There are several factors that come into play when a dog chooses a spot to eliminate; two of the most important factors are scent and substrate preference. Taken together, we can use these to factors to develop a bathroom habit for our dogs that we find desirable.
Dogs use their noses to find the bathroom. You already know that when your puppy starts to sniff around the room, that’s your cue to hurry him outside to do his business. Puppies naturally look for places that other dogs have eliminated and they do it with their noses. This is a good reason to collect accidents and place them in the desired potty spot – it helps to build the scents that cue your dog telling him the bathroom is right here. It is also a good reason for choosing a single potty spot and consistently taking your dog to that spot. This concentrates the odors in one place and helps the dog to stay on task when he is taken outside to eliminate.
Scent also makes it important to thoroughly clean up any accident in the house with an appropriate enzymatic cleaner. Dogs’ noses are much more sensitive than ours and regular cleaners will frequently leave behind residual odors that continue to cue the dog to eliminate in that area. Enzymatic cleaners are designed specifically to destroy these odors that we humans may not smell. The natural breakdown of urine results in the release of ammonia. For this reason, ammonia should never be used to clean up accidents because it will actually mimic the smell of urine and encourage repeat soiling in that area.
Substrate preference is also very important. Substrate preference simply means that dogs become accustomed to eliminating on a certain surface or substrate. For many dogs, this substrate will be grass but sometimes it is puppy pads, papers, litter, concrete, gravel or bare ground. Whatever your dog most frequently eliminates on will become the preferred substrate over time. Our goal when house training is to make sure that the puppy eliminates on grass or another preferred substrate as often as possible. This will result in a puppy that over time wants to eliminate on the desired substrate rather than on our carpet or pile of clothes in the bedroom. Repeated house training accidents may result in the pup developing the wrong substrate preference. This is why you need to really restrict your pup’s unsupervised access to the house if you are experiencing accidents. You don’t want him to have the opportunity to develop the wrong substrate preference.
For older dogs, substrate preference can play a significant role in house training. Dogs that have been confined to a kennel may prefer to eliminate on concrete or gravel because they have become accustomed to those substrates. Likewise, a dog that is used to having a yard may have a hard time learning to eliminate on bare ground or concrete when he moves to an urban environment. An issue often arises when people paper train puppies or small breed dogs and then want to transition them to pottying outside. These animals have developed a substrate preference for paper that makes getting them to eliminate on grass harder. This is one reason that I really like the sod box option for puppies that must eliminate in the house – it maintains the integrity of the substrate preference (grass) even though the pup is eliminating in an undesirable location (the house).
For paper trained puppies, I often encourage owners to move the papers closer to the door, then slowly outside. Once the dog is regularly going on the papers outside, the paper can gradually be cut down until the dog is finally going entirely on grass. In this case, we have gradually changed the location (inside the house versus outside the house) while maintaining the substrate preference; then we gradually changed the substrate preference by making the papers smaller and smaller until they are nonexistent.
You can use your dog’s natural instincts to follow scent and substrate preference to train him to potty in specific areas outside as well if you are consistent about taking him to your chosen place to potty, reward/praise him for doing his business there and consistently remove accidents from other parts of the yard. At the end of the day, these two factors combine to form a habit for your dog. It becomes his habit to go to the bathroom in a certain place, that smells like the bathroom to him, on a certain substrate because that is part of his routine. Breaking the routine will be uncomfortable for him just like it would be for you.
Humans experience substrate preference too. Our preferences just tend to be for porcelain. Do you remember the last time you had to go to the bathroom in the woods or in a foreign country where the amenities weren’t quite what you expected? Be patient if you have a dog that needs to learn a new substrate preference either because of his previous background or because you have been a little lax in the house training department.
Several years ago, I had an experience with my Ben that illustrates just how important substrate preference and habit can be. I have the luxury of a large yard and don’t like the dogs doing their business in the mowed part of the yard. When I got Ben, I would take him down over the hill in the tall grass to go potty and that quickly became his habit. It is great because I never have to deal with dog poop in the yard and the dogs know right where the bathroom is. However, we weren’t prepared when we took a trip to Ohio and stayed in a hotel. Poor Ben was so conditioned to going down the hill and in the tall grass that flat, mown, urban Ohio offered no bathrooms for him and he didn’t go for several days. He was very happy to get back home to the mountains and “real bathrooms” again!