Litter Box Training

How to Litter Box Train Your Dog

Keith Turbyfill

Is it Really Possible to Litter Box Train a Dog?

Absolutely!  Small dogs can be trained to use a litter box.  My personal experience shows that small dogs, once trained, actually benefit from using a litter box.  Small dogs have small bladders, and the opportunity to "go whenever" is a big plus!  It's also possible to train a dog to use a litter box that previously used papers or went outside.  Dogs can also travel using the litterbox in other locations, and are able to use the litterbox during the day, as well as "go outside" at other times.

How Do I Start?  What do I Need?

You'll need several items to get started.  Of course, a litter box is required.  I suggest a Purina dog litter box -- or get the largest cat litter box available, and cut the top off the hood.  Removing the top makes it much easier for the dog to use, and for you to clean.  Use very rough sandpaper or a smoothing tool (i.e. a Dremel) to round the edges.  Dogs tend to "go" more frequently than cats, and they don't bury their waste in the same way cats do. 

People use a variety of "filler" for litter pans.  Some folks like to use newspapers or absorbent "pee pads".  Others prefer commercial dog litter or cat litter, so they can scoop out and dispose of the waste easily.  A few folks have voiced concern over clumping litter (in the event the dog ingests it).  Personally, I've used all types of filler and haven't experienced a problem with any of it.

If you use dog or cat litter, buy a large size litter scoop, it will work best!  It's also handy to get a small foot pedal "step-on" can with a plastic bucket (I found mine at Bed, Bath & Beyond).  A 3 to 5 gallon size can works perfectly.  I also use a standard diaper pail lined with a plastic bag in my dog room.  Whenever the "step-on" pail is full, I empty the can into the diaper pail.  This saves a lot of time, and my trips to empty waste are infrequent.  Best of all, the diaper pail is designed to contain odors!

Cleaning Supplies Are Essential!

Most importantly, be sure to have plenty of cleaning supplies.  Brooms and easy-to-use mops should be nearby.  Lots of paper towels (especially at the beginning) should be kept on hand.  I also find a Dust Buster hand vacuum makes it easy to clean up the sand and litter that inevitably gets kicked around.  Bleach is a great odor mask, and putting some in a small container (make sure it is completely out of the reach of the dogs) goes a long way in odor control.  Other odor controls such as candles, sprays and plug-ins can also work well.  In general, if you just keep the area clean, odor won't be a big problem.

Accidents Can and Do Happen...

Be prepared for accidents when house and litterbox training.  If you do not completely clean urine stains, they will become a reoccurring spot the dog will use.  I've had great success with a product called Simple Solution.  During the early stages, I purchased it by the gallon jug.  I found no other product that worked as well -- even on my near-white carpet!  I also purchased a small home carpet cleaning machine, but the "blot and dry" method described in the product directions will work as well (it just takes longer).  A friend of mine purchased a shop wet/dry vac, which worked better than the carpet machine for cleaning doggie accidents!  The wet/dry vac was a fraction of the price, but of course a carpet cleaning machine can do "regular" large area cleaning of carpet that the shop vac simply can't do.

More Than One Way to Skin a Cat...

As with most tasks, there's more than one method to accomplish your goal.  I have successfully trained dogs to use a litter box by using two methods:  The first method is a gradual paper to litter box method.  This method works well with dogs who are already solidly paper trained, and who tend to catch on quickly.  The second method is a variation of the common "crate training" used to house train dogs.  From experience, I think the latter crate style training is best.  Some people find crate training to be drastic -- but it does work, and if done properly with lots of attention, care and praise for the dog -- it isn't harmful.

What if My Dog Has Never Been Housetrained?

If you're starting from scratch, you'll need to work with the dog very closely, and have your cleaning supplies even closer!  The best method for housetraining is to design the environment so that it is difficult for the dog to fail.  Your dog wants to please you, and you can help him (or her) succeed!   First, designate the area to be used for the litterbox and/or papers.  Obviously, a tiled or easy to clean floor area is best.  During the first few days, you will need to constantly monitor the dog when it is not in its bathroom area.  In this initial period, the dog should have only two location options: either with you, or a direct path to his bathroom area.  You can accomplish this by shutting doors, and using simple gating materials such as latex lattice, child gates, or even pieces of cardboard.  In any event, make sure that the dog can ONLY go to his designated area when "caught in the act".  Make sure there is a direct path between you and his bathroom only (no open side rooms) at all times. 

