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Potty Training Pointers


By Kim Everson, DVM

I’m trying really hard to follow my own advice this week as we welcomed a new puppy, a 10-week-old American bulldog, to our home. It has been over seven years since I potty trained a dog, but I offer advice regularly to new puppy owners in my practice. These tips have been bumping around in my brain at 4:00 a.m. as I stumble around in the dark after my dog, so I might as well set them down in print.

Tip #1. Feed your puppy meals rather than let him free feed. Doing so makes it easier to predict when the puppy will have to defecate (usually about 30 minutes after eating). So far, I’m failing at this. We’ve had our dog for less than 3 days. He was used to grazing whenever he felt like it and wasn’t eating when I set the food out. However, he is starting to eat more aggressively, so I will start to feed regular meals soon.

Tip #2. Reward your pup for going to the bathroom NOT for coming back to the door. Even though it’s inconvenient (and darned chilly), I am wandering around the yard each time my pup goes out to the bathroom. This way I can praise the heck out of him when he lets it rip outside. I’ve met too many puppies who quickly learn that they get a reward when they return to the house after their bathroom break. They ask to go outside so they can come back in and don’t always do their business while they are in the yard. This is because they do not associate the reward with the behavior of going to the bathroom in the designated place. They associate the reward with going out and coming back in. Upon returning to the house they have an inside “accident”.

Tip #3. Use a cue word. Most of us probably do this anyway. We want our pup to go potty so we can get on with life. We need to be careful not to distract puppy from his real business when it is bathroom time. No playing until the business is done. Once the pup starts to urinate, you can use your verbal cue one time so he associates that word or phrase (“go potty”, “get ‘r done”, etc.) with the act of relieving himself. Once he’s peed and pooped, he gets lots of praise or his training treat.

Tip #4. Walk the pup in a little circle to stimulate defecation. You’ve doubtless seen dogs of all ages do it, circle a few times in place and then squat to go #2. I find it helps get things moving in the right direction to encourage my pup to walk in a “tight” circle, as if triggering an instinct.

Crate training our puppy

Tip #5. Use an appropriately-sized crate or kennel. A crate is a helpful tool for many reasons. It keeps puppy safe from harm when you can’t watch him and protects your stuff from him too. It can be a haven for when pup needs to get away from it all. A crate also helps with potty training. The crate should be big enough to sleep in but not big enough for bed and bathroom because even puppies avoid spoiling their “nest” with their own waste.  Whenever puppy wakes up or you’re ready to let him out, get him outside right away to go potty. If he doesn’t go to the bathroom, put him back in the kennel for 15 minutes more before trying again.

Tip #6. Do not hit, scold or punish for accidents. It’s not going to help. Your puppy is not going to the bathroom in the house out of spite. And even though he may “act guilty” after an accident, he’s not feeling guilt. He may be apprehensive because last time you found a puddle he got hollered at. The fact that he made the puddle is not part of the equation. If you catch your puppy in the act, it is okay to startle him with a loud noise. Doing so may momentarily stop the toileting and give you time to get him outside. Some puppies are obvious about needing to go out: they may whine or scratch at the door (EdGrrr always got the hiccups). Others are more subtle, circling an area or sniffing at the floor. You might try teaching your pup to ring a bell near the door when he needs to go out (beware the dog who learns to rings the bell just to go chase squirrels). Another technique is the “umbilical cord trick” where you keep puppy on a long leash inside the house so you notice his signals.

Tip #7. Sometimes pooping in the house is a sign of illness. Not all diarrhea is an explosive, watery mess. My rule of thumb is if you can’t pick up the turd without leaving a grease spot, it ain’t right. Diarrhea in puppies is extremely common and has many causes: intestinal worms, viruses, bacteria, protozoal parasites, food allergies, stress and dietary indiscretion. Puppies with soft stools often cannot control their bowel movements and will have accidents in the house. Contact your veterinarian and save a stool sample for testing. My puppy is currently being treated for worms with secondary diarrhea. Not surprisingly, we have not seen a single worm in his stool but he tested positive for roundworms on a fecal float. Unfortunately, his diarrhea has put a major hitch in our potty training progress.

I am impressed with my puppy’s progress so far. Very quickly he learned the cue “go potty”. He still does have urine accidents in the house. This is partly my fault. I am not watching him closely enough and need to crate him more often when I’m busy with other tasks. But even the most rigorous potty training protocol will have slip ups. It typically takes months of consistent effort to completely potty train a puppy. *sigh*

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