Potty Training 101, Part 1: Setting your puppy up for success

Set your new puppy up for success


Potty training your puppy isn’t just about keeping the carpets clean. It’s also about developing the foundation of how you and your new companion will work together, for many years to come.

It will take observation, patience, commitment and lots of consistency, on your part. The better you are at keeping to a schedule for feeding and toileting, the faster and more consistent your new pup will get at letting you know when it's time to "go".

What you’ll need

What matters in the first few weeks

Use your powers of observation in order to develop an elimination schedule based on your puppy’s behaviour. Keep your puppy in an area where you can keep an eye on what's happening. Puppies should not have access to the whole house initially. Increase the pup's ability to roam, gradually. More accidents happen when your puppy is given too much freedom, too quickly. 

Signs puppy needs to go

You should start to be able to pinpoint when to take your puppy outside:

  • If he or she starts to whimper
  • If his or her tail is rising. For short-haired breeds, you can usually see the anus start to bulge
  • If he or she starts sniffing the floor in circles
  • If he or she actually scratches or stands by the door
  • If he or she begins to squat. Don't allow your puppy to finish (and don't scold). Instead, interrupt with a gentle "Agh, Agh", and whisk puppy outside to finish. If there is more to finish while your outside, praise and reward
  • Any time your puppy appropriately eliminates outside, praise and reward, right after the event

Realistic expectations for the first six months

  • Understand that your puppy won’t really have good bowel and bladder control before the age of four months
  • Don’t expect your puppy to be fully house trained before the age of six months
  • For the first few months, it’s on you to set your puppy’s routine for eating, drinking, and when and where to eliminate
  • Note that smaller breeds often cannot wait as long as a large breed pup so small breed pups should be going out a little more often
  • Feed high-quality puppy food. If your puppy is digesting food well, it means fewer bowel movements, firmer stools
    and a more consistent elimination routine. If he or she is not digesting food well, bowel movements will be looser and less predictable.

 Your responsibilities

Depending on age, your puppy is going to need to go:

  • First thing after leaving the crate in the morning (keep the crate on the main level so you can reach the back door in time)
  • Shortly after each meal
  • After a nap
  • After playing or any kind of excitement
  • After smelling another dog's poