of you so he can gauge your response. You could challenge him (move-in and over the dog) which could make the dog very uncomfortable and liable to bite or attack you. You could submit (move-away or kneel down) but in so doing, you would forfeit the Alpha position to the dog. I recommend that you stand your ground, making it clear that you make your own decisions and are not easily shaken. After about 30 seconds to a minute, move decisively away from the dog to a place where the dog can't follow such as a different room or outside.
Alphas are dogs that make decisive decisions for the whole pack. By first allowing the evaluation, and then deciding when and how to end it, you solidified the notion that you are the decision maker for the pack. Dogs are very comfortable following a confident and capable pack leader. However, if the dog senses weakness in you they may feel the need to take over which could lead to behavioral problems of the most extreme kind.
One of the quickest and most efficient ways to bond with a new pack member is to go on a walk around the new neighborhood. This is a good way to establish your pack and who leads it. Always look directly at your dog's face when teaching or giving a command. Practice getting your dog's attention before giving any commands and figure out some hand gestures to reinforce the commands or help illustrate the lessons. Never make a correction for a behavior that is more than 3-5 seconds old. All corrections need to be quick and immediately follow the behavior you wish to modify. Always stand with good posture, speak clearly and be patient. Remember, you are teaching your dog something new and he does not speak your language. Barking out orders and then punishing the dog until he finally figures out what you want is a miserable way for your dog to learn and is not much fun for you either. Be patient but persistent; calm but assertive.
Some dogs might eliminate in the house in defiance of your authority, others may suffer from physical health problems or severe anxiety; and of course, there are those that simply were never taught where to eliminate in the first place. It is important to establish whether your new dog's accidents stem from an underlying health or behavior problem, or lack of training. Find out as much as you can from the previous owners/handlers. In the case of a stray, or if there is no information on your adopted pet, proceed with the potty training method. The structure of the course will add stability to the dog's life; often times this is all that's needed. If the situation does not get better, or gets worse, call a professional to help identify the underlying problem. This article will focus on potty training techniques for the rescued pit bull.
Before You Begin
Before you can bring home your new pit bull, you must have two main areas clearly defined: the comfort zone and the elimination zone. The comfort zone is located inside the house and the elimination zone is a specific area outside of the house. Sometimes it helps to put colored rope or sand on the ground to clearly define the elimination zone.
A correctly sized kennel makes a perfect comfort zone inside the house. When purchasing a kennel for a full size pit bull you will want a heavy-duty medium to large-sized kennel depending on the size of your dog. For a puppy you will want a much smaller kennel. Dogs seem to feel more comfortable and relaxed in a snug kennel rather than in a super spacious one. Make sure it is just big enough for the dog to turn around within the kennel and sleep comfortably.
In order for your training to stick, it is also important to have a powerful reward for when your pitty goes potty correctly. A treat or a special toy makes a great reward to use in training. If your going to use a toy, make sure it is durable; pit bulls have very powerful jaws and will go through a tennis ball in minutes. That being said, I have used tennis balls with tremendous success. They are cheap enough to replace and if you use them right, you can make them last. I only stopped using them because I read that the glue used to make the balls eats away at the dogs enamel. Make sure that whatever toy you get will stand up to the wear and tear that your pitty will inflict. This may take some experimentation.
Hot dogs are great, inexpensive treats for you and your pit bull. If you get well-made, free range, organic turkey hot dogs, they will serve as a very healthy supplement to you dogs diet. Dogs seem to love hot dogs more than any "dog" treat on the market. In over 10 years of training dogs; I have met vegetarian dogs, dogs that only eat raw meat and veggies, little dogs and great big ones. All of them loved hot dogs.
When I train my dogs, I use toys more than treats, but I always use good positive support and praise. Some people say to praise generously; I say praise naturally. Your pit just made your life easier by eliminating in the correct zone, so thank him, tell him good job, but don't go overboard. Don't talk in a super high pitch voice, don't clap, don't dance... just be supportive and grateful and praise naturally. Remember, pit bulls tend to be easily excitable. If you praise too loudly or excitedly you can cause a manic episode in your pit bull that could interfere with training and might cause certain dogs to nip or bite.
Why use the kennel?
