Bringing home a new, furry bundle of joy is a life-changing event, fraught with both excitement and trepidation. There is no denying that an 8-week-old puppy is lots of fun, cute and playful and full of promise… but once the initial thrill has subsided a bit, there are a number of practical things to consider. Purchasing food and water bowls in just the right size, a collar and leash that suits her. Dog beds. Perhaps a crate. What kind of food to buy? Which toys are best?
However – of all the worries that new puppy owners have, I find that there is almost always a single, overriding logistical concern that trumps virtually everything else.
“How do we teach Princess where to potty?”
A very valid question! Housetraining is a great source of confusion and frustration for many new puppy owners, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In my experience, there are a few common problems that make the entire process needlessly stressful – for both the owner and the pup. The good news is, most of these are very easily corrected once you know what to do.
So if you are a new puppy owner, fear not! In today’s post, I will outline my general approach to teaching your pup where to do her business. In addition, I will discuss easy solutions for some of the issues I see most frequently with my clients’ puppies.
Before we delve into the specifics, it’s helpful to understand how a typical puppy brain processes the concept of housetraining – they do an excellent job of learning where to go, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.
Contrary to popular belief, most puppies are not actually making a distinction between inside vs. outside when they become housetrained. Instead, they are forming what’s called a “substrate preference,” which means that they develop a preference for whatever type of surface they usually do their business on. If they usually go on carpet, then carpet = the bathroom, as far as they’re concerned. (Not ideal!) Most of us want our puppies to potty outside in the yard, which means we want to teach them that the bathroom = grass.
Remember this concept, because it’s a game-changer in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish. Success has much less to do with punishing accidents when she makes a mistake, than with making sure that your puppy gets lots of experience peeing and pooping on grass. That, in a nutshell, is how housetraining works 🙂
With that in mind, let’s move on to the nitty-gritty details!
My very first piece of advice is also the simplest: take your puppy out frequently.
By frequently, I mean every 20-30 minutes if she is awake and moving around. No exceptions. Set a timer if you need to.
Go outside with her, on a leash. Carry an especially yummy treat in your pocket.
When you get to the designated area, ideally a fairly quiet patch of grass in your front or back yard, your job is to be as boring as possible. Stand still, holding the leash, or walk along quietly while your puppy sniffs. No playing, petting or talking – just be quiet and wait for her to pee.
Sniffing. Sniffing. Quiet. No talking.
She’s squatting to go – success! Now what?
The instant she’s finished, tell her how brilliant she is and reward with a treat. (The treat is very important, for reasons we will discuss in a moment – don’t skip it!) Now you can play with her, pet her, take her for a walk if you wish, or go back inside to relax.
And, really… that’s it.
If you do this from day one, without any other fancy training techniques, you will be 80% of the way towards housetraining your puppy. Maybe 90%. Seems deceptively simple, I know.
Why does it work?
Going out so frequently accomplishes two things. First, it increases the number of learning experiences your pup gets to have where pottying happens on grass – 10 times a day is better than 5, since each successful repetition is helping to drive home the point that the yard = the bathroom. Secondly, it goes a long way towards preventing accidents – if Princess is urinating outside every 20-30 minutes, then her bladder will be fairly empty in between potty runs. This makes it much less likely that she will get “the urge” and go in the house.
Incidentally, this is why the treat is important – without it, your pup may or may not urinate when you take her out. There are lots of things to sniff and look at, and her bladder may not be full enough to prompt her to go. But, within the first day or two, most puppies figure out that they can earn a cookie by squatting to pee – so even if they don’t really need to go, they will still make a token effort. This ensures that the bladder is totally empty every time you go back inside, so accidents are much less likely.
Pretty nifty, right?
So, now you and your pup are back inside. Freshly pottied, ready to relax.
My second piece of advice is this: supervise, supervise, supervise. Ideally, an un-housetrained puppy should never be out of your sight. This means that you may need to use baby gates or other physical barriers to make sure she stays in the same room with you; or, you can tether her to your waist with a leash if needed.
If she’s allowed to wander the house at will, chances are very good that she will have accidents in another room where you aren’t there to see her. Remember that each time she potties on the carpet (or the bathroom rug, or even the kitchen tile), this is a setback in the learning process – so do your best to prevent this from happening!
When accidents do happen – and they will, even if you’re a pro! – make sure to clean the area thoroughly with an enzyme cleaner like Nature’s Miracle or Urine Off. These types of cleaners actually break down the urine molecules so that no trace of smell remains, even to your pup’s extra-sensitive nose. This is important because any remaining odor can function like a signpost to your puppy, encouraging her to pee in this location again.
If you happen to see your puppy squatting to pee in the living room, quickly scoop her up and run outside so she can finish up there – then praise and reward as usual. If you find a puddle on the carpet after the deed is already done, just clean it up without any fuss and move on.
