Housebreaking a Dog…Potty Training a Toddler

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We spent the holiday break doing all the things that many families do in late December: we wrapped and unwrapped, shipped and received, pulled out and put away. We ate, drank, rejoiced, laughed and—just a few times—cried. But of all the 2010 holiday events, one stands out above the rest. Bohdie started toilet training.

OK, it’s not your standard holiday celebration. There are no cards or special ornaments to commemorate it, but as a professional dog trainer well-versed in the techniques used to housebreak puppies and dogs, I’m finding many similarities worth noting. Regular readers of my column know that I often learn worthwhile life lessons from my four-footed clients, and today I’d like to thank all the dogs who have inadvertently contributed to the toilet training of my kids.

Patience. Potty training is hard. This first leap of internal regulation is one gigantic step towards independence. Set aside the time to help your dog or child re-organize their day to include potty trips.

Potty training cannot be rushed. Everyone gets the containment routine in his or her own time. My daughter was late, my son a little early. As a puppy, Whoopsie saw no need to rush and Balderdash, raised for two years in an outdoor kennel and unfamiliar with the niceties of indoor living took…well, let’s just say he took some time. Look for signs of internal regulation before you begin training in earnest: a dry diaper, crate or sitting room.

Limit the adventures. Stay home and let potty training rule your days for a week or so. Once your dog or child gets into the habit of taking a potty break, start to venture further. Just remember to show them the new potty area when you arrive!

Keep it very simple. Both species like a consistent area: one or two toilets or potty areas just outside of the living space. The more routine you can manage, the faster their brain will wrap abound the procedure.

Think like a bladder. Activities like eating or playing stimulate the bladder but so do periods of dormancy (a nap or prolonged sitting). Prompt a potty run after eating, resting, playing or containment. Try to follow the same route to the bathroom, the newspapers or outside, depending upon species.

Don’t sweat the accidents. Everybody makes mistakes. Not to get all Freudy, but please don’t focus on pee- or poop-related mishaps. It won’t help.

Limit the dialog. Choose a catchy, one- or two-word hint like “Potty,” “Papers” or “Outside.” Follow it up with an equally zippy action phrase like “Pee-pee!” or “Get Busy!” Use a calm and directive tone (as calm and directive as one can be when using words like pee-pee) to focus and steady your potty pupil.

Look down. Direct eye contact is scary, especially to the very young. Try not to stare while the process is in motion. This is a new experience and requires no small degree of concentration.

Only they know. Sometimes they’ll have to go, sometimes they won’t. Give them a few minutes to “try” then bring them back into the fold and watch closely for a sign. Kids are a little more obvious, squirming and clutching their crotch. Puppies will start to fidget or mouth.

Be patient. Puppies and kids will both learn self-control and personal management. The big difference, of course, it speech. Your child will start to use words to alert you but your dog, forever non-verbal, must use physical cues. Encourage your dog to bark at the door when he wants to go out or hang a housetraining bell near the door.

The most important tip of all? Be empathetic. Self-regulation is a difficult step away towards independence. And independence can be scary.