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House training your puppy

This article, by Dr Cynthia D. Fisher, B.A. MS, PhD- Chief Instructor (Obedience)at Gold Coast Dog Obedience Club - is used with the kind permission of the author.

Learning to be clean in the house is one of the first things you'll want to start teaching your new puppy. At seven and eight weeks of age, your puppy will not be physically able to fully control its elimination, but the ability will develop quickly over the next few weeks.

House training will take a month or two of intense effort on your part. However, doing the job correctly and thoroughly from the start is much preferable to a half-hearted attempt that goes on much longer and creates confusion and uncertainty for the dog, to say nothing of damage to your carpets!

Modern thinking about how best to house train a puppy is quite different than what was recommended years ago. Punishment for mistakes is no longer considered either necessary or helpful. Delayed punishment is cruel and simply doesn't work. If you discover a pile or puddle in the house that the dog left minutes or hours ago, it is too late to react.

The dog cannot figure out why you are angry, and cannot learn from the punishment. If you catch the dog in the act of relieving itself in the house and punish it, the immediacy of the consequence means that it can learn, but what it learns will probably be it's bad to eliminate in the presence of my owner, rather than it's bad to eliminate in the house.

YOU and your actions are much more salient to the pup than the location inside the house. You might wind up with a dog that hides behind the sofa or in the guest bedroom to eliminate. As you'll see below, you want the pup to eliminate in your presence in the correct location, so punishing it for performing in the house is not helpful. There are two keys to successful house training:

  1. Reward for elimination in the correct location

  2. Prevent accidents in the house

1. Reward for Elimination in the Correct Location

The idea is to catch your dog doing something right so you can reward it and thus strengthen its likelihood of doing the same thing again in the future. First decide where you want the dog to eliminate. For most people, this will be a handy corner of the back garden. Some people train their pups to eliminate on newspaper in the house, but most experts recommend teaching the dog to eliminate outside the house from the very beginning, rather than trying to paper train it and then retrain it to grass.

You must accompany your puppy, on leash, to the elimination spot quite often. When you get there, stay with it but do not play with it, just let it wander around on lead and sniff the ground. As soon as it begins to eliminate, praise softly. When it has finished, give it couple of special food treats from your pocket and play with it. Rewarding the dog for performing in the correct location time after time helps it learn where you want it to relieve itself.

You will need to take the pup to the chosen location quite often and at the time that you can reasonably expect that the pup will need to eliminate. When a pup is very young, it may need to urinate as often as once per hour during the day.

Other times you can be pretty sure the pup will need to eliminate are immediately (IMMEDIATELY!) on waking up in the morning, 10-15 minutes after eating or drinking, after waking up from a nap, after a vigorous playtime, when something exciting happens like the arrival of a guest, and last thing at night. Many also need to relieve themselves in the middle of the night until they are mature enough to hold for seven-eight hours. It's a good idea to get your pup on a regular schedule. Feed three meals per day, and be sure to take the pup out shortly after each feed as well as at other times suggested above.

When the puppy is getting the idea of eliminating soon after you take it to the toilet spot in the garden, you can begin to put toileting on cue. Start to repeat your cue word (like 'busy' or 'do it') as the puppy sniffs and begins to eliminate. Eventually the puppy will become more likely to eliminate when it hears this cue.

If the puppy does not perform after 3 minutes in the garden, you may bring it back inside but put it in a crate (see below) then take it out again in 30 minutes for another try. When you are pretty sure that the pup is empty, you can let it loose in the house for a short while, under close supervision of course.

2. Prevent Accidents in the House

While teaching the pup to eliminate outside, you must do everything in your power to prevent accidents in the house. This means anticipating when the pup may need to relieve itself, and taking it outside to the designated spot in time. It means watching the dog 100% of the time it is loose in the house, and putting it in one of two safe areas if you cannot watch it.

If at any time you see it circle, sniff the floor, or start to squat, immediately INTERRUPT it by calling it urgently to the door to go outside with you to finish its business. Keep a supply of treats handy so you'll always have some for quick trips to the garden!

Your two safe areas will be 1) a crate, and 2) a puppy play room, as described below.

1) CRATE. Dogs are naturally clean and will not usually foul their immediate sleeping area. You can take advantage of this tendency by putting the dog in a very small area such as a dog crate (with soft bedding and a chew toy like a Kong stuffed with kibble and peanut butter or canned dog food) when you cannot watch it. It will probably hold while in the crate, then you can take it outside immediately after coming out of the crate. This helps you create an opportunity to reward the dog for a correct elimination while avoiding accidents in the house.A young puppy should not be crated without a toilet break for more than an hour at a time (except at night).

2) PLAYROOM. The playroom is for longer safe confinement, if you have to be away for several hours. It might be a small bathroom or laundry, with a washable floor. First puppy proof the room by removing ALL objects a puppy might chew, damage, want to wee on, or be hurt by - like towels, shower curtains, electric cords, waste baskets, rugs, and household cleaners. Put the puppy's bed in one corner, and a small toilet area in the opposite corner.

 If you want the dog to get in the habit of eliminating outside, the toilet area should be a few square feet of turf. Also put a bowl of water and several stuffed Kongs in the room. This will keep the puppy occupied while you are away, and allow it to eliminate in an acceptable location while learning that 'grass = toilet'.

If your garden is fenced and you have a doghouse or sheltered area outside, the alternative to a playroom is to put the puppy outside when you cannot watch it. Chew toys are still recommended to keep the dog occupied and less likely to get up to mischief while alone. The disadvantage of time outside is that when you do bring the pup into the house, you don't know whether its just relieved itself or is just about to need to relieve itself, so preventing accidents requires even more attention.

If the dog sleeps inside the house, put it in its crate or playroom at night after a late visit to the garden. A 3:00 am toilet break may be needed the first week or two if the dog is crated, then gradually move the time later until the pup can make it through the night.

When there is an accident in the house, clean it up thoroughly with a special deodorising product obtained from your pet store or veterinarian. Then ask yourself why the accident happened and how you should revise the toilet schedule or become more vigilant to prevent it happening again.

 Puppies should NEVER be unsupervised in the house. You wouldn't give an 18 month old child unsupervised run of your home, would you? Close doors to keep the pup in the room with you so you can keep an eye on it. When you can't watch it like a hawk, use the crate, playroom, or fenced yard.