25 years ago, in my very first week as a vet, I was in for a shock. My next patient was a lovely bouncy Cocker Spaniel puppy. I said innocently enough, “so, how’s everything going?”
Right in front of me, without another word, his owner burst into tears. I tried to help, but 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 face. As vets, we might consider ourselves masters of keeping puppies healthy, but we often look on helplessly at training issues.
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 let’s start with the theory.
Puppy Toilet Training Rules
Everything you are told about potty training should be based on only two facts:
- A puppy’s only instinct is to not pee where they sleep
- Puppies learn where to pee by where they went before
Point one we will use to establish crate training and similar strategies. Point two, however, is the one more owners fail to grasp. In simple terms, each time your puppy pees or poops in any place, they are less inhibited by it and more likely to do it there again.
You need to think of toilet training as:
- I make a tiny step forward every time my puppy goes in the right place
- I make a tiny step backward every time my 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 places:
- Supervised: inside, but constantly watched
- Free: on a surface where toileting is allowed
- Crated: in a place where they don’t want to toilet
First, choose the desired place: I’ll call it the target. 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. Never choose something you don’t want them to pee on later, like fabrics.
This is the most important step but also the most exhausting. It means literally never taking your eyes off them. The puppy is in the house, but kept within sight by use of barriers and doors.
One person is designated 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 ideal is to predict each wee or poo and take the puppy to the target each time. If you miss one, it’s your fault, not theirs. In the beginning, you spend a lot of time waiting around, but it gets quicker once your puppy knows what the treat is for.
If a puppy starts to go in the house, your job is to swiftly transfer them to the target without stress or shame. If they finish in the right place, still reward and praise within 5 seconds.
The Allowed Place
When you need to leave your puppy for long periods (for example, you work all day), you need to created a place where toileting is allowed. As it’s too dangerous to leave a puppy alone in the yard at this age, this will be either:
- A play pen or fenced enclosure
- A small room with smooth flooring
- A courtyard if there are no dangers
Whatever you choose, it’s critical that the
inside vs outside, how long
Welcome to the most stressful part of owning a puppy!
First, here’s the trick everyone needs to know: a puppy prefers to toilet in a place by where they toileted before. They develop nothing more than a habit; we call this a substrate preference. That’s the trick we use to toilet train dogs.
So if you start out by letting a puppy urinate and defaecate where they like and later try to control it, it’s going to be a lot harder. Just like breaking any bad habit. The clear message from the past 20 years watching puppy owners struggling with toilet training is that the owners who have a plan from day one are the fastest and the most successful.
So here is the simple rule:
An untrained puppy must be either in one of three places at all times
Now let’s describe in detail each of these places.
The Allowed Place
A place where toileting is allowed needs to be chosen and agreed upon by all. Usually it’s the grass outside or a dirt patch, but it can also be a room with the floor completely covered in newspaper or training pads. The point is that the puppy only has access to that surface.
When in this area you can either watch the puppy, perhaps using a lead, but you’ll usually need to set up a long-term pen or room where your puppy can be left unsupervised in safety. It will then need to include bedding, food, water, toys and food-stuffed chew toys. That way you can go to work knowing your puppy is safe, provided for, and not learning bad habits while you’re gone.
The Supervised Area
Under continuous supervision means exactly that. This is the most important of the three times as it’s both when the puppy learns the most and usually the least time spent of the three places.
Here, the puppy is inside with you while you go about your normal routine. At every moment your puppy could squat and urinate or defaecate so you need your wits about you. A good idea is to nominate a person who takes full responsibility for puppy watching. That person needs to pass on the responsibility to someone else when they can’t watch any more.
If the puppy starts to sniff or circle, or begins to squat you need to immediately pick him or her up without causing them fear or stress. Take them straight to the toileting area and encourage them to relax until they toilet. Then give praise and reward with a yummy treat within 5 seconds.
At regular intervals every 30 to 60 minutes you will need to take your puppy to the toileting area. This is especially important after waking up or shortly after eating. At the beginning, they will have no idea why they have to be there and want to go straight back inside. The only thing you can do is be very patient.
A good idea is to take a chair and a book, rug up if it’s winter, and attach the puppy lead to your wrist. Remember to have that tasty treat ready in your hand so the second your puppy squats to toilet you can not only praise them but give them a treat that will help them learn.
Where they naturally won’t toilet means doing something called crate training. Follow the link to learn more.
Alternatives to a crate are your lap or on a bed.
The main thing about crate training is that it’s not for everyone. You need to make your puppy accustomed to staying in a small confinement cage for periods of up to one hour at a time. We think it’s a great technique which yields other benefits in settling your puppy, but please make up your own mind.
The Next Stage
There will be plenty of successes and setbacks along the path to a toilet-trained puppy. As your puppy learns to go in the place you choose, you can start relaxing some of the original rules.
The puppy left outside…
may start going regularly to the right area if they get the choice. At this point you may no longer need a confinement pen. However, beware! Our Common puppy hazards page explains why leaving puppies unsupervised in backyards can expose them to danger.
The puppy on a covered floor…
will start going over to the paper or pad once the habit is strong. Then you can remove some of the covering each day until your puppy reliably always goes to a single training pad or sheet of newspaper.
The puppy under continuous supervision…
may start wandering outside if the door is left open, or may start whining when they need to go out. You may also find that if you take your puppy out every hour, they will not only get very quick at toileting for a reward but they will then be very unlikely to need to go at other times.
The Final Stage
Once puppies get to 10-12 weeks of age (depending on development) they can often go all night without needing to toilet.
Therefore, once you are sure this is possible, as long as they are taken out to toilet at 10-11pm, they can be kept in a bed in a crate or box overnight, and taken straight out no later than at sunrise the next morning.
Just like older children, even when they know to go outside, you may need to keep reminding them. And make sure that when they head to the back door you’re there to let them out.
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. An old-fashioned and harmful method was to rub the puppy’s nose in it; this only makes them distressed without understanding why. Just clean it up and think about why the puppy was able to do it without being observed or predicted.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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