Poor, poor Pepe: Old-school housebreaking and why it often backfired

By Jeff Stallings

This post starts with a sad tale from my childhood in the suburbs of Atlanta with my family adopting a miniature poodle puppy we called Pepe, and ends with Pepe on the lam and ending up who-knows-where.  I was about 7 years old when Pepe came into our lives for what turned out to be a very short time.

Now, I don’t want to trash talk my parents because this was the 1960s and dog training was perhaps at its nadir.  (Plus my mom reads my blog so let me just say “Hey Mom! You’re of the hook!”)  Suffice it to say that, in retrospect, we did pretty much everything wrong even while following dog training standards of the day.


This is what I remember about how we “housebroke” Pepe:  When my mother or father would walk into the room to find a big pile of Pepe poo or a puddle of Pepe pee, there was hell to pay for that poor little dog.  Pepe would be grabbed by the scruff, his snout held into the offending substance, a rolled-up newspaper simultaneously swatting his butt as the punisher repeated a loud and scary “NO!”.

Poor Pepe indeed!  The intent was for him to somehow understand that eliminating in the house was not permitted.  What he learned instead was that every once in a while those two-legged beasts would grab him, shove his face into the dirty floor and yell at him in a very scary way.  Who can blame the poor guy from running away at the first opportunity?

There is so much wrong with this picture.  Let’s start with the term “housebreak”.  The “break” refers to breaking in the sense of breaking a horse, harkening back to old-school aversive methods for training horses.  So instead of speaking in terms of training, back then we spoke in terms of breaking, of tearing something down, presumably to build something else in its place.

Beyond that (and why such techniques so often failed) we assumed that the little puppy would somehow make a connection between the offending substance (feces, urine) and the punishment at hand.  What we now know is that you have to punish—or reward—a dog within one-half second of the behavior you are addressing for him to make the connection.  Whether 5 seconds or 5 minutes or 5 hours had passed between Pepe’s poop and the scolding was irrelevant.  Since the “correction” did not happen at the very instant of his eliminating, Pepe had no way to make the connection.  This tactic was not only woefully slow at teaching puppies where to eliminate, it was also a sure-fire tactic to create a fearful dog.  All wrong!

Sadly, I have had potential clients contact me exasperated because they’re attempting to “housebreak” their puppy with the nose-rubbed-in-poop method and cannot understand why he or she is not “getting it”.  First, I tell them to think in terms of potty training instead of housebreaking.  This is to say, reward your puppy for doing his business where you want him to (the backyard, the front sidewalk) and minimize the chances of him going where he should not—your living room floor, for instance.  How do you do that?

    • Giving your new puppy free range to the whole house is asking for all sorts of problems, from soiled carpets to torn furniture.  A puppy must be restricted to areas in which, should nature call, it’s okay.  The best set-up is a small crate—a comfy, den-like space only large enough for him to turn around in—inside of a small room or elongated playpen.  If you cannot watch your puppy continuously, he should be in this pen, water and crate on one end, newspapers or pee-pads on the other.  Dogs will always eliminate as far as possible from where they eat and sleep.
    • When you are at home and in a position to watch your puppy close enough to anticipate that he is about to “go”, take him to his outdoor spot and as he is going, say “Go potty!  Go potty!”, or whatever cue you want to eventually become the command for your dog to do his business pronto.  Keep a supply of treats close at hand, perhaps in a bowl by your exit, and the very instant (that one-half second rule applies here) he finishes, reward with a treat, a pat on the head and a happy “good puppy!”
    •  You must take your puppy outside to his “spot” many, many, MANY, times per day.  Tiny little digestive systems mean frequent calls of nature.  This includes waking your puppy in the middle of the night and taking him to the spot.  I think of this as a freebee because he or she will always go right after waking up, and will typically go right back to sleep if it’s dark out.
    •  Which brings up another point:  Puppies will usually eliminate immediately after a play session, after waking up, and right after a meal.  So get your rhythms in tune with your puppy’s rhythms.  Oh, and take the water bowl up by 6pm and be sure to take him out right before putting him in the crate for the night.
    •  If you slack up and catch your pup pooping or peeing outside of his pen, with no emotion on your part and without saying a word, CLAP your hands loudly once, scoop him up and take him to his “spot”.  If he finishes up, reward as usual.  Then roll up a wad of newspaper and use it to swat yourself on the butt:  This was entirely your fault.

Over time your pup will come to understand that eliminating outside brings manna from heaven and going inside does not.  As this concept becomes more ingrained in the little guy, you’ll be in a position to finally get rid of the play pen and start opening access to your house, one room at a time.  Rule of thumb:  Your dog is fully potty trained once he has not made a “mistake” in the house for a month.  How long this takes depends on your diligence and the nature of your dog.  In my experience toy breeds take longer, sometimes well over a year.  That said, my dog Otis was completely potty trained by eight months.  Mileage may vary.

Had we known all of this back in 1967, Pepe may well have become a cherished memory instead of the source of soul-searching and guilt.  But at least today’s puppies and their people have a leg up, so to speak, on their predecessors.  Behavior science has revealed how dogs develop and learn, and we can use this knowledge to make all of our lives—human and canine alike—a little more pleasant.

About Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Having owned well-trained dogs all my life, I started Better Nature Dog Training to exploit decades of experience teaching across a number of fields. I am nationally-certified through the highly-respected Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and am a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. I teach people how to effectively train their dogs by clearly demonstrating that every interaction counts when training a dog to come when called, for example, or instructing a puppy how to best get along in life. I take a scientific and holistic approach to dog training. The scientific aspect comes from understanding dog psychology from an evolutionary perspective, knowing how dogs are both similar to and distinct from their ancestors, including the grey wolf. The holistic component derives from taking into account all facets of any particular dog’s situation, including upbringing, prior training, traumatic events and—most importantly—the characteristics of his home and family life. Training a puppy or dog can be a most rewarding life experience; it can also be stressful and perplexing. One of the best services I provide is taking the guesswork out while lending a sure, guiding hand in successful dog behavior development and modification.
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