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House Training Your Puppy

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Preventing your puppy from having accidents in the house is the most important thing you can do to assure rapid success. The first few days you take your puppy home are very critical. If you allow your puppy to eliminate on the carpet or an inappropriate area, it will often want to return to this favorite spot. If your puppy eliminates in an inappropriate area, it is very important to clean the area as soon as possible with an odor-eliminating product such as NATURE’S MIRACLE. This will help reduce the puppy’s desire to return to the same area because it smells the urine or fecal odor.


The training method that will achieve the most rapid results utilizes the crate or cage training method. I prefer the plastic airline type crates because they are lightweight, easy to carry, easy to clean and very durable. Some people prefer metal crates, playpens, a small bathroom or even a cardboard box for very small or toy breeds. We will use the term crate or cage to refer to any of these types of enclosures.


It is very important to remember when training puppies, crates should be used for “short-term” confinement. This means you should not leave your puppy in the cage for longer than four hours at a time, especially during the day. Nighttime is a different matter. Many puppies, especially those over three months of age, can sleep in a cage all night without having accidents.


You must first get your puppy used to the crate. The first day you should open the door and place a soft blanket inside. Next, place the puppy's food dish directly in front of the open door. As the puppy becomes accustomed to the crate, place the food dish just inside the open door. After a short time, move the food dish to the back of the cage. Once inside and eating, close the door and talk to the puppy saying, “good puppy,” as it eats. When it is finished eating, if your puppy is quiet and not crying to be let out, open the cage door and praise it. It gets praised for being in the cage and not fussing or crying. Never praise or let the puppy out of the cage if it is crying because that will reinforce its crying behavior and you will be rewarding it for crying. Always wait until it has stopped crying and then let it out.


The frequency of feeding and the type of food you feed will influence when the puppy has to eliminate. Feeding a high quality puppy food will make the training easier. Higher quality foods, which are more digestible, will produce less stool volume and less frequent bowel movements. I suggest feeding puppies three times a day if possible. The first time should be early in the morning after going outside to eliminate for the first time. The second feeding should be mid-afternoon and the last feeding at eight or nine PM. I suggest keeping a journal and mark down every time your puppy eliminates. If you don’t vary the feeding schedule, you should eventually be able to predict when your puppy will have to go.


When your puppy eats, there is a “gastro-colic reflex” that occurs. When food enters the stomach a signal is sent to the brain, which in turn sends a signal to the large intestine saying, “get ready to empty out, there is more food on the way down”. This means your puppy will usually have a bowel movement approximately thirty to sixty minutes after eating. This time will vary with each animal.


Mornings are usually a very busy time with most families. The adults are trying to get ready to leave for work, they are often feeding children and getting them ready for school and the puppy is often unsupervised. This leads to accidents because nobody is paying any attention to the puppy’s signals that it wants to be taken outside to eliminate. It will then wander off into another room to eliminate, even though it has been attempting to get somebody’s attention. Because mornings are so hectic, I recommend feeding the puppy in its cage and keep the cage near the kitchen area so you can hear it cry when it wants out to eliminate. If you cannot watch your puppy every minute, it’s better to keep it confined than have it sneak off to find a spot somewhere in the house to eliminate. If confined in a crate, most puppies will cry to alert you that they have to eliminate within thirty minutes after eating. Puppies do not like to soil their living quarters.


When your puppy is crated and you hear it cry, wait until it stops crying, open the door and say “outside” and take the puppy to the area of the yard you want to designate as the “official toilet area”. Place the puppy on the ground and say “Go potty”. Most puppies will urinate first and then have a bowel movement. While your puppy is in the act of eliminating you should say in a quiet voice, "Good puppy". As soon as it is finished, lavish praise on your puppy. Don’t hold back. Pretend your puppy just presented you with the greatest gift in the world. You can also offer your puppy a tasty food treat immediately after going. If you give the treat after you come back inside, your puppy will think it is being rewarded for coming in and not for eliminating. It may come in to get the food treat before it has finished eliminating completely outside. Keep the tasty treats in a container close to the door you use to take the puppy outside.


Another trick is to allow your puppy to play outside after eliminating, even if it is just for a few minutes. Puppies love to go outdoors just like children love recess at school. They soon learn that if they eliminate, they will immediately be taken indoors and not allowed to play. They will purposely not eliminate so they can stay outdoors. I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to reward your puppy for eliminating outside is to take it for a walk or spend some time outdoors playing with it in a fenced area or on a leash. If you can teach your puppy to eliminate in your own yard before you go for a walk, it will decrease the need to pick up its feces every time you go for a walk. You should always clean up after your puppy or dog every time you take them for a walk, no matter where they eliminate.