In the wild, adult wolves establish a designated area for elimination away from sleeping, feeding, and high traffic areas. This characteristic has apparently been passed on to domesticated dogs because they also naturally keep their sleeping area and eliminating area separate. The kennel, resembling a den, makes the perfect comfort zone.
If you dedicated an entire bedroom to serve as the "den", the dog could sleep in the closet and poop and pee everywhere else as is usually the case with an untrained dog. By using a kennel, we make sure that there is only enough room in the den for sleeping, encouraging the dog to hold his elimination until he gets let out. Additionally, we have the option to shut and lock the kennel door eliminating the possibility of getting distracted while your new pet pees all over your new plant. Locked in the kennel, he will get antsy and wine before he allows an accident on his own bed. This reaction will become your dog's way of indicating he needs to go out, even long after you get rid of the kennel.
Why pick a specific spot?
By establishing an elimination zone, you not only save most of your yard from land bombs and urine burns, but clean up is not as crucial and when it does come time to pick it up its all in one spot.
Where is the best place for the kennel?
There are a couple of things to consider when placing your kennel. Part of the training method will allow your pit time out of the kennel but only in the same room as the kennel. The room should have hard surface floors to make cleaning up accidents easier. The room should be heated as well; pit bulls do not do well in cold weather. Also the room should be away from sleeping and study areas because some pits become very vocal when put in a kennel. I used the back entry way leading from outside into my kitchen. There is a closet which I turned into a "den" and the floor is linoleum. To let the dogs out, I only needed to open the back door and accidents were easily cleaned up. When I wanted to give the little rascals some exploration outside the "den" I simply opened the inside door into the kitchen. This worked out great because it was literally a walk-in kennel.
Introducing the Kennel
Start by making the kennel comfy. Don't use too much padding, dogs don't seem to like it, and if there is an occasional accident, it's a lot harder to clean. Place a mat, layered towels or an old blanket inside to provide soft, washable bedding. If you are using a wire kennel, cover the top with a blanket to block out the light making it more "den" like. Covering the kennel also limits what the dog could see when inside the kennel which will help keep him relaxed and quiet.
Be excited about the new kennel and if it's big enough, get in it and then invite your dog in. For a more timid or scared dog, you may need to entice them further with a treat or toy. When your dog comes in congratulate him according to his energy. If your dog seems apprehensive, praise him gently and encouragingly. If your dog is too rambunctious, try to settle him by being calm with your approach. Your goal is to get your dog to come in and get comfy. You want your dog to love his new bedroom but be able to relax in it as well! Always stay positive and avoid any corrections during this introduction.
Be especially careful not to accidentally correct your dog. For example, if your pit comes in licking you all over your face, try to avoid screaming "STOP LICKING ME!" The dog might think your yelling because he came into, what is currently, your personal space. He might turn tail and run and not want to try again. Instead, try turning your head slightly and calmly say, "okay, good boy", as you scoot out handing the space over to your dog. This gives him possession of a space within your home and a little control over a portion of his life. Sit in the opening of the kennel blocking the door, but don't shut the door right away. See if you can get your dog to lie down. Talk calmly and soothingly if possible. If your dog tries to come out, put a hand on his chest and say, "No, Stay", "Down", and pat the bedding.
Whenever your dog goes in praise him accordingly but remember, not like your team just won the Superbowl; always be calm and supportive, in control of your emotions and appreciative of his intelligence. This is the temperament of a good and capable pack leader.
Don't Mix Business and Pleasure
Now that you have this convenient tool in your home, you might be tempted to use the kennel for punishment. Don't do that. First of all, dogs don't understand the concept of paying for a past crime. Behavior modification is achieved through making mostly subtle corrections at the precise moment the unwanted behavior is occurring. Secondly, this is your dog's comfort zone, he must love it in there. By using the kennel for punishment you will quickly make it the uncomfortable zone and you will always have to fight your dog to go in.
Never force your dog in the kennel and never leave your dog in the kennel for long enough to have an accident. Both of these situations will only make your dog resent the kennel. Avoid closing the door immediately after the dog goes in. Closing the gate hard, or too quickly can create anxiety in the dog. We don't want the dog to be anxious in his kennel, we need him to feel relaxed in the kennel so that when the urge to eliminate causes distress, we notice the clear difference in mood. Wait until your dog has relaxed and then gently close the gate.
