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Dirty Secrets Revealed: Confessions of a Professional Dog Trainer

December 14, 2012

Or: How I (almost) Wrecked My Dogs…

Kathy's dogs looking up at her attentivelyThere’s one thing that I’ve learned from all of my years of living with and training dogs that stands head and shoulders above the rest:

If you don’t have a good sense of humor, you might as well just throw in the towel and live a boring and sterile dogless life that features light carpeting, upholstered furniture, and a nice car that you are not embarrassed to have your mother or your boss ride in.

No, that’s not for me. Laughing at myself and my ineptness as a dog trainer – then sharing that with the world – way more fun. Who doesn’t need a little humility to keep things in balance?



Sue at 5 weeks old.

Confession #1:

How I Taught My Dog to Pee in the House. (and in other inconvenient places)

It’s really easy to house train a puppy. It is. I have a simple system that I use and teach to my clients, have for years. A no brainer. A 3 year old could do this. All of my dogs have easily learned to pee outside.

Then came Sue. She was about 90% house trained by 8 weeks old. The puppies in the litter were eager to move away from their sleeping area to potty by 3 weeks old and I made sure that was easy for them.

I thought to myself: “this will be the easiest house training job ever.” Right.

Sue was the sweetest puppy. Everything was going just fine. Clearly, she understood that potty happened outside, she always peed when I took her out and said my usual “go potty”. I was on top of taking her out at the usual times, staying attentive to any signs she needed to pee, and doing my best to stay focused any time she had house freedom.

The first time ‘it’ happened I was so surprised.

There was sweet Sue, looking up at me with those beautiful dark brown puppy eyes…I was looking adoringly back at her, smiling and letting her know how much I loved her. All this love flowing between us…as the pee flowed right out of Sue onto the floor. What??? I could not believe it.

As I cleaned up the mess on the floor, I had time to contemplate what had happened.

Did she have a bladder infection? Did she think that pee happened in a position relative to me? Did she just suddenly realize she had to pee and couldn’t hold it any longer? She was just a little puppy, after all.

I decided that I needed to pay more attention, stay more focused, do a better job at getting her outside. All good…no pee in the house for a couple of weeks. Whew. Then, “it” happened again. Sue and I lovingly gazing into one another’s eyes. I’m thinking about how much I love her and what a good, smart puppy she is. And Sue pees. Right there in front of me, looking up at me while I sweet talked to her. What the heck??? I’m even more shocked than the first time.

Sue at 7 weeks old, sitting ... and oh, so cute!Then, the same thing happened a month later.

This time we were on the couch. Yes, peed right there, looking into my eyes, standing on the couch next to me. OMG! Flurry of activity ensued. Thank god I have blankets on the couch, I’m thinking, as I rip them off before the pee can soak into the upholstery. By this time, Sue is 5 or 6 months old and she pees A LOT. Is it possible to be even more shocked than the last time? Yes. I’m sure I stood there with my mouth wide open for some time. I know I was shaking my head in disbelief as I sprayed nature’s miracle on the couch, hoping to quickly render the pee odorless.

Now, I’m completely dumbfounded. What the heck is going on? Why is she doing this? It’s so random, so sporadic, so incredibly puzzling. So freakin weird. Did she pee on the couch because it’s a soft place that will soak up pee, like a rug or grass? Again, I re-commit to being even more vigilant about watching for signs.

“It” didn’t happen again. For a couple of months, I mean. I absolutely could not believe “it” was possible. Exact repeat of the couch pee incident. Sue, eyes, sweet talk, pee. There I am, madly ripping blankets, pillows, dogs and dog toys off the couch. This is crazy. I’m a little pissed.

And, suddenly, it hits me. I mean SLAM. Whacked on top of the head.

That sweet, penetrating, imploring, relentless gaze from Sue? THAT is her signal to me that she needs to go potty. What a dumbass I am. All this time, I’m thinking that she is simply connecting to me…wants to engage, wants to be loved. No. That is not a gaze of love. That is a look of “I have to pee right now, you crazy distracted person. Would you PLEASE open the door for me? If you don’t open the door for me right now, I’m gonna have to pee right here, because I can’t hold it any more”.

Yeah. Sometimes it takes a flood of information before learning takes place for humans. Pun intended.

I’d love to report that my big “aha” after the 2nd couch pee means that was the last time Sue and I had a communication failure. But, sadly, that is not the case.

Well, to be accurate, that was the last time it happened during waking hours. The next big hurdle was overnight. Now that Sue was a ‘big girl’ and all grown up, she had bed privileges overnight. In the house, in the RV, and in the occasional motel room.

Now, you need to understand that Sue is a sweet and loving dog who likes to snuggle, and gives great doggy kisses. Really, how was I to know that she was laying on top of me in bed, licking my face and staring into my closed eyes because she had to pee? Seriously, how was I to know? Yep. Peed on the bed. Wake up Joe. Frantically rip off comforter, blanket and sheets from our organic cotton and wool mattress. Thank goodness…it didn’t soak thru. Close call.

That fun scenario happened twice more, in the camper. If you happened to walk past my camper at a herding trial a couple of years ago and saw bedding hanging out to dry and wondered why, now you know. I did not pee in the bed. It was Sue. Really. The bed pee phase coincided with Sue coming into season for the first time. So I guess her bladder was extra sensitive or something. She felt bloated and desperate to pee, poor thing. I know just how that feels.


Sue at 3 months old.OK, so how many times does it take a border collie to pee on your bed before you realize that she does NOT want to snuggle, but really needs to go pee and is trying to make you get up? Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!! I know the answer to that question!!!

Four! That is the magic number, friends. Four times. The last time (please, God) was the best. It got my attention. Finally. I apparently am way more dense than I seem. We were traveling with Nancy and her dogs for a quick trip to a herding trial and decided to stay in a motel, rather than bring the camper. Sue was still in season so the boys went into the crates in the room and the girls had bed privileges.

I was really tired. A long day outdoors at a trial.

Middle of the night, sleeping. Sue on me…licking my face. I open my eyes to see her staring at me, just inches away..looking deeply into my eyes. Go to sleep, Sue, I tell her. She does. 1/2 hr later, I open my eyes to find Sue staring at me again. Go to sleep, Sue, I say again. She moves to the foot of the bed. A few minutes later, she lays on top of me again. I don’t even open my eyes this time. Go to sleep Sue, I insist. She goes to the foot of the bed and I feel warm wetness soaking onto my feet.

No way!! Panic ensues. Wildly throwing covers off the bed, desperate to keep the mattress dry. And the smell. OMG. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being in a closed room filled with the scent of girl in season pee, you have not lived! No wonder the boy dogs are crazed by that musky scent. Not many places to put soiled stinky bedding in a motel room, finally landed on the shower. Perfect!

Now, I’m REALLY tired.

2 am. Tired. Took the comforter off of Nancy’s bed to cover myself up. Back to sleep. I know this will be nearly impossible for you to believe, but it happened again that night. Apparently Sue only peed enough the first time to make herself comfortable, because at 5 am the whole thing was repeated. Yes, including me telling her to “go to sleep”…I guess I thought she was eager to get a fun day started really early. Never considered she had to pee again. I know, I know.

Now we have 2 really stinky comforters in the shower along with a blanket and a sheet. Time to check out. I left an apologetic note for the housekeepers, along with $20, hoping they would forgive me the extra work. All the way home, I was thinking I should have left them way more.

Four time’s a charm. Finally I get it: Sue does not wake me up to snuggle in the middle of the night.

She wakes me up to pee. No matter how tired I am, or how great that dream I’m having is…if Sue stares at me through my closed eyelids, I know it. And I get up.

You gotta love the clever ways a border collie uses their ‘eye’. Even sheep are smarter than some humans, if you know what I mean.

 Sue working sheep at 18 months old.

Moral of this story:

Meaningful dialog between species is always possible. Sometimes it just takes a while to learn the others language.

And, it is always a worthwhile endeavor to dialog with our dogs. They have so much great stuff to tell us. Sue and I now have a wonderful language worked out.

For ‘Yes/No’ questions we have a 3 part system.

Step 1. We gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes.

Step 2. I ask her a question:  (like: “Sue, do you have to go potty?”)

Step 3. Sue answers. If it’s a NO, she takes one step backwards. If it’s a YES, she steps towards me.

All the while, she maintains direct eye contact. Using her ‘eye’ to keep me under control and focused. That’s a good thing. There are lots of BSO’s. Everywhere, if you know what I’m sayin’.  😉


Raven at 9 weeks old. Sue hasn’t peed in the house since that last time in the motel, several years ago. Her daughter Raven, at 10 months old, had a similar style of communicating “I have to potty”. Raven runs halfway up the stairway near the door, and stares at me through the spaces in the railing.

Of course, I’m not usually in a place where I can see her staring out.

That could have been a problem, but thanks to the training I got from Sue, it only took me one time of having her pee upstairs to learn about her signal. I am now tuned in to the sound of paws on the stairs. Day or Night.

Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?


Your Action Steps:

  1.  Read my confession above and read, re-read (or remember) my 5 Step Formula for Dog Training Success book. This time, as you read the 5 Step book, focus on communication, dialog, understanding and misunderstanding. What additional layers can you learn about communication?
  2. Every day, try to pick out 3-5 ways your dog is communicating with you that you did not notice before. Look for subtle body language, posture, expression. Write them down in a journal or notebook.
  3. Every day, try to communicate ONE thing to your dog in the most subtle way you can think of. Tiny movements. Subtle expressions. No (or very little) talking or verbalizing from you…use mostly body language, facial expression, tiny hand movements.  Really subtle. Write down how it went for you, and for your dog.
  4. After a week, notice how much more you and your dog are paying attention to one another, and how much more you understand each other. And notice how this has influenced your dogs behavior, training, engagement, work.

In no time at all, you will be a master communicator and a person your dog can really understand!


Coming up: Confession #2 … Let’s just say that I am sure you will relate to the next story.  🙂

In the  meantime…

Share YOUR confessions. Don’t be afraid. We’ll be laughing with you (not at you.)  Ha!  😉