Puppy Potty Problems

Tiny Cali grew up to be a master people-trainer

A couple of people have asked me recently about issues housebreaking puppies.

Teaching puppies to potty outside is deceptively easy — and unbelievably challenging.

It’s easy because they want to be clean and have strong instincts to keep their home, especially their sleeping area, clean and because they develop associations and habits relatively quickly.

And challenging because it requires constant vigilance and consistent, immediate responses. We humans tend to be terrible at both of those things.

It’s easy …

Here’s the easy part. Figure out where you want your dog to “go” and think about a reasonable daily routine. Recognize that if you are dealing with a puppy, you will need to go out far more often than when you have a housebroken adult dog. Even adolescent puppies can hold on for more reasonable periods. But young puppies, up to 4 or 5 months, need to go often.

Puppies generally need the chance to pee when they wake up in the morning or after a nap, when they have been playing, and pretty soon after eating and drinking.

… And challenging

And here’s where we tend to mess up. Soon is immediate, especially for little puppies. When the puppy wakes up from deep sleep, soon = instantly. After a shorter nap or play session, you might have a couple of minutes. While we dink around getting our shoes and our jacket and hunting for the flashlight, we’re likely to find that we need to pivot to cleanup mode.

So tip #1: If you have a little puppy, get slip-on shoes and keep them with your flashlight, leash, jacket, whatever right by the door. When the puppy wakes or stops playing, grab her and run out.

The other way we mess up is thinking about the pup in too-human terms. When we wake up, for example, we need to go … but it’s not so immediate. So we don’t rush. Or we expect the dog to give some kind of very clear, obvious signal of her distress.

The puppy is probably trying very hard to communicate with you, but you’re missing it. It might be a particular look, or walking to the door (if you are very lucky!), or a tiny little whimper or whine. It can be very subtle. The problem is, if you miss it enough times, the dog might stop trying.

Tip #2: Pay very close attention to your puppy the first few days you are together and learn how she communicates with you. Respond immediately; by meeting her needs and learning to understand her, you will start building deep trust and understanding.

The other way we think as humans and not as dogs is, when we take our pups out, we launch straight into fun. We play with them or head out on a walk filled with amazing smells. The pup might pee before or during or might not. She might get distracted by the fun. Chances are, though, she’ll need to go again after. By which time we’ve come inside, removed our shoes and jacket … only to turn around and find that we now need to clean the floor.

Tip #3: Commence playing only after the pup has peed. Then play your hearts out. Then give the pup a few minutes to pee again before going in. I don’t know where they store it, but puppies never seem to truly empty the tank.

Tip #4: A great idea is coming up with a verbal cue — time to go, or get busy, or go potty. It doesn’t matter what cue you use, as long as you use the same one all the time. Say those words as soon as you go outside, and then wait. Don’t interact with the puppy at all. If you need, to, say the cue again.

When the pup goes, throw a party — praise, maybe a treat, whatever. Mark the occasion. Then play or walk (another reward). Use the cue again before going in.

In time (surprisingly little time, actually), the dog will associate the cue with doing her business and might often actually just go when you ask her to. How cool is that?

A warning

So, if I’m so smart about all of this pee business, how did Cali train me to play ball with her before she goes?

Good question. I blame long, gorgeous Montana summer evenings. We’d go for the last walk in the evening and, I think to delay going in, she’d take forever to pee. And I never caught on, since I was also enjoying being outside. Once she got her very own yard, she would suggest ball games to delay having to go in. And again, I never caught on. She’s a very good people trainer. So a final tip: Pay attention to what your dog is doing and don’t get sucked into the same trap!

Let Your Dog Choose

 

Jana choosesIn “Communication Goes Two Ways,” I wrote about learning to read your dog’s body language, especially to recognize when she’s stressed or afraid. You can take your communication to the next level by teaching your dog new ways to communicate with you. Some ideas?

    • Hang a bell on the door your dog uses to go out in the yard for potty breaks. Encourage the dog to nudge the bell each time you let her out. She will soon connect the bell with getting you to open the door, and ring it when she needs to go out. A word of caution: Some smarty-pants dogs will use this system to train you, demanding to be let out every time you sit down or stop paying attention to them.
      One clever dog of Deni’s used this system to get rid of a pesky young puppy sibling. She’d ring the bell; puppy (and Deni) would come running; Deni would open the door; puppy would run out — and clever older dog would not. She’d stay inside to enjoy the calm, now puppyless, house.

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  • Offer your dog choices: Do you want to play with the tennis ball or the Frisbee? Which treat do you want? Do you want a walk or should I toss the ball? This can be as simple as offering two items for the dog to choose. But you can, with training, teach the dog to answer simple (two-option) questions. A student in my canine-human communication class taught her dog to choose between two options (sometimes yes and no) by nosing one hand or the other. A researcher in Florida taught dogs to choose a reward for a task they had completed by nosing a card with a picture of the desired reward — a ball, a food treat, a tug game, etc. She found that each dog had definite preferences!
  • Let your dog decide which direction you head on your afternoon walk. Jana and I have an informal agreement. The morning walk, which always includes Cali, is to the park where Cali plays ball. Afternoon walks, which are often just the two of us, are Jana’s choice. She likes to head toward the river and walk past her beloved dog training school, stopping along the way to visit her friend in the office on the corner (a very kind woman who always offers Jana a cookie).
  • Many people use hand signals to communicate with their dogs. These can substitute for (or work in tandem with) verbal cues — a raised hand for stay, for example, is widely used. Some trainers have made the leap to teaching dogs signals that they can use to communicate back to us, similar to the Baby Sign Language some parents use with pre-verbal babies. This takes more planning and teaching than some of the other ideas.

 

There are many more options, requiring various amounts of preparation and teaching, but you get the idea. Encouraging your dog to express her preferences and communicate her needs will increase her independence. It is empowering for her, and it shows that you respect her as an individual, which will enrich your relationship by making it a tiny bit more reciprocal.