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When and How to Housetrain Your New Puppy

November 24, 2011 | 7,858 views
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By Dr. Becker

In a September article, I discussed the fact that puppies go through certain developmental stages as they grow toward adulthood. I talked about the importance of taking advantage of each stage by giving your puppy suitable social and learning opportunities.

Sensitive stages during puppyhood:

  • Age 4 to 8 weeks is the stage when puppies learn how to interact with members of their own species, primarily through living with mom and littermates.
  • Age 5 to 10 weeks is the best time for learning to cooperate with humans.
  • Age 5 to 16 weeks is the period when puppies are most open to exploring new environments and unfamiliar stimuli.

Prime Time for Housetraining

The age at which most puppies can begin to learn potty etiquette is about 8.5 weeks. Younger puppies don't yet have the neurological development necessary to control elimination, much like human infants. They aren't yet able to 'hold it.'

By 8.5 weeks most puppies are capable of selecting a preferred surface – an outdoor grassy area, for example, or a puppy pad indoors – and eliminating in that spot. Your puppy's brain is developed enough to begin to associate the smell and surface of his potty spot and the act of elimination.

Not only can most puppies at 8.5 weeks start to make these mental connections, but they are also better able to control when and where they relieve themselves.

House training your puppy is a two-fold process. First she must learn to go in the designated potty spot, and then she must learn to hold it until she is in that spot. In order to successfully housetrain any dog, the first rule is to never leave puppy unsupervised. And I mean not even for a minute.

For most of us this is an unachievable goal, which is why I highly recommend crate training.

Why I Like Crate Training

A dog crate (kennel or cage) has lots of uses for both you and your pet, with house training at the top of the list.

Dogs are den dwellers by nature, so a crate works with your puppy's innate need to have a small, safe, preferably dark spot to call his own. And nature has arranged it such that a small, enclosed area will help your little guy learn conscious control of his urge to eliminate.

In the wild, mother wolves teach their litters to potty outside the den. If you provide your puppy with his own 'den,' you're working in harmony with his natural desire not to soil it.

Other uses for a crate include keeping your pet safe from a long list of dangers and potential disasters – everything from electrical cords to the cat's food bowl to the tail-pulling toddler visiting from next door.

Getting Your Puppy Comfortable with a Crate

The goal of crate training is to wind up with a puppy who loves being in there. Toward that end, you should never force your puppy into her crate or out of it.

Everything about the crate should be positive from your dog's point of view.

Locate the crate in an area where the family spends time – not in an isolated spot, or outdoors, or in a high traffic location, or where the puppy will experience temperature extremes. I drape a blanket over the back half of my dogs' crates to enhance the den-like feel.

Inside the crate there should be something comfy to lay on, water, treats, raw bones, chew toys, puzzle toys – you can even feed your puppy in the crate if you like.

While you're in the initial stages of getting puppy used to being inside the crate, the door should remain open. Once she's going in and out willingly, you can begin closing the door behind her for short periods. After she's spent some time in the crate with the door closed (with you close by, perhaps in another room), you can leave her in there for a short time while you're away from the house.

You can gradually extend the amount of time you leave her in the crate, providing she's getting consistent, frequent trips outside to potty.

A young puppy needs to be taken to her potty spot about every hour, and always after eating, playing, and sleeping. The older your pet gets, the less often she'll need to go. But no dog should be expected to last 8 or 10 hours without a potty break, and especially not a puppy.

If you need to leave your pup for longer than a four-hour stretch, I recommend you use a dog sitter or a doggy daycare facility rather than crating her for long periods of time.

You want your dog to view her crate as a safe place to rest and be calm, so when she's in there and you're home, resist the urge to energetically interact with her. Puppies need quiet time just like babies do. And your pup is capable of amusing herself as long as she has toys and treats in her crate.

When you let puppy out of her crate, give her a Sit command and plenty of calm praise when she follows the command. Make entry and exit from the crate a calm, neutral experience and unassociated with any of your dog's behaviors.

Choosing a Crate and Keeping it Clean

Select a crate that is neither too small nor too big.

Your puppy should be able to stand up, turn around and lie down in his crate. The space should be big enough for him to move around comfortably, but not so big he can turn one end of it into a bathroom. A too-large enclosure can actually slow down the housebreaking process.

If your puppy has a lot of growing to do, keep in mind you'll probably need to purchase a larger enclosure as he matures.

Make sure there is nothing inside the crate that could cause your pet harm, including anything around his neck that could get tangled or hung up on a part of the enclosure.

Clean the crate with hot water and a mild soap, or a vinegar/baking soda solution. Rinse and dry thoroughly.

Setting up Verbal Potty Cues and Reinforcing Desired Behavior

Once your puppy is good with his crate, you can begin housetraining in earnest.

When you take him outside to his potty spot (on a leash, of course), bring some treats.

Take him to the same spot each time and give him about five minutes to do his thing. If after five minutes he hasn't eliminated, bring him back to his crate and close the door. Keep in mind that depending on the time of day, he's likely got a full bladder and full intestines and you don't want to give him the run of your house.

The goal of house training is to set your pup up to succeed rather than fail.

Wait 15 to 30 minutes and take him back out to his spot for another attempt. Be prepared to repeat this process a few times (crate to potty spot back to crate and back to potty spot), if necessary.

When your pup finally decides to piddle, immediately say something like 'go potty' in a low, reassuring tone. (I use 'go potty' as a urinate cue and 'go poo' for the other, but you can choose whatever phrases you like as long as you use them consistently.)

What you're doing is marking and reinforcing the desired behavior with a verbal command so that he will associate the verbal cue with the act of eliminating.

Eventually, you'll be able to take your dog to a spot – ideally any spot of your choosing whether at home or elsewhere – and give the verbal cue you've chosen and he'll do his thing 'on command.'

Within three seconds of your pup finishing his business, you must give him a treat and say 'good job.' Give him a couple more treats and continue to praise him before you go back inside.

Don't wait until you're back indoors to give your pet his treat. What will happen in his little puppy brain is he'll associate the food reward with coming back indoors rather than with relieving himself outside. That's why it's very important to remember the treats when you take him outside, and then reward him within three seconds after he completes the desired behavior.

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