You spend an hour standing around on the grass and nothing happens. Then, almost as soon as you come back inside, your puppy pees in the house right in front of you!
You’ve read all the tips for toilet training. You understand the theory. So why does this happen?
There’s actually quite a simple explanation and a not-so-simple solution. Be prepared for some basic neurology!
Why A Puppy Holds Pee Until Inside
The explanation has everything to do with how our nervous systems work. By oversimplifying, I’ll put it into two basic categories:
- The voluntary nervous system
- The autonomic nervous system
The voluntary is you in control of your body, walking, talking etc. At the start, this isn’t what a puppy is using when they urinate. They’ll learn this later.
The autonomic nervous system is attending to all our basic functions. A bit like the computer I’m using, it’s chugging away in the background doing major tasks while I use a simplified interface to type. The essential fact today is that this system can be further divided into two arms: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
I have no idea why they’re named this way, but that’s not important. What matters is to know that these two arms are in opposition like a seesaw: when one is high the other is low.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is our ‘fight or flight’ network. It’s activated during stress or danger. When there’s high sympathetic tone, you have:
- suppressed gut function (which is why you feel butterflies in your stomach)
- increased heart rate, dilated pupils and sweating (humans)
- increased blood supply to the brain, lungs and muscles
- shut down of rectal and bladder function
This last one is obviously the key point here. The result is either an absence of ‘feeling the need to go’ or with even higher sympathetic tone, letting it go uncontrollably.
We all know this. When you have a stressful day, you often forget to eat, drink or go to the toilet. A bad fright and you might even wet yourself.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
A state of high parasympathetic tone is our body in ‘maintenance mode’ when we have:
- feelings of hunger and thirst
- low heart rate and blood pressure
- reproductive behaviour
- regular urination and defaecation
This is the resting state, and it’s clearly what we need puppies to be in when we want them to toilet. So hopefully you can now see the explanation as clearly as me.
Even if a puppy knows to pee outside, they physically can’t if they have high sympathetic tone.
Getting A Puppy To Pee Outside
The reason puppies hold on outside and then pee immediately once they get back in is that the house is their happy place and the yard is not. As soon as they come inside, their parasympathetic tone increases and only then do they feel the urge to urinate.
Your job is simple in theory: make outside a happy place too.
In practice this is not so simple. They need to spend enough positive time out there to make it no longer stressful. There are issues like:
- wet grass
- bad weather
- unusual noises
- the sky above
- impatient (or absent) people
You certainly can’t just shove them out and wait for them to pee. Your task is to get them to relax and enjoy it instead of wishing they were safe and sound inside. You’ll need treats, protection from wet, cold or heat, and fun stuff to do.
The older a puppy is acquired, the harder it will be. You want them to be able to adjust quickly, which is often best between 8 and 12 weeks. But you can do it for all ages, it just takes longer.
Once they start going, it gets easier and easier. Eventually you can just open the door, they run out to pee, and then run back for their reward.
This is your reward too, for all the hard work!
You might also like: Simplified Toilet Training Advice
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.