During the first few days the dog should either be with you, or in his area. If you are unable to watch the dog carefully, put the dog in his bathroom or crate area.   If you notice actions such as circling or sniffing (usually indicating the dog has "to go"), then encourage the dog to go to his area to do his business on papers.  Develop a key word or key phrase for this action.  It can be anything you want such as: "go pee", "get busy", "use the box", etc.  Repeat the word or phrase often at the spot where the dog should do his business.

All the World is a Stage...

You'll need to become an actor to housetrain and/or litter box train a dog.  If you catch the dog in the act of going in wrong place, you need to "shock" the dog.  A loud "NO!", slapping your hands together, and sudden movement toward the dog should cause the dog to bolt. In any event, his direct path, his destination must be his bathroom area.  Once there, start praising the dog and using the keyword.  Soak a small bit of the dog's urine in a paper towel or newspaper and put in his bathroom area.  If your dog smells his feces or urine in his bathroom area, he will be more likely to use that area.  Clean any "accident" areas to an extreme degree.  A dog's sense of smell is incredible.  I "over-treat" using Simple Solution cleaner.  After all the smells and stains are gone (to my nose and eyes), I reapply the solution.  It works!   Of course my mother doesn't agree -- she swears by Woolite Carpet Cleaner (apparently a special version for "pet accidents").  In any case, get a product that works for you!  When the dog goes to the right place to use the bathroom, you need to lavish praise and treats on him, all the time repeating the key word. Frankly, it works best if you overact when expressing your pleasure or displeasure.   If by chance you see the dog in the act going on the papers (or later in the litterbox), you simply have to be beside yourself with joy and happiness!  Believe me, the dog will catch on when you are dancing, praising, and kissing his little head when he goes in the right place!

Help the Dog Become Accustomed to the Litter box 

With either method ("paper to litter box" or "crate style training") you'll need to get the dog accustomed to the litter box.  It should be in his area from the beginning, with a tiny bit of litter in the bottom and some newspaper inside of it.  Newspaper should also be put right next to the litter box if paper training.  Some folks have reported better results by adding a one of the commercial "potty aid" liquids in the litter box during the early stages of training.

At the outset, you'll need to get the dog used to simply getting in and out of the box.  This can made into a fun experience for the dog.  Simply lift and place the dog in the litter box and use the key phrase like "use the box".  Praise him and be happy.  He'll likely get out of the box.  Walk over, repeat the key word/phrase, and put the dog in the box.  Repeat the "praise and happy" routine and even give a little treat.  If the dog stresses or tires of the game, just stop.  Repeat it another time or day.  Soon, you'll be able to repeat the keyword, while gently guiding the dog in the box from outside the box.  After a few sessions, you should be able to have dog go in the box on his own when the keyword is used.  Placement of the box is also important.  It must be next to the newspapers, and the open side should minimize "fallout".  Dogs have a digging instinct.  I haven't met a dog yet that won't try at least once to dig his way under the litter box!  Notice the top picture on this page.  See how the litter boxes face toward each other and a wall?  This minimizes clean up in the event of digging episode!  It looks like a tight spot, but honestly, the small dogs don't have any problem getting in and out.  A well-arranged litter box will minimize the "fallout" from a digging episode or normal tracking.

