Thursday, Oct. 31st 2019

How to Housebreak Your Puppy in 10 Easy Steps

How to Housebreak Your Puppy (or problematic adult dog!) in 10 Easy Steps

  1. OK, kidding about the 10 easy steps. I’m just going to give you advice on how to go about it, and not count the steps. 

Surface Preference

An important concept to understand is during the socialization period for puppies, from about 8 to 16 weeks of age, they are learning about their world.  This includes learning what places to eliminate, and what surfaces to eliminate on.  They develop a preference for the surfaces they eliminate on the most during this time.  What this means is, if they go to the bathroom most often on your carpet, that’s what they will prefer for the rest of their life.  Your job is to make sure they learn a preference for YOUR choice, usually grass, although a potty pad is another alternative for some small apartment dwellers.   This makes it important to minimize the number of accidents.  You can also use this to your advantage by taking them to the area of the yard you want them to eliminate in, to teach them to prefer that location. But also make sure you vary locations so they will still go when not at home.

The Importance of Rewards

Dogs learn to repeat actions that have earned them a reward.  A reward may be praise, petting, a treat, playtime, stolen food, or just a good time.  Many bad behaviors are self-rewarding, like raiding the trash or counter-surfing. If you want your puppy to repeat elimination outdoors, they need to get a reward within five seconds of that action.  Why five seconds?  Because dogs have a very short attention span.  One of the biggest mistakes people make when housebreaking is to give their dog a treat when they come back indoors.  You are rewarding the most recent action, in this case, coming indoors.  This is why so many people find their puppy coming in, getting the treat, and promptly pottying on the floor.  They haven’t been rewarded for pottying outdoors, so they just hurry back to get the treat when they come inside without getting their business done outside first.  If you want to successfully potty train your puppy, you should take treats with you and GO OUTSIDE with them, so you have that treat presented right after they get done going to the bathroom. No matter the weather.  No matter how late at night.  Keep a container of treats next to the door you use to take them out so it goes out with you every time.  The more rewards they get for going to the bathroom outdoors, the faster they will get the hang of it.  A little tidbit—if you always say the same word, such as “potty” or “get it done”, as they go, they may eventually be trained to go on command.  This is very handy if you are walking your dog in bad weather!

Leash Training

Be sure that at least some of the time you are taking your puppy outside, you are using a leash.  This will help you be close enough to give a treat, and also train your puppy to eliminate whether they are on leash or not.  It is problematic if at some point in the future you decide to take your dog on vacation only to find that they absolutely refuse to use the bathroom when on a leash!

Crate Training

Crate training your dog is important for many reasons.  At some point, your dog may need to spend some time in a veterinary clinic or boarding kennel, or travel with you.  Teaching them to be comfortable and relaxed in a crate is a worthwhile endeavor.  For house-breaking, it can be invaluable.  The crate should be large enough for your puppy to stand and turn around in, but not much larger.  If there is too much extra room, a puppy may eliminate in one corner if they can lie down on the other end of the crate and still stay out of it.  The goal is for them to see the crate as their bed and a relaxing and safe place to be.  At first, most puppies will cry when left in a crate, so expect that.  Make it a point to only open the door to let them out when they have not barked or whined for at least five seconds.  With time, they will learn that being quiet gets them let out, especially if you ask for gradually longer periods of quiet before opening the door.  You may offer them a treat for going in the crate, and another any time you catch them being quiet in the crate, to praise them for good behavior.

The Importance of Play

Make sure that your interaction with your puppy when outside for a potty break doesn’t end as soon as they stand up and get a treat.  If your puppy learns that as soon as they potty, you will take them back inside and stop interacting with them, they will be slower to go to the bathroom because they don’t want that time with you to end.  When you are going outside with your pup, business first—keep directing them to places to potty and minimize play until they have gone to the bathroom and gotten their treat.  Then, unless the weather is exceptionally bad, throw a party!  Pet them, wrestle a little, throw a ball, let them romp and interact with you in play.  This is not only a reward for getting their business done, but will encourage them to do it quickly so you’ll play with them.

Length of Time

Puppies on average can hold their urine for about 1 hour per month of age, plus one.  Some may go longer at night.  This means a new puppy at 8 to 9 weeks of age should not be expected to hold their bladders more than 3 hours.  Yes, you’ll have to get up in the night, perhaps more than once.  Ah, the glamorous life of a new puppy owner.  During the training process, it’s better to take your puppy out every hour or two during the day.  If you work full-time away from the home, you’ll either need to find someone to do this for you, or perhaps re-consider the timing of getting this new addition to your family.  Remember the surface preference thing?  You don’t want to frequently leave your puppy alone so long that they have no choice but to go inside.  Also, in general a puppy can’t be considered truly house-broken until they have had no accidents inside for at least 3 months, and are asking to be let out.  Anyone who hands you a young puppy and says they are already house-broken, well, they may also have a bridge to sell you.

Asking to be let out

How do you teach your puppy to ask to be let outside?  If they are natural barkers, you can first teach them to bark on command, then ask them to bark before you open the door for them to go out.  If not, bell-training can work very well.  You simply hang a large jingle-bell from the door handle, and ring it just before you open the door every time.  After a while, you can hold a treat or toy up to encourage the puppy to jump up near the door.  Hopefully, they will accidentally bump the bell, causing it to ring, whereupon you immediately open the door to take them out.  Over time, they should make the connection that the bell ringing means the door will open, and will do it on purpose.  Yes, that may mean there will be times where they just want to keep going outside to play and you’ll have to jump up to let them.  Just go outside and play with them for a while to tire them out.  It’s good for both of you.  Many people decide to use a doggie door, and that’s fine if you choose to use this method, AFTER you are sure your puppy understands that it is supposed to eliminate outdoors.   Don’t use it as a reason to not go out to offer treats and have some playtime. 

Observation of Elimination

Try to make it a point to observe your pet’s stools at least once every other day or so, life-long.  Check them daily if the pet isn’t acting right, or is transitioning to a new food.  It’s much easier for your vet to treat your pet if you know exactly when a GI problem started, and what kind of stool is being produced.  It’s also a good way to evaluate whether a new food is being well-tolerated.  Also make sure your pet isn’t having any trouble urinating, or isn’t urinating more or less than usual. Try to observe the color of the pet’s urine periodically.  There is always a sudden rash of urinary tract infections seen at veterinary clinics right after the first snow.  Not because the weather has caused it, but because all of a sudden people can see that there is blood in the urine, on the snow.  Some of these pets may have had an infection for weeks or longer.  So, do be observant!

House-Training Kittens

Provide a litter box with sides low enough for easy access.  Place a sample of the kitten’s stool in the box.  Place the kitten in the box several times a day at first, until you see the kitten use it.  Make sure the kitten always has easy access to the box and knows where it is.  Boom, done. (and if your cat has stopped using the box, see …)


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