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Good Potty!...House Training a Puppy

Show puppies how to make you happen and they'll do their best.
Photo by Gary Gershoff

Congratulations! You are now a pet guardian. And, it's all fun and games until you step in... eeeew!

House training a puppy can be about as challenging as teaching ET to play the piano...and very similar. To us humans, puppies are little alien creatures. They don't understand our language, our culture, our emotions, our instincts. But, unlike ET, generations of Darwinian outcomes have created dogs who are domesticated to please humans. The dogs who didn't get it, well, their genes evaporated from the gene pool. The genes that survived recognize that their survival depended on making people happy. So, puppies read us much better than we read them. And it's in their DNA to want to make us happy with them and their behavior. It's our job to teach them what that means.

The first step in house training a puppy is to recognize that, according to the ASPCA, young puppies need to go out about every hour. Yes, you read right. They've got little tiny puppy-sized bladders. Just look at their little bodies and realize that their bladder is only a small fraction of their bodies. Unlike us, they can't hold it and they don't understand that there might even be a reason they'd want to.

As a full list, the ASPCA recommends taking puppies out:

  • Every hour.
  • Shortly after meals, play or naps.
  • First think in the morning.
  • Last think at night.
  • Before being confined or left alone.

So, when you are house training a puppy, accidents are pretty much inevitable in the beginning. If the little one does have an accident and you catch him. Pick him up while you say, "No!" (Sometimes, they don't even need the exclamation point.) Or, I prefer the sound, "aaannh". It sounds a little a car not starting and seems to get better results for me. I think that may be because it does not sound like a "regular" word...at least not in English. So the pup doesn't think it's just more of your ramblings.

In English, "no" also sounds like "go", "throw", "show", etc. Pretty confusing if all you recognize are sounds. (This is also a reason not to name your pup anything that has a long O sound, like Fido, Nola, Beau, Tango...you get the idea. It all sounds like "no." With O names, the pup thinks, "Well, are you calling me or are you mad? Should I hide or wag my tail?")

You don't need to say your negative sound over and over. In fact, that might even confuse them. Just make the noise, pick them up and take them to the place you actually want them to do their business and put them down. Be careful not to put them down in their business. Dogs don't like it either.

If you have the patience, you may want to keep an eye on them around the house until they are about to have an accident. That way, you can, indeed, catch them in the act. While this will be annoying for you, it might be more efficient to give them instant feedback. I expect that doing this a few times in a row will help them more quickly understand what they need to do to please you.

You don't have to be scary or handle them roughly when they make a mistake. Just act displeased and make your negative sound when you catch them. When you get the pup outside, speak to them in a calm, positive voice. If they go more, get excited, have a party, tell them in a high-pitched voice that they're spectacular and, if you want, give them a small treat. (For more info on treats, check out Dog Training...A Quick Note on Treats.)

If you've got enough hands. Swipe the indoor pee with a paper towel and take it out with you being careful not to rub it on the pup. (If you don't have extra hands, bring it out later.) Drop it near where you want the little guy to perform. That way, he'll know, "Oh! That's where that's supposed to go." Leave the paper towel there for a day or two as a marker for the pup.

Whenever the dog pees outside, Say something like,"Good potty!" or whatever works for you. But be consistent to teach them a command for going potty. (This has been a lifesaver on long trips with Milt.) Say the same thing every time and not with a lot of other words. For example, say "Go potty." Not, "Come on baby and be a good boy for mommy and go potty."

To make a place that's inviting for a good potty, you will want to leave enough pee and poop that the pup knows where the right place is, but you'll also want to keep the area clean enough that the pup won't end up stepping in it. You can get poop scoopers at the pet shop or one of those big box stores or you can do it by hand using a plastic bag.

If this is your first dog, you may be surprised that no matter how badly a dog has to go (especially, poop) they may not go the minute they step out the door. They have to walk around and sniff and inspect and, well, eventually they'll get around to it. So, if you take your fur ball outside and he doesn't go right away. Don't be fooled. He may still be desperate to go. Give him time to find just the right real estate. If you want to accelerate the process, a good walk might wiggle it down to the right place.

There are those who believe that, when you find an accident, you should take the pup over to it, rub their nose in it and fuss at them. Then, throw them out the door. Yikes! Dogs live in the moment. So, this just may not make sense to them.

Let's look at a human-based scenario. Imagine that you've gone on a camping retreat with your boss or, maybe we should say, your prison boss. After all, if you're a dog, you will be employed by him the rest of your life. So, there you are in the middle of nowhere having a great time. Then, the urge strikes. You're way out in the middle of nowhere. You can't get to a bathroom. So you find a nice place and go.

Much later, when your boss discovers where you've gone, this person, who is much bigger and stronger than you and who you depend on for survival, drags you over to the mess and sticks your nose in it. He is screaming at the top of his lungs but all you can understand is, "I am very angry! I am very angry! I am very angry!" Why is he angry, you wonder? You don't know. Should you have gone somewhere else? A little to the left maybe? Should you try to never go potty again? You had to go somewhere. What gives? Then, he drags you somewhere else, still fussing and leaves you there wondering why you're in time out.

If, on the other hand, he had caught you in the act and said "No!" (remember, dogs live in the moment) and taken you to where he wanted you to potty and said calmly, "Go here." Then, when you went, said, "That's fantastic!" It would be a lot easier to understand.

They're are two effective ways that I know of to teach a dog how to tell you when they need to go out. The one I used with Milt was pulling the leash off of the door knob. It worked, but I had to keep a close eye on the knob. Another way is to teach the pup to ring a bell. Dogs are smart.

Either method becomes over used pretty quickly. After all, going out is about the only entertainment they get...no books, TV, radio, car...just the great outdoors. But for me, the leash trick and subsequent over use was better than cleaning messes.

I don't have first-hand knowledge of the bell technique, so I 'll tell you what I know. With the over-the-doorknob method, just fold the leash over and set it on the doorknob so that just the slightest wiggle will make it slip onto the floor. Then, place a tiny treat into the leash loop. When the pup eats the treat and it knocks the leash off the door, praise the little genius and immediately take him out. Do this a few times and he'll figure it out. But keep a close eye on the leash because if the pup pulls it down and you don't take him out, well, be careful where you step. To make it so that you can take your eyes off of the leash, you may want to put a bell on it.

If your pup has no accidents at all, I'm pretty sure the heavens will open up and rain manna on all of us. But if he does, a product called Nature's Miracle cleans the whole stain including any residual smell that might lead the pup back to that place. I'm sure there are other similar cleaners but this is the one that's worked for me.

Frightening a dog does not make it better behaved. It only makes it more neurotic. And, there is never, ever, EVER any reason to "tap", hit, swat or in any other way physically abuse a dog. OK, maybe if there about to jump up on a grill you'll want to throw yourself in the way. But most pups are smarter than that.

Remember, dogs want to please. If they're misbehaved it is because they don't understand what you want. If you teach them that cruelty pleases you, you won't have a very pleasant dog and might well get a lawsuit...or worse.

I know I write as if I know everything, but I certainly don't know as much as Milton. He's taught me as much as he can, however, he has not yet mastered the keyboard. So, this is what I understand of what's worked for us. Good luck, I hope you and your new family member make lots of loving memories together.

Visit the ASPCA site for more info on house training a puppy.