It is very common for me to hear from new puppy clients that they are having problems teaching their puppy to potty outside only. Often I may hear things like, “He has been pretty good the past few days We have only seen a couple of accidents.” Or I may hear, “He doesn’t indicate to us that he needs to go out yet but he usually goes right away when we go outside. As long as we take him out often, he doesn’t have an accident.”
With enough questions, I come to learn (and see) that the puppy has been given A LOT of access to that house and is not supervised carefully enough.
Puppy owners need to remember that their little companion spent the first weeks of his life pottying indoors (or wherever he spent his days). Even if they got their puppy from a breeder who taught the puppy to go in a litter box, on cedar chips or a pee pad, the puppy was still going inside. Now, for the first time in his life, you have a whole new set of expectations.
When it comes to teaching puppies in the most positive way, striving for error free makes the learning process much quicker and helps you avoid any thoughts of using an aversive punishment.
Keep in mind that the physical ability for puppies to be able to control and hold their urinary and bowel sphincters (muscles) could take up to 16 weeks, although I have seen many puppies house trained before then.
A general guideline is that a puppy can wait between elimination opportunities (in hours) 1+ the puppy’s age in months. For example, a 3-month-old puppy might be able to hold it for 4 hours. When active, puppies might have to eliminate more often. Puppies are most likely to need to eliminate after waking, playing and eating. When I am training a small puppy, the combination of working his brain and body, and feeding him food and water means we will take potty breaks at least once during that one hour lesson, sometimes twice.
Steps for setting your puppy (and you) up for success
Careful management is an essential part of housetraining. Prevention is essential. Do not give your puppy opportunities to practice eliminating indoors because with every practice, your puppy is learning…and it is so much easier for your puppy to just squat wherever he is (or move into another room). This is one of the benefits to teaching your puppy that the crate is an awesome place to rest and hang out, because when he is in the crate he is NOT moving around. The majority of puppies will not potty where they sleep so they will wait until they are out of that space to eliminate.
When your puppy is out of the crate, you should be ACTIVELY supervising him. That means keeping your puppy close to you and keeping your eyes on him. You can attach a 6 ft leash to him that doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be attached to you. It just makes you aware that he should be no farther away. By keeping your eyes on him, you will see when he begins to show signs that he needs to eliminate and can walk him outside quickly. Subtle signs to watch for include: your puppy suddenly stopping what he is doing, sniffing the ground, circling, or wandering toward the door.
Make a regular schedule. Again, a general rule for how long a puppy can go between eliminations is 1 + the puppy’s age in months. When he is active, he may need to go more often. In addition to just taking him out regularly, be aware to also take him out after he gets out of the crate, after a resting period, after playing, within 10 to 20 minutes after drinking/eating, and when his body language tells you he is looking for a spot to eliminate.
When taking your puppy out, bring him out on a leash and walk briskly to the door to avoid any potential of your puppy squatting along the way. Avoid carrying your puppy as this does not teach your puppy to move to the door to go outside to eliminate.
Once outside, go to your spot and give your puppy about five minutes. Making a bowel movement may take longer. The process of eliminating is reinforcement in itself (relieving that pressure), however, you can add to that value by also doing something that your puppy enjoys AFTER he eliminates. Timing of your reinforcement is important. If you mark your puppy (saying GOOD, as an example) before he is finished, he will still have urine in his bladder that may end up on your home floor later.
If your puppy came from a breeder who was using cedar chips, it can be helpful to spread cedar chips in the area outside where you want your puppy to go. Little by little, you can remove more of the chips.
If your puppy does have an accident in the house, do not punish your puppy. Simply clean it up with a good enzymatic cleaner and make notes as to what YOU need to do better to prevent that from reoccurring.
Writing down your daily schedule will help you come to learn your puppy’s pattern for elimination. Remember, that everything that goes in eventually comes out so be aware of when your puppy eats. This is one reason why leaving a bowl of food out all day is not a good idea especially for puppies.
If you have a healthy puppy, with careful management and training, eventually your puppy will naturally come to indicate that he needs to go out because that is all he has come to know. You have set him up to prevent practicing the behavior of going inside and given him lots of reinforcement for going outside. When you have several weeks of no indoor accidents you will be well on your way!
Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com.