Whatever you do, please don’t punish! Counter-intuitive as it may seem, punishing your pup for accidents is neither necessary nor helpful. And in any case, unless you catch her in the actual act of squatting, she will not associate any scolding or punishment with her accident – dogs are very literal, and rewards and corrections must happen at the precise moment the behavior occurs in order to have any effect. Rubbing a puppy’s nose in her mess, or taking her to it and scolding her, will only confuse and frighten her.
Troubleshooting: Common Problems and How to Fix Them
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s talk about what to do if you’re having trouble. Most of the time, it’s easy to get back on track once you have a plan 🙂
- Not going out often enough
I know we’ve already addressed this idea above (the 20-30 minute rule!), but I wanted to touch on it one more time because it’s such a common problem. Many people have heard the rule of thumb that a 2-3 month old puppy can hold her bladder for about four hours – this is more or less true, in terms of her physical ability, but it misses the point.
An un-housetrained puppy is not making any particular effort to hold her bladder, because she doesn’t know that she should – the exception would be if she is sleeping or in a crate, or some other area that she instinctively doesn’t want to soil. But if she’s playing or wandering around the house, she’ll urinate much more often than this because she doesn’t see any reason not to. Hence, if you’re only going out every 3-4 hours, you’ll be cleaning up lots of accidents.
- Not rewarding outside
This is another common mistake that I see – it’s rainy, or cold, or you can’t find your shoes, so you open the door and let your pup out into the yard. You assume that she potties (that’s what you let her out for, right?) and when she comes back, she gets a treat. Then promptly has an accident in the living room.
So what happened?
Remember that dogs are very literal – they believe they are being rewarded for whatever they’re doing at the moment they get their cookie. Rewarding with a treat when your dog comes back is a great way to teach her to come inside, but it will have no impact at all on her potty habits. You need to reward the actual act of eliminating outdoors – which means that you have to go out with her, and treat immediately when she’s done. No shortcuts here!
- Punishing accidents
This one is less obvious, but I’m including it because I’ve seen several cases where overzealous punishment for potty accidents made things much more difficult.
Here is a typical scenario:
An owner in puppy class asks my advice, frustrated beyond belief with his new pup – he takes her out all the time, walks her all over the neighborhood, and gives her plenty of time to sniff but she won’t go to the bathroom. Then, when they come back inside and he removes the leash, she goes straight into the other room and has an accident.
Very frustrating, indeed! Why does this happen?
In virtually all of these cases, the pup has been punished (in some cases harshly) for having accidents in the house. But, instead of learning “don’t pee in the house” as her owner intended, she learned “don’t pee in front of people.” So now, every time her owner takes her out, she is too afraid to eliminate with him watching. Once they’re back inside and the leash comes off, she breathes a sigh of relief and sneaks off into a quiet room by herself to do her business in peace.
So please, don’t punish your pup! She needs to be comfortable eliminating in your presence – so don’t scare her into holding it whenever you’re around.
- Too much freedom, too soon
Finally, we come to the million dollar question – when is it okay to let your pup start roaming the house more freely? In other words, when is housetraining finished?
There is a tendency to relax the reins and start giving your pup the run of the house once she seems to be on the right track, but this often leads to setbacks and frustration. A favorite saying of many experienced dog trainers is this: learning isn’t linear. This means that learning any new task or concept does not necessarily progress in a neat, orderly fashion with each day better than the last.
Instead, there will be good days and bad days – days when your pup is a rock-star at holding her bladder, and days when she seems to have no idea that she should care where she pees. For this reason, I strongly recommend continuing close supervision for several weeks after you think it’s needed.
The progression I usually use is this: when you have had 5-7 days in a row with no accidents at all, you can begin to extend the amount of time between potty breaks. First try 45 minutes – if that’s successful for several days, then try an hour. If at any point she starts having accidents again, just go back to where things were going well and work your way back up. Once your pup is reliable for an hour or so at a time, you can start to relax your hawk-like supervision a bit.
Conclusions, and A Word of Encouragement
If you’ve made it this far, congrats! There are few minor issues I haven’t covered here, but for the most part, this is it – housetraining a puppy isn’t particularly complicated or difficult, it just requires consistency and a solid plan for success.
Most puppies will be well on their way to being housetrained by 12-16 weeks of age, but some may take longer and some will pick it up faster than average – just like toddlers! In addition, there seems to be some breed variation in how long it takes for housetraining to stick… toy breed dogs often take a while to be reliable because their bladders are so small, so have some extra patience if Princess is a tiny dog like a Yorkie or a Chihuahua.
When in doubt, just go back to the basics – go out often, reward, and supervise. Your pup will be peeing outside like a pro before you know it 🙂