Structure the dogs day
- 8am: Your dog has been in the kennel for hours now and will probably have to eliminate right away. Open the kennel, put the leash on your dog and walk briskly out the door and straight to the elimination zone. Walk with purpose, don't dilly-dally. If your Pitty is a puppy, you can pick him up and carry him to the spot to help prevent an accident on the way. When you get to the spot your dog will definitely pee and you will love it! Show your dog how proud you are and give him a treat, but save one for when he poops. When you see him turning circles, sniffing the ground excessively, or otherwise indicating he is going to poop, give a command such as "poop", "get it done", or "handle your business". Doing this will build an association between the command and the bowel movement which is really useful on cold days. If he does not go right away, try a short walk, sometimes a little action helps get the bowels moving. If you see any sign that the dog might need to eliminate get back to the elimination zone immediately. If you miss a sign and your dog goes poop outside, just ignore it, clean it up and forget it happened. You can't use that for training because he didn't do anything bad, but nothing really good either. Save your praise for when he does everything perfectly.
- 8:30 am: Feed and water your dog. Leave him out of the kennel and watch closely in the room nearest the exit. Watch for typical signs of distress such as: wining, sitting at the back door, squatting, or squirting tinkle without fully peeing. If you see any signs of distress take him back to the elimination zone.
- 9:00 am: When you go back in the house you may want to let the dog explore a little more. It is important to monitor this exploration time closely. He may not need to eliminate but might want to mark something, this is the perfect opportunity to correct that behavior. If this happens say, No! Not in the house! and take him back to the elimination zone. Limit the exploration time to one hour or less and for the first week, stay in the one room outside of his comfort zone and/or nearest to the exit.
- 10:00 am: Doggy goes back into the kennel for a nap. This is a good time for you to wash dishes, sort laundry, or check your emails. This is your time but try to keep the dog minimally included. In the very near future, your faithful companion will be at your feet napping or in his designated "spot" while you work. Dogs are social creatures and crave your company. If you can bring your work to the room where your dog is kenneled he would be most appreciative and you will be able monitor your dog as you work. This goes along way towards building a strong, trusting, pack-relationship with your Pitbull. Once in the kennel, leave the dog until he indicates that he may need to eliminate, or anywhere from 2-4 hours before you voluntarily try him again. As a general rule, dogs can hold there bowel movements for as many hours as months they've been alive.
- 12:00 pm: If you are training a puppy, I recommend three feedings per day, and as much as they want. This is a good time to feed a second time. Always allow your dog outside again about a half hour after drinking water. During the half hour after he eats allow him to stay outside the kennel in the designated room for a while. Make sure you are there, interacting with him and watching him for any signs of a potential accident. After about a half-hour, try outside again and then back to the kennel when you come back in.
- 2:00 pm: Take the dog out again. After the dog eliminates in the proper place, reward him by playing with his favorite toy for a long time or going for a walk around the neighborhood, this gives you the opportunity to introduce outside potty training rules. Your dog is not allowed to eliminate everywhere, only in the elimination zone. By letting your dog "mark" your neighborhood as its territory, you may create anxiety and even an aggressive response from other dogs in the neighborhood. The best practice is to keep pee and poop on your own property.
- 6:00 pm: This is a good time for the third feeding. After he eats and drinks try taking him out again in the same way as you did before. Play and explore, but when you are not actively engaged in training or playing, put him in the kennel. Check on him often until you get to know the situation a little better. Pay special attention to how long your pet is able to hold his bladder and bowel movements. Try and pin point times of day when he is most likely to eliminate and structure your schedule around those times. For example, the first thing in the morning, or for puppies 6 months or less, in the middle of the day or night, and within a half hour of drinking water. A fully trained adult Pit Bull with no special needs should be able to eliminate in the morning, and then hold off further elimination until evening.
- 10:00 pm: Before you go to bed take the puppy out again and then back to the kennel for sleep.
- 4:00 am: Set your alarm and take your puppy out again in the middle of the night. In most cases, adult dogs and even adolescent dogs, can hold their bowels and bladder throughout the night without issue.