If your puppy doesn’t want to eliminate when you take it outdoors, bring it back in and put it in the cage for a short time. Then take your puppy outdoors and repeat the same process. Once it eliminates, praise it and allow it to play outdoors for awhile. If it still doesn’t go, bring it back in and place it back in the cage. Once it goes outdoors, praise it, give the food reward and allow it to play outside. After eliminating outdoors, your puppy has just earned some bonus points and the freedom to be turned loose indoors with supervision. After playing for awhile, if you can no longer supervise your puppy, you should put it back in the cage for some naptime or puppy time-out.


You will achieve the most rapid results if you have the time to take your puppy outdoors every hour. One little trick I like to use if you have children is to get a timer, give it to the children and show them how to set it for one hour. Then let them take turns taking the puppy out every time the timer goes off.


If you need to leave the house for a short time, no more than three or four hours, you can usually leave your puppy confined in the cage while you are gone. When you leave, provide your puppy with some chew toys and remove any food and water from the cage.


It is imperative to recognize the signals your puppy demonstrates to tell you it has to eliminate. The signals may be sniffing the floor or circling rather frantically looking for a place to go. All puppies will give some type of signal. Your job is learning these signals and taking your puppy outside as soon as it alerts you. If you have trouble picking up your puppy’s signals, try hanging a small bell from the doorknob where you take your puppy outside and every time you take it out ring the bell. Many puppies will learn to ring the bell to alert you when they have to go out. Each time they ring the bell, give them verbal praise and take them outside to eliminate.


As I mentioned earlier, feed your puppy rather late and then allow at least one hour after eating before taking it outdoors to eliminate. The later you make the last feeding, the less chance your puppy will have a bowel movement during the night. If you feed your puppy its last meal in the late afternoon, it will probably have a bowel movement in the early morning hours. You should give your puppy a chance to eliminate just before you go to bed. When you go to bed, put your puppy in its cage with a soft blanket to sleep on and maybe a stuffed animal or a chew toy but no food or water. Very young puppies, usually less than twelve weeks of age, will often have to be taken out to eliminate at least one time during the night. If your puppy cries, take it outside and praise it for going but bring it back indoors and place it back in the cage. Do not play with your puppy or it will want to wake you up just to play. It may whimper for a short time but will eventually go to sleep. Once your puppy gets older and has better bladder control, it will be able to go all night without eliminating.


If your puppy doesn’t wake you up and it eliminates in its cage at night, you can place the cage in a bathroom or utility room, leave the cage door open and place newspapers on the floor to go on. You can also use this method if you don’t want to be wakened up to take the puppy outdoors at night or if you are physically unable to do so.


The first night home it may be best to place the puppy’s cage in your bedroom next to your bed so you can place your hand where the puppy can smell it. Once your puppy becomes comfortable with the cage you should try to move it out of the bedroom. You can move the cage five feet from the bed for a few nights and if the puppy is doing well, move the cage near the door and eventually move it out of the bedroom. If your puppy can sleep by itself away from humans it may be less likely to develop separation anxiety when it is older. Another reason to move the cage out of the bedroom is if you have children. If your puppy sleeps in your room and your children don’t, you are telling the puppy that it’s more important than the kids because it’s allowed to sleep with the “alpha adults” and your children are not. This can lead to problems when your puppy goes through “social maturity” when some behavioral issues may occur.

Long-Term Confinement

Long-term confinement is utilized when you must leave your puppy unattended for periods of four to five hours or longer. Very young puppies, much like newborn infants, have to urinate frequently and will have six to eight bowel movements a day. If you must leave the house or be away from your puppy for more than five hours at a time, and you leave your puppy in a cage or crate, you should assume they will have accidents. This will make it more difficult to train your puppy because they will become accustomed to eliminating in their living space. Puppies do not eliminate because they are mad you left them. They just cannot hold it for long periods of time. I feel it is cruel to punish or get mad at your puppy if they eliminate in their cage. They have no idea why you are punishing them. DELAYED PUNISHMENT DOES NOT WORK!


For long-term confinement you should select a relatively small room such as a bathroom or utility room, preferably with a non-porous floor such as vinyl, tile or concrete. Remove anything your puppy might chew on or damage. Cover the entire floor with a double layer of newspapers. Place the puppy’s cage at one end of the room with its food and water bowl. If your puppy has to eliminate it will usually try to get as far away as possible from its cage and food bowl.


Once your puppy has located its favorite spot to eliminate, you can remove some of the papers. Eventually you will have just one small area of newspapers to clean up. Don’t forget to leave some of your puppy’s favorite chew toys to occupy its time while you are away.


When you arrive home, open the door and call or carry your puppy outside as quickly as you can so it doesn’t have the opportunity to go in the house. Once outside, follow your regular routine for training.

