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Housetraining 101

January 19, 2015

One of the most important (and potentially most frustrating and aggravating) parts of having a new puppy is housetraining. Housetraining is an essential part of teaching our dogs and puppies to live with us in our homes. This discussion will address mainly young puppies who come home at the typical age of 8-12 weeks, but the nuts and bolts can be applied to older puppies or adult dogs who are new to a home as well.

Keep in mind that at the same time we are trying to teach them where we want them to eliminate, young puppies are still learning how their bodies even work: Recognizing what it feels like to have to eliminate and how to “hold it” and “let it go.” Neural connections between the brain, bladder, and bowels are still forming and won’t be fully complete until around 6 months of age. This means that it is extremely important to have realistic expectations of our puppies’ physical limitations and accordingly set our puppies up for success. Also, it is important to recognize that it is normal for puppies to have periods of regression as they go through stages of brain development; these can usually be addressed with a little remedial training.

Setting puppies up for success means providing ample opportunities to eliminate outdoors (and be rewarded for doing so) and vigilantly supervising to prevent any accidents indoors. The more any task or skill is practiced, the easier and more habitual it becomes, so practicing eliminating outdoors and preventing puppies from practicing eliminating indoors is essential to form good habits and muscle memory instead of bad habits.

Be sure to take your puppy out frequently enough that your puppy can reasonably be expected to hold urine and feces between potty trips. As a very general starting point, most puppies can hold their urine and feces for approximately their age in months + 1 hours. That is, 3 hours for an 8 week old puppy, 4 hours for a 12 week old puppy, and so on. Keep in mind that this is just a rule of thumb and every puppy is different: My 10 week old puppy Toast follows these guidelines very closely when awake but needs to get up 2-3 times per night, while at the same age my dog Squash needed to go out every 15-20 minutes when awake but was already sleeping through the night. Other factors such as activity (playing, sleeping, chewing, resting) or how recently a puppy has had food or water can also affect how frequently a puppy needs to eliminate.

With a brand new puppy or dog who has just joined your household, regardless of age, it is a good idea to start by taking him/her outside every 15-20 minutes. This is because you do not yet know how long your individual puppy is used to and capable of holding their urine and bowels. It is also common in times of stress to regress, so a puppy who could go longer at a foster home or breeder’s home may need to go out more frequently when first coming home. After several trips, you should get a pretty good idea how often your puppy needs to eliminate and can adapt your schedule to your puppy’s needs and capabilities.

Probably the most important piece of housetraining is supervision. In order to prevent accidents in between planned potty trips, you must always be alert and watching your puppy. One of the most common housetraining mistakes is to not have “eyes on” the puppy while supervising and/or to let a puppy wander too freely unsupervised before s/he is fully housetrained: Your puppy must NOT have the opportunity to wander out of your attention or sight where s/he could be having accidents you are unaware of. Keep your puppy gated in the same room you are in, or use a light leash to tether your puppy to your waist. Be alert for signals that your puppy has to eliminate: Circling, sniffing the floor intensely, restlessness, pacing, or whining. Some puppies’ signals are extremely subtle, such as looking at the door. Some puppies get especially riled up or “crazy.” When in doubt, if you see suspicious signals take your puppy outdoors.

The times a puppy is more likely to need to eliminate include waking up from sleeping/napping, after eating or drinking, and after a period of activity/play (the time varies from puppy to puppy but may be anywhere from 10-30 minutes). These are times to be especially alert and/or proactively take your puppy outside for a potty break.

If you catch your puppy starting to eliminate in the house, do something to gently startle (but not frighten!) him/her: Clap your hands, call EH EH, or say something like WHOOPS! Being startled will usually cause the sphincters to close and you can scoop your puppy up to finish outdoors and be rewarded, ending on a successful note. Do NOT rub your puppy’s nose in the accident or scold your puppy, especially after the fact; not only is this ineffective, but it can backfire and teach your puppy that it is not safe to eliminate in your presence which causes a whole new problem.  Always, ALWAYS reward your puppy for successfully eliminating outdoors, even if it started as an accident indoors.

When you are not at home, some type of confinement can be very useful to help prevent accidents and destructiveness. There are many options including a crate/kennel, an exercise pen (x-pen) or gating off a small room. Some puppies do better with one type of confinement vs another, so use what works best for you.

When your puppy cries in the middle of the night, it poses a dilemma: You don’t want to reward crying in the crate, but if your puppy genuinely needs to eliminate you don’t want to force him/her to have an accident in the crate (or wherever s/he sleeps). I recommend that you take your puppy outside but in a very calm, business-like manner. No extra petting, playing, or interaction beyond going outside and rewarding for elimination, then back inside and into the crate with as little fuss as possible. Your puppy can learn that they will be given the opportunity to eliminate if they need to overnight without also learning that it will be fun time.

If it seems like your puppy cannot hold his/her urine for a reasonable amount of time, if s/he seems exceptionally difficult to housetrain, or if s/he is doing well and then suddenly significantly backslides, there may be a physical problem such as a urinary tract infection or vaginitis (in female puppies) and an examination and urine sample are a good idea.

Every puppy is different, and the bottom line is that if what you are doing works for you, keep doing it! As always, if you have problems or questions please feel free to contact the clinic to speak to one of our knowledgeable veterinary technicians or doctors.

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