Basic House Training for Puppies & Dogs

Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, MSc, DACVB

Dogs descend from wolves who live in organized social groups and use natural shelters. Like wolf cubs, puppies urinate and defecate wherever they are and are kept clean by their mothers. Eventually, they learn to void outside the den, which is a small space anyway so it promotes their choice to want to void elsewhere. Our homes are large relative to the typical wolf den, We void inside the home in designated spaces we call the bathroom (or other names elsewhere in the world). This must be very confusing to dogs. Now, this doesn’t mean that dogs shouldn’t or can’t live in our homes with us. They absolutely should and do learn to coexist without soiling inside, however, this is another example of how we have to put in some effort to civilize our pet dogs, to help them adapt to life with us.

Direct Method

         The direct house training method is the best way to house train your dog, regardless of how old she is when you adopt her. It requires you to be nearby to supervise and reward good habits from the beginning. It is your job to provide frequent opportunities to eliminate  (urinate and/or defecate) in an appropriate place and to reward this behavior immediately as it occurs. To do this, walk your dog out to the yard or out the front door on a leash at regular intervals. Other house training methods may seem easier and demand less initial investment of time; the direct training method, however, is sure to save you time and energy in the long run.

  • Frequent Opportunities to Go Out

         The best way to house train is to take your puppy (or adult dog) out within several minutes after each meal and each nap. These are predictable times of day when bowel and bladder are most full. A wave of rhythmic contractions along the length of the digestive tract  called peristalsisbegins when food or water is swallowed. The gastrocolic reflex, part of peristalsis, is particularly strong after eating a full meal, which explains why a bowel movement is so likely after a puppy eats. Feed your puppy at scheduled mealtimes (the usual recommendation for puppies 6 months of age or younger is 3-4 times a day during daytime hours depending on your puppy’s age and breed), remove any uneaten portion after they’ve had their fill, and avoid snacks between feedings. The gastrocolic reflex is synchronized by feeding your puppy at regular intervals as he learns to “hold it in”. Prevent soiling between meals by taking your pup out before the accidents occur so she’s already outside when it’s time to release those sphincters under pressure. This sets her up to succeed rather than fail.

         Puppies require more frequent walks until they are able to reliably control their sphincters. This usually occurs by 6 months of age, although some puppies continue to have accidents for a bit longer. Be patient. Do NOT punish your puppy or even newly adopted adult dog for soiling; they are stressed in an unfamiliar environment with strangers. They might even have a medical problem that needs attention. Dogs don’t soil indoors because of spite. Dogs don’t do spite. They soiled indoors for a reason. Your job is to make sure they have every opportunity to eliminate outside and praise them for it!

  • Learning to Walk On a Leash

         It is best to leash walk your puppy within 15 minutes or sooner after each meal. Continue to walk, incorporating play to make it fun, until the puppy has eliminated. If your puppy is too young to walk on a leash, carry it outside to an enclosed, safe area. Stay nearby and play with or pet it. Additional activity will help to stimulate bowel movements when your pup is already outside. Be sure not to distract it, however, if it begins to sniff the ground or crouch to void. If your pup is slow adjusting to leash walks, be patient. Don’t pull on the leash, let her take her time.      

         When she squats, praise her in soft and happy voice to avoid startling her (if you get too excited you’ll interrupt her concentration). As she eliminates, gently say “hurry” or “potty”, for example,  and then praise Good Potty or Good Hurry. This teaches the pup to void on command so you won’t freeze unnecessarily on a cold winter night while she leisurely looks for just the right spot. If your pup is initially afraid of the leash, leave the leash on indoors for brief periods without holding onto it. When she becomes more accustomed to the collar and leash, take her for brief leash walks indoors before graduating to walks outside in the yard and then out the front door.

Paper or Wee Pad Training

         Paper or Pad training are not the methods of choice even for puppies. But if you get a young puppy during the winter months, or if you are unable to walk a dog for personal reasons, it might still work for you. Because training a dog or pup to eliminate on a rectangular target (paper or wee pad) can lead to several problems, it will not be discussed at length here in favor of other methods. Beyond praising your dog when you see him void on the paper or pad, there is really not much more to it.

         There are several problems with this choice of house training. For one thing, the dog could learn to target other similar items on the floor: a bathmat, a rug, a briefcase, a magazine… Beyond that, the dog could unintentionally learn that it is acceptable to eliminate inside your home. Although some puppies stay on target, many more “miss” the boundaries set for them. You may think your pup understands he should void on paper or pad, but he might just learn that it’s easy enough to void anywhere in that room. From there, this can expand to other areas of your home. Finally, why confuse your pup by teaching it twice what it need learn only once? Why train him to void on the newspaper or wee pad, and then retrain him to eliminate outside?  Train the dog to eliminate outdoors as described above and keep it simple. This applies to indoor doggy litter trays, too.

         Dogs need to go outside. Even toy breeds need to be respected for the fact that they are real dogs with the same needs as bigger dogs. Some owners of small or toy breed dogs choose to use wee pads for the pet’s lifetime, but this should not replace daily walks. Dogs of any size need the physical exercise, intellectual stimulation, social interaction, reinforcement of good house training, and quality time with you that are all benefits of walking with you several times every day for a lifetime.

Accidents Will Happen

         Never punish your dog for soiling indoors. Puppies need time to learn these new skills and to physically mature enough to consciously control their sphincters. Your dog might be have diarrhea or feel unwell, and it’s just not fair to be upset with them when it’s not their fault. If you are delayed coming back from work or an errand, don’t punish your dog if they simply couldn’t hold it in any longer. Punishing the pup for eliminating indoors and then taking him outside is a common and misguided practice. Never press your dog’s nose into the soiled spot. Don’t yell at your dog or hurriedly grab him as you run outside; your pup is intimidated and won’t perform under pressure. Furthermore, the puppy could even associate this punishment with going out and could learn to fear going outside or avoid voiding in your presence during walks. Confused and frightened pets are more likely to lose control of their sphincters, so punishment is counterproductive.  

         It is pointless to punish your dog at any age for “accidents” that occur in your home. This is particularly true when there is any delay between the act of soiling and your discovery of the mess. To be effective, punishment (and praise, for that matter) must follow your pet’s action within 1 second. That means you should set your dog up for praise and give it instanteously. Punishment interferes with house training and just makes it worse. No matter how frustrated you may be, clean up the mess and concentrate on the steps to prevent another one.

Crate Training is NOT House Training

         Crate training is damage control. It is based on the premise that puppies are unlikely to eliminate in or near an area used for rest. Crate training is popular among owners who can’t be home to take the puppy directly outside as described above. Your dog might resist voiding inside the crate but just can’t and you’ll come back to a mess. The crate contains messes and can prevent destructive behavior, however, many dogs can’t endure being in a cage and it will fail.

         Many young puppies are simply unable to control immature sphincters, especially when they are anxious or frightened.  Some pups may soil themselves and even ingest their own waste.  For these pups, the direct training method is preferable and crate training should be abandoned. Alternately, gate them into a pet proof area in your home and prepare them to be contained with a very long walk and something to chew on when you leave.

         Pups should not be crated for more than 20 or 30 minutes at first. If you must confine your pup for long periods, make plans for someone to visit every few hours for a nice long walk Ask a neighbor, friend, relative for help or hire a professional pet wakler until your pup is an adult. Even an adult dog should’t be crated for more than 6 to 8 hours and that may be too long for your dog.

The Umbilical Cord Method

         This method of house training is best used with leash walks on a sensible schedule. Attach your pup to a 4-6ft leash and keep her with you under supervision.  This allows her a limited range of motion so she can’t wander away to soil in secret and you can anticipate the pup’s need to void, taking him directly outside. She can also enjoy your extra time and attention.  This benefits house training, and won’t hurt the bond between you either.

One More Thing

         Dogs can regress in house training at any age. Sometimes it’s due to illnesses like urinary tract or kidney disease, arthritis, liver disease, or gastroenteritis of many origins. But most of the time, this occurs because their pet parents stop walking them. Your dog might be used to go ing out into your yard through a dog door, but you’re not there to praise them for voiding and some dogs just won’t go out by themselves after a while. The benefits of walking dogs for a lifetime makes for a lifetime of good habits and a happy companion! Now, go get that leash,- your dog is waiting!

©  Dr. Stefanie Schwartz for 2019

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