If you have children in school who arrives home before you do, it is imperative that the first thing they do when they arrive home is to take the puppy outside to eliminate. If the puppy doesn’t eliminate, have them put the puppy back into the confined area and take it outside a short time later. Once the puppy has gone, it can be loose indoors with supervision. If the children cannot watch the puppy, they should place it back in the confined area or put it on a leash and keep it with them. When it eventually has to go, they will notice and take it outdoors to eliminate.


If your puppy soils its cage at nighttime, you should use the long-term confinement technique. Put the cage in a small room, place newspapers on the floor and leave the cage door open so the puppy can go on the papers and not soil its cage. When your puppy gets a little older it should be able to go all night without eliminating in its cage. Be sure not to leave food and water with your puppy at night.

If you are gone all day you should use the long-term confinement because you cannot expect your puppy to hold it all day. I also think it borders on animal cruelty to leave a puppy in a cage all day. When you arrive home, take your puppy outside and follow the same routine. Once you are home, take your puppy out every hour or so.


The #1 thing that determines how rapidly you will get your puppy trained is how often you take it outdoors or to its paper or litter box. If you are home most of the time on weekends you can make more progress with the training because you will have more opportunity to take your puppy outdoors.

Paper or Litter Box Training

Some people are unable to take their puppy outdoors to eliminate because they are disabled, senior citizens, live in a high-rise or would just prefer to train them to go indoors. Paper or litter box training methods are ideal, especially for small or toy breeds. Instead of taking your puppy outdoors, place them on the newspapers or in the litter box and say “Go potty”. If your puppy goes, praise it and immediately give it a food reward. If it doesn’t go, place it back in the cage or keep it on a leash and a short time later try again. Eventually it will go. Keeping your puppy on a leash so it has to follow you around the house is a great way to prevent accidents and it will teach your puppy to walk on a leash.

Proper Punishment

If you remember only one thing from this handout, please remember this. DELAYED PUNISHMENT DOES NOT WORK! If you are not paying attention to your puppy and it eliminates in another room and you don’t find it until some time later, it does no good to scold it. If you say in a stern voice, “What did you do?”, your puppy will probably cower and act like it did something wrong because of the tone of your voice, not because it thinks it did anything wrong. I personally feel rubbing your puppy’s nose in its own feces or spanking it is counter-productive and somewhat barbaric.


If your puppy eliminates in the house when you are not watching it and you then scold it after the fact, you will create an “owner- absent elimination problem”. What the puppy will learn is that every time there is a bowel movement or urine on the floor, its owner gets extremely mad. It does not realize that the act of eliminating on the floor is wrong. The puppy knows by the tone of your voice and your body language that it is going to get punished and will immediately start shaking. The puppy learns that when mom or dad says in a stern voice “What did you do?”, it better tuck its tail between its legs and run behind the couch or under the bed. After having its face shoved in a pile of feces enough times and being hit and yelled at, the pup thinks it’s the feces or urine that is making everyone so mad. It does not realize that going on the floor is wrong because when it does go on the floor and nobody is around, it doesn’t get yelled at.


Clients will often say their puppy knows when it does something wrong because when they find the feces or urine the puppy starts shaking and tries to hide. Nothing could be further from the truth. It tries to hide because it knows feces or urine on the floor and mom or dad in the same room means its nose is going to get rubbed into the feces again. This will create another problem. Your puppy knows it will get in trouble if there is feces or urine on the floor when mom or dad are home, so it waits until you leave and then goes on the floor. You come home six hours later and your happy puppy greets you, completely forgetting it went on the floor. You find the feces and punish the puppy that has no clue why. If you find urine or feces and you did not see your puppy do it, clean it up and don’t say a thing to your puppy.


Punish whoever was supposed to be watching it, not the puppy. If you do catch your puppy in the act of eliminating, say your puppy’s name loudly and the word “outside” or whatever command you say when you take your puppy outdoors. Hopefully this will make your puppy stop in mid-stream and you can take it outdoors. If it doesn’t stop, don’t say, “No, bad dog!” because it’s not wrong to eliminate, it’s just the wrong to go on the floor.

House Training Older Dogs

Using these same techniques will work for older dogs. Not allowing them the opportunity to eliminate in the house is the real key to all house training.


House training will progress more rapidly if you devote enough time and effort to utilize the methods I have described. You will have to choose the method that works best for your particular puppy. Teach your puppy what you want it to do, where you want it to go and then reward it for going. Some puppies train very quickly and others take much longer.


There will be times when you think your puppy is finally trained and then it will have occasional accidents. If this occurs, do not become discouraged. Repeat the steps you have been doing so far-praise, rewards and taking your puppy outdoors frequently. Be patient and do not lose your temper or you will delay any forward progress. Love, patience and kind treatment will go a long way. Now get started and good luck. Any problems contact your veterinarian. 

© Gary L. Clemons DVM

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