Updated November 29, 2020
25 years ago, in my very first week as a vet, a lovely bouncy Cocker Spaniel puppy taught me a hard lesson. Innocently enough, I asked his owner “so, how’s everything going?”
Right in front of me, without another word, his owner burst into tears. Back then I really didn’t know what was going on. I sure do now.
Toilet training, house training or potty training. Call it what you will, but it’s the greatest challenge most puppy owners will face. As vets, we might consider ourselves masters of keeping puppies healthy, but we often look on helplessly at training problems.
Don’t despair. Over the years working with both other people’s puppies and my own I’ve come to see that toilet training is actually very simple. In a minute I’ll give you literally only three steps, but to use these, you need to understand why. So please stay with me for a little theory first.
Puppy Toilet Training Rules
Everything you do while potty training should be built around only three basic facts:
- A puppy’s only instinct is to not pee where they sleep
- Puppies learn better with rewards than punishment
- Puppies learn where to pee by where they went before
Point one we will use to establish crate training and similar strategies. Point two is obvious. Point three, however, is the one more owners fail to grasp.
Each time your puppy pees or poops in any place, they are less inhibited by it and more likely to do it there again.
Therefore, you need to think of toilet training as:
- Making a tiny step forward every time your puppy goes in the right place
- Making a tiny step backward every time your puppy goes in the wrong place
A puppy that can freely toilet in the house will always be slower and more difficult to train than a puppy who can’t. So let’s get onto those three steps.
Toilet Training Made Easy
Until a puppy can be trusted to not pass faeces or urine in the house, they should only be in one of three situations:
- Supervised inside, but constantly watched
- Free on a surface where toileting is allowed
- Crated in a place where they don’t want to toilet
Now all that is left is to explain these three states better.
The Puppy Under Supervision
This is the most important step but also the most exhausting. You will be not taking your eyes off your puppy. As often as needed, you will also be taking them to your chosen place to pee.
It might be a training pad in an apartment, or newspaper in the corner, or grass outside. You might use all three to begin with, especially if it’s a long way to the grass.
Tip: use barriers and doors to keep them in sight.
One person is always on duty as the watcher, with shoes on, treat bag in hand, ready to jump up in a flash. If that person wants a break, they pass the responsibility to someone else. You can’t even watch television properly (hooray for podcasts!)
Your aim is to predict each wee or poo and take the puppy to the target before it happens. If instead a puppy starts to go in the house, your job is to smoothly transfer them to the target location without stress or shame. If they finish in the right place, reward and praise within 5 seconds. If they don’t, it’s your fault not theirs.
After a while your puppy will learn what you want and toilet quickly when taken to the right place. Then you can do it regularly enough that they won’t go in the house between times.
The Free Roaming Puppy
Inevitably you also have to leave your puppy alone, for example, if you work all day. Therefore, you need to create a bigger place where toileting is allowed that also has food, water, bedding and toys.
This will be either:
- A play pen or fenced enclosure
- A small room with smooth flooring
- A courtyard or balcony made free of danger
Tip: the surface must be something that it’s OK if your puppy pees on later, because that’s what they’re about to learn to do. If you don’t want that to be what’s always there, cover it with newspaper or training matts.
After a while a puppy gets used to going on the pads or paper. Then you might be able to slowly reduce the floor covering until it’s just in a corner.
The Crated Puppy
Now the tricky one. The crate uses a puppy’s reluctance to soil their bed but it only works well for short periods. Crates are ideal for when you are letting your puppy free roam, but you need to do things like:
- Pick up the kids from school
- Cook dinner
- Go to the toilet
- Drop down to the shops for milk
- For reading or watching TV, putting your puppy on your lap works even better!
What you’re doing is ‘parking’ your puppy where you know they won’t go as long as they aren’t desperate. Then, when you get back, you take them to the toilet straight away.
Tip: take as much time as needed so that your puppy never feels stressed or fearful when left
Crating a puppy isn’t for everyone, or even every puppy but it’s a great strategy for most. But you can’t just do it without preparation. That’s why you’ll need to read our guide to crate training before you do it.
After a while a puppy may get comfortable and continent enough that you can leave them for longer periods. Eventually, most can even even be crated overnight as long as you wake up before they do.
Good luck! Remember, if urine or faeces are found in the house after the puppy has finished, there is nothing that can be done to teach the puppy about it. Just clean it up and think about why the puppy was able to do it without being observed or predicted.
Related: A Longer Guide To Toilet Training
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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.