Progressing from Paper to Litter box

If your dog is solidly paper-trained, you can make a gentle progression from paper to litter box.  As I said before, the "crate style" training works best, but some people prefer a more gentle approach.  I've used both of these methods successfully.  The key for the "paper to litter box" method is to make it very gradual.  You'll need a supply of cardboard boxes in various sizes.  You can sometimes get these from grocery stores, a moving company or U-Haul store.  Moving boxes work particularly well because they come in a variety of sizes.  Some masking and duct tape is also useful as you change the sides and shapes.  The first step is to make a flat "pan" area with the papers.  You can cut out the bottom of a cardboard box and line it with papers, or get something like the washing machine pan pictured here and line it with papers.  It should be a minimal "box" -- that is, simply enough side to it that it is not completely flat.  This should be an easy transition for the dog.  If not, start with the papers on a flat piece of cardboard, then move to a slight "pan shape" box.  As time progresses, you need to change the cardboard "pan" to a "box" by gradually changing to boxes with higher sides.  This needs to be done slowly, over a period of weeks.  At some point, you should have a cardboard version of a VERY large cat litter box (the "step up" or "step over" edge should never be higher than your real cat litter box).  Next, slowly decrease the size of your "cardboard cat litter box" to be just slightly larger than your real cat litter box.  At this point, put the cat litter bottom, or tray, into your cardboard box and line the bottom and sides with newspaper.  Once the dog is comfortable with using that, you can clip on the plastic hood (remember the top should be cut off).  The key is for changes to be so gradual the dog doesn't notice. When you insert the pan or clip on the hood/sides, it should look no different except that it is plastic rather than cardboard.  Next, slowly remove all the cardboard so the dog is using papers in the litter box.  Finally, you'll need to slowly move from paper to litter.  Start with a thin layer of litter in the front of the box, and paper covering almost all of the bottom of the box.  Over a period of days, move to less paper and more litter (covering more of the box, and slightly deeper with litter).  At some point, you'll be putting a tiny piece of newspaper in the back of the box.  It looks really weird, but it works!  At some point, you'll be able to get rid of the paper altogether.

Crate Style Training

Crate style training is, in my opinion, the quickest and most effective means of litter box training. Traditional crate training involves putting a dog in a bed/kennel except when it is active with you or outside using the bathroom.  The concept is simple.  Every creature has a natural aversion to soiling where it eats or sleeps.  The crate style method for litter box training is similar, except than eventually, the dog will have greater freedom, even while you're away from the house.  

Prior to starting crate style training, you should already have the dog comfortable with the litter box, and able to hop in and out of it without fear (see earlier section).  The dog should also be accustomed to, or know that he is expected to use "his area" for the bathroom.

Instead of just a travel kennel or cage, you make an area with a bed, food, water and the litter box.  The area must be large enough for the dog to get up, turn around and lay down comfortably -- but there must be no open space for the dog to use the bathroom except the litter box.  The cage material should be sturdy, and something the dog cannot jump over or hurt himself trying to escape from.  A child safety gate and/or latex lattice works great.  Use bungee type strapping hooks to easily lash and hook your cage.  It's also possible to use playpens or commercial cages.  If using a pen or cage, be sure to fill any open space with plastic buckets or some other safe material that will prevent the dog from using open space in the pen or cage as a bathroom area.  Once you have constructed your "crate area", place the dog in this "crate" at typical bathroom times (after eating, after sleeping, etc.)  The dog should stay in this crate area until he uses the bathroom.  Try to be nearby so you can catch the dog in the act and praise him right after he uses the box. Remember to use your key word or phrase!   The crate area should also be the where the dog stays when you leave the house.  When you are with the dog in the house, this crate area should be open, and part of his "direct path" to his bathroom area.  If the dog uses the bedding material as his bathroom spot, change it immediately!  Replace the bedding, and sprinkle bits of food on the new bedding.  If there are treats frequently found on the bedding, the dog will not use it as a bathroom area!  The crate training routine should continue until you see the dog use the litter box on his own.  You should occasionally stay in the room with the dog at times you know he needs to go.  With the crate area open, encourage him to use the litter box, repeating with the key word frequently, and praise him whenever he uses the box.  Soon, you'll be walk with the dog into the room, use the keyword, and the dog will go in the litter box to do his business.  Eventually, he will go there on his own.  My dogs sleep in my bedroom.  In the middle of the night, they will get up, go across the house to the litter box to use the bathroom -- and then come back to bed!  When I leave the house, I can leave them in a small area of the house, and they use litter box!  At home, they come and go as they please.  Bad weather, cold weather -- it doesn't matter!  Everyone is happier!

My Dog Just Won't Go in the Box!  What Can I Do?

I've never seen the crate style method not work.  Properly laid out, it simply doesn't give the dog any other choice.  Check to make sure you have the area as small as possible, limiting his choices.  If the dog won't go unless crated, then you'll need to spend more time teaching him to use the box -- simply reinforcing the command to get in the box, and staying with him in the room and gently guiding him in the box, repeating the keyword, and using lots of praise.  Use treats as a reward for going in the box along with praise!  You can eventually wean the dog away from treats and more towards praise.  Remember, this process (even crate training) takes several weeks before the dog will reliably go in the box by itself, and several months of checking and monitoring before the dog will be fully "on his own".  With every dog, there's frustration and you'll say "He just doesn't get it.  He will never do this".  Then, suddenly, he'll catch on!  Another common problem is for some dogs to use the litter box to pee, but they'll poop outside this box (or even worse, reversed).  There are two factors here:  First, dogs typically don't do all their business in one spot.  Second, some dogs (especially hound breeds) sometimes need to "walk it out".  That's impossible to do in a litter box.  I have one dog who would happily do all his business in the box.  My other dog finds it very difficult to poop in the box.  Our compromise is that ALL peeing is done in the box.  No exceptions.   They are allowed to poop near the box, but always in "their room", on the tile, and preferably on the paper next to the box.  This works well because I pick up and flush the waste with tissue, and dispose of the litter waste in pails and plastic trash bags.  Also, I'll mention that I find that since converting to the Purina dog litter and box system, I've discovered not to use as much litter as the Purina folks would lead you to believe.  It's actually easier and more effective to use a thin layer of pellets in the bottom of the litter box rather than the 1" to 3" deep they claim.  Using that much wastes a lot of litter, plus it makes it more difficult to scoop out the "used" litter.

The Big Mistakes

From my own experience and in talking to others, there are some common mistakes to avoid: 

  • Be consistent.  Pick the dog's area or spot and stick with it.  Use the same keyword or phrase.  Stay with one brand of litter.  Keep a routine as much as possible.  Any change must be very gradual.
  • Watch the dog constantly during the first two weeks.  If the dog is not beside you with you watching him, he should be in his crate area. There must be a direct path between you and the dog's bathroom area at all times.   A single "uncaught" act of peeing or pooping in the wrong place will set you back nearly to the beginning.
  • Never hit, beat or "grind" the dog's nose into the "accident".  It will be a mistake your dog will never forget, and you will always regret.
  • Keep the litter box clean.  Regularly go into the litter box (or boxes) and dispose of all the waste.  At least once a month, empty out the box and wash it out with soap and water.  The dog won't want to use a nasty box.
  • Always deal with relapses or accidents.  Once the dog begins to use the litter box, you'll provide more freedom.  Then, he or she will have an accident -- or simply decide to start using a different spot.  NEVER let this go without dealing with situation.  Immediately start the routine again, including crating, if necessary.  If you don't deal with a relapse, the dog will revert to going anywhere and everywhere in the house.

I disagree with the "experts" in one area:  Every book and article I've read says that if the dog has an "accident", he can't make an association between the accident and a rebuke after the fact.  (i.e. they claim you can't take the dog to the spot and scold him -- you have to catch him "in the act").  In my experience, this isn't entirely true.  If my dog has "an accident", I let him come to the spot and I quietly stand slightly away.  When the dog (inevitably) starts to sniff the spot, I give him a sharp "NO!" and treat it almost as if I caught him in the act.  It makes a difference.  They do make a connection.  Understand, it's not a matter of yelling, screaming, or punishing the dog.  Use common sense.  If your dog acts confused and bewildered at this type of correction -- don't do it. 

Alternative Boxes

There are also additional alternatives for litter boxes.   You can use large plastic bins or the top of travel crates if you need a larger space.

There are companies that build and sell self-contained litterboxes to which hoses can be hooked up to flush and exit waste water.  Generally these sophisticated units run around $600-$700.

You can also build your own custom Ultimate Litter Box!   Click here to see one (including photos, specifications, and parts required).

The End Result

What can you expect?  After several weeks of work, and a month or two of monitoring and frequent checking, you'll be able to let the dogs roam freely and have confidence they will use the box.  You'll be able to put them in their room and go work -- knowing they're not "holding it" or worse, walking in it.  You'll be able to go dinner or a movie and not have to cut short just because you know he or she has to go.  This isn't an excuse to abandon the dogs -- there are few places I'd rather be than with my little buddies!  It gives me freedom, and it gives them freedom.  Oh, and on those cold, wet days -- we just look out the window and smile...


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