Does Dog Litter Really Work?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog litter

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sometimes you’re not able to be home in time to let your dog out, which causes stress on them and you, but installing an indoor litter box can eliminate the conundrum
  • Dog litter is a great option for small dogs who live in high-rises or other homes with limited access to the outdoors
  • A plastic tub large enough for your dog to turn around in, with sides low enough for him to step into, are basics for a litter box, but offering a sense of privacy will also help ensure litter training success
  • Once your dog answers nature’s call in the designated litter area, praise is vital for a job well done, and helps them understand this is the action you’re looking for
  • It may not happen immediately, but when your dog isn’t forthcoming, waiting a while and trying again later is better than trying to force the issue

We’re all aware of how useful cat litter is for kitties to have a clean, easy-to-dispose-of “water closet,” making the process of elimination and disposal relatively worry-free and convenient, not only for cats but the humans who take care of them.

But a similar system for dogs? Imagine having something in place so that you’re no longer distracted and anxious about your dog’s inability to answer the call of nature while you’re at work, on a long commute or enjoying an evening out. That’s not to mention the times when the weather outside is frightful or one of you is ill.

In other words, while being there to hook up the leash and enjoy a stroll with Samson so he can relieve himself on a timely schedule may be the preferred method, sometimes it’s just not possible due to any number of circumstances. As veterinarian Jennifer Coates explains:

“This is a great option for small dogs who live in high-rises or other homes with limited access to the outdoors, during inclement weather, or when pet parents have to be away from home for an extended period of time.”1

Arranging for someone to walk your dog outside is another option, but sometimes that’s not possible, either. According to PetMD, the stress you probably experience all too often because you’re not there to oversee your dog’s potty process may be a thing of the past, all because dog litter is now a “thing.”2

It’s my opinion that indoor potty areas for dogs should never be anyone’s first “go-to” option for potty breaks, and should certainly not replace any time spent outdoors, where dogs are able to sniff, move their bodies, ground themselves and feel direct sunlight. But in certain circumstances, an “indoor toilet” may be the answer to a frustrating problem for some dog owners.

Types of Dog Litter and Reasons Why It’s a Good Idea

Dog litter comes in a variety of forms, such as pellets made from recycled newspaper, which works in a similar way to cat litter — absorbing moisture, resisting stains and helping to mask odors. It makes clean-up far less of a chore and does away with the apprehension of wondering if your dog is able to hold their urges, and the inconvenience when they weren’t.

While there are dogs who don’t seem to do well with dog litter; for them, there are alternative substrate options such as clumping clay (as long as your dog doesn’t try and eat it), absorbent dog potty pads and dog potty turf. Another option I’ve found successful is organic soil. After setting up elimination areas in your home, the only other requirement is training.

However, animal behaviorist Jessica Gore stresses that such options are recommended for smaller dogs only, as large dogs are capable of wetting through an entire dog litter tray in a single use.

Gore says the average adult dog is able to wait to empty his bladder for up to eight hours, but after that point, not only is the urge critical, but the dog’s health is compromised, as well. Further, the time most dogs are able to hold it decreases when they’re not feeling well and/or as they begin aging. Gore maintains:

“Since the average pet parent who works full-time is gone for maybe eight hours to longer, it may be a good idea — or even necessary — to provide access to an indoor toilet area for your dog.”3

I have found many large-breed dogs will void urine in a Rubbermaid sweater tub with a shallow layer of soil in these urgent “I-need-to-pee-right-now!” situations.

Considerations for Choosing Dog Litter

Just like the food, toys and medicine you get for your dog, ensuring their safety and nontoxicity is also something to consider for dog litter and similar indoor toilet options. Reading labels to find out what’s in or on anything your dog touches or may potentially eat is also essential to ensure their wellbeing.

Some dogs, and most puppies, like to chew on small objects. If your dog is in that number, you may want to pass on the dog litter pellets. Gore advises, “Eating, chewing, digging and carrying of dog litter pellets should be taken into consideration by pet parents when introducing this system and training their dog to use it.”4 As such, another type of substrate is probably best if your dog chews anything smaller than a bread box.

There’s also clean-up of your dog’s toilet areas that must be thought through. Simply put, consistency is crucial. Litter boxes, no matter who’s using them, absorb moisture, and in this case, the moisture is urine, which emits an odor that seems to increase exponentially with every hour.

Cleanup will involve scooping and changing out the litter on a regular basis. Most of my clients offering “dogpans” find using a shallow amount of substrate they can dump after each use works best. It’s also important to clean the box after being gone for extended periods, like an eight-hour work day. When you’re home with your dog, it’s advisable to clean the box each time it’s used.

So what do you do first after deciding to try using dog litter for your canine housemate? Training dogs to use dog litter isn’t much different than house-breaking them so they’ll wait to “use the facilities” when their outdoors. Training a puppy to use dog litter inside is said to be about the same learning curve as it is for adult dogs.

What Should Dog Owners Do First to Litter-Train Their Dog?

In lieu of an actual toilet that flushes, there are preparations to be made and supplies to get in order, but it’s fairly basic and straightforward. Keep in mind that while lining your dog’s litter box with a plastic sheet seems like the thing to do, dogs scratch to get to the bottom of things, and their nails will inevitably put holes in the bags, allowing moisture to leak underneath. It’s easier in the long run to just let the plastic tub do the job.

Many dog litter products are on the market, including covered litter boxes or a deluxe version with automatic, scoopless, self-cleaning options and charcoal filters designed for this express purpose. Here’s a simple, do-it-yourself check list of supplies to get you started:

  • A large plastic tub large enough for your dog to turn around in, with sides low enough for him to step into
  • A pooper scooper for solid waste
  • Litter or pet turf

That’s it. Once you decide on the medium, the second part is the training. Gore says getting your dog excited about his new potty system helps ensure success. “Use your dog’s favorite treats and get those paws on that new surface,” she says. “You may even get lucky and score a potty right away!” If this happens, reward your dog and make a big, happy deal of them using their box as desired.

It may not happen immediately, but waiting a while and trying again later is better than trying to force the issue. Once they make their move in the appropriate place, just like every other time you give them a reward (treat) for a job well done, this one is vital to help them understand this is the action you’re looking for.

Lots of enthusiasm and praise will help reinforce the behavior, too, and make it easier as you provide regular opportunities for them to repeat their new skill set. Gore recommends mornings to set the behavior when they wake up, eat their food and drink their water, all known as “potty triggers.”

If your dog regularly pees or poops in a certain place in your home when you’re gone too long, putting the litter box there is a great idea, letting them know you’ve provided a better toilet for them, if need be.

A Few Training Points for Dogs Learning the Indoor Litter Routine

Patience is key! As using the emergency bathroom becomes routine, errors will diminish — and errors are likely in the beginning. Animal Planet5 offers a few points to help you and your dog in the transition process:

  • Use a trigger word or phrase like “Go potty.”
  • If you catch your dog eliminating someplace else in the house, redirect him to his litter box or put the box where he routinely chooses to potty.
  • Once he begins to use the litter box on his own, keep up the praise, but begin decreasing his dependence on treats.
  • To help with odor control, sprinkle baking soda in the clean, dry litter area or box.
  • The ideal spot for litter box placement will be easy for your dog to get to, but also offer a sense of privacy.

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