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Puppy Series: Housetraining Troubleshooting and Myths

April 22, 2015

No matter how simple it seems when you are reading about housetraining your new puppy, the theory and practice of housetraining puppies can sometimes feel miles apart.  But you aren’t alone! There are a handful of commonly encountered challenges that can be overcome.


The Double Elimination

It is very common for puppies to urinate (or defecate) outside and then urinate (or defecate) again after coming back inside. Sometimes this happens almost immediately, sometimes it happens after coming inside and having a meal after a potty break.

This can happen for several reasons. First, puppies can be extremely distractible. A bird flying overhead, a leaf blowing by, a noise in someone else’s yard, or even anticipation of a meal when going back indoors can interrupt elimination and make a puppy “forget” that he hasn’t finished.

Second, the neurologic connections that allow a puppy to fully be aware of the need to eliminate and to fully control elimination are not completely mature until puppy is several months old.  In the meantime, signals can sometimes get confused. A puppy may not realize she hasn’t fully emptied her bladder, or she may perceive that she has urinated and defecated when she has only done one or the other.

Third, inclement weather may motivate a puppy to quickly do the absolute bare minimum to relieve the most immediate sense of urgency. This can be a common problem with winter puppies, but some puppies also do not like rain or wet surfaces.

Whatever the cause, the approach is the same. First, try simply allowing longer potty breaks to give your puppy time to recover from distractions and “finish up.” If longer potty breaks do not work, bring your puppy inside but keep her on “lockdown” – either carry her, place in a crate or exercise pen, or tether to you with a leash. After 5-15 minutes, take her back outside and try again. Repeat this as needed until she eliminates outside a second time.


Sneaking off out of sight/to another room and urinating or defecating

This is simply a case of too little supervision and/or allowing too much freedom, too soon. Prevent the opportunity for your puppy to sneak off out of your sight by using baby gates or closed doors to keep him in the same room with you or use a leash to tether him to you.


Housetraining was going really well, but puppy is suddenly having accidents again

Regression in housetraining as a puppy matures is common, and like the double elimination can have a variety of causes. As neural development progresses, connections are gained and lost and puppies may temporarily “forget” things they have previously learned. Sometimes as pet owners, we relax our supervision after some early success before puppy is really ready for increased freedom. There may be medical issues such as a bladder infection, diarrhea, or vaginitis (in female puppies) that can interfere with a puppy’s ability to control bladder or bowels.

Generally, remedial housetraining – increasing supervision and reducing freedom – will address the first two causes. Otherwise, a veterinary visit may be indicated.


Puppy eliminates in the crate

Sometimes, this can be an indication that the crate is too large. A crate used for housetraining should be just large enough for puppy to stand, sit, lie down, and turn around comfortably without a lot of extra space.  For large breed puppies, you may need to block off part of a larger crate as they grow into it.

Be sure you are not leaving puppy in the crate too long. A very general rule of thumb is that a puppy can hold bladder and bowels approximately his (age in months + 1) hours: Three hours for a 2 month old puppy, four hours for a 3 month old puppy, and so on. Many puppies can sleep overnight for longer periods, and some puppies can go longer even during the day, but other puppies may need shorter periods of time between potty breaks.

Sometimes puppies or dogs have learned to eliminate in the crate due to a medical problem (such as diarrhea) interfering with their ability to control elimination, or they have had poor hygiene conditions at a previous home and are just used to a dirty crate. In these cases, using an alternative method of confinement such as an exercise pen or a small gated area of a room instead of the crate may help.  In the case of medical problems such as diarrhea, a veterinary visit may be needed.

And lastly, probably the biggest myth about housetraining:


I know she knows better (or that she did wrong) because she looks guilty!

Dogs do not think about the world and their actions as “right” or “wrong,” but more like “safe” or “unsafe” as well as “rewarding” or “unrewarding.” If every time puppy, owner, and urine or feces are in the same place at the same time, the puppy faces an angry (scary!) owner, then he learns that situation is unsafe and will display body language called “appeasement.” Appeasement looks like “guilt” to us, but in this context it is really an attempt to placate and calm us. If every time puppy eliminates outside he gets a reward and his owner is happy, puppy learns that situation is safe and rewarding.

If puppies are having accidents in the house, then one or more of the following is true: Housetraining has not been fully learned, our expectations of puppy’s physical capabilities are unreasonable, there is a medical problem affecting puppy’s physical capabilities, or we have inadvertently taught the wrong lesson.

When my puppy, Toast, first came home he seemed very easy to housetrain. I became too lax about supervision and one day he defecated under the dining room table. Because he is a very quick learner, with that one accident he inadvertently learned that defecating under the table was both safe (he was not punished) and rewarding (the physical relief of defecating when he felt the urge) and he continued to try to defecate under the table for several weeks. It took very strict supervision, repeated long potty breaks, and lots of rewards for defecating outside to overcome this. I had assumed he was housetrained before he truly was, and it took a lot of work to undo my  mistake, but it was really my fault – not his.

Puppies are a joy, but take a lot of hard work, too. If you are having trouble with housetraining or have a specific problem not addressed here, please feel free to call the clinic to speak to one of our technicians or doctors!

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