Of course this schedule is just an example and should be modified to suit you and your pet. An adult dog requires less attention then a puppy because they can hold their elimination longer; however, in the first couple days, regardless of age, keep a close eye on your dog in order to give it the best possible chance to succeed. In general, a full grown pit bull can stay in the kennel for about 6-8 hours comfortably, no problem. I no longer use a kennel but my dog regularly goes 10-12 hours without eliminating and apparently without the need to eliminate.
This video will demonstrate the results of successful training: the signal to go out, known as the "indicator", the command to poop, and the successful elimination.
Accidents are going to happen, but if you keep the proper cleaner and a towel handy, they are no big deal. In fact, I believe that accidents are necessary! Without them we cannot create a lesson. Even if you have your dog on a good schedule and he only eliminates outside, you will never have the chance to tell him that he can't eliminate inside unless he does it a couple of times right in front of you. You need that opportunity to make the training clear and complete.
When you witness an accident, say, "Oh no! Outside!" as you pick him up, or grab his leash if he is too big to carry, and get him to the elimination zone as soon as possible. You can say whatever you want to display your disappointment, but your body language will speak for itself. Say whatever is easiest for you to display disappointment and disapproval without being mean or aggressive. When you get back inside, bring him straight to the kennel, take off his leash and allow him to go in naturally. Then make sure to clean the soiled area well with a disinfectant and odor eliminator such as a product called "What Odor!" or some similar product (vinegar is a very affective odor eliminator as well). Whatever you use, make sure the spot is clean and odor free. Dogs use their keen sense of smell for almost everything they do including finding an appropriate spot to pee. The pheromones in pee and poop stimulates a dog's bladder or bowels. You want to do everything in your power to prevent accidents because praising your dog is so much more fun then scolding your dog.
If you don't actually witness the accident, then you're already too late to make a useful correction. Clean it up as quickly as possible and forget it happened. I am not saying lessons can't be tought at this point, but the lessons taught might not be the ones intended. For example, when the dog looks shameful after you have discovered his poop on the floor, his shame is most likely coming from your reaction to seeing the poop on the floor and not because he knows he did something "bad". If you find the mess later and start yelling at your dog and rubbing his nose in it, he will think you went crazy and will have no idea why you are torturing him. He will not associate the punishment with the act of pooping, but might associate it with you coming home. It may cause the common behavior problem of your dog peeing out of fear every time you come home. This makes potty training so much harder if not impossible.
Eliminating the Kennel
Over the next couple of weeks you will progressively feel more comfortable with your dog's success and may finally decide to replace the kennel with a bed. Start by letting your pet spend more hours outside the kennel. Watch for accidents and prevent them by giving your pet ample opportunity to eliminate in the appropriate zone. After a few days, take the kennel down and use the same bedding, in the same place, for his bed. Close the doors to the room where the dog sleeps, essentially expanding his den. Hopefully the dog will still identify the room as the den and hold elimination until he gets let out. If there is an accident or two; clean, ignore, and proceed with the training. If there are several accidents; clean, ignore and bring back the kennel or make the space smaller. Gradually increase the space until your pet could occupy the house indefinitely without accidents.
Developing the Indicator
At this point, your dog will see the house as his den and realize that elimination must happen outside. But how will your dog let you know when he needs to go out? Before you take your dog out in the morning, wait for him to become slightly agitated. He might wine by the door, or bark. Observe your pet and choose one of his natural behaviors to become the indicator that its time to go out. Whenever he displays this particular agitation, immediately respond with gratitude for the indication and take him out for his reward. Use your common sense to discourage false indicators, such as when your pet is wining at the door 30 minutes after eliminating. He may legitimately need to go again but chances are, he saw how well this worked last time and wants to make you do another "trick". In other words, he may be trying to dominate the situation by demanding that you take him outside. By taking him out at these times you are rewarding his dominance. He has to know that the indicator only means elimination. The more you and your pet get to know each other, the more you will be able to refine his training in this way.
It only takes a couple of days to lay the ground work for potty training and roughly two weeks to solidify it. However, as with any training, the work is never over. You must establish and stick to a solid schedule to maintain the training. Good luck! Feel free to post questions in the comment box below and I will be happy to answer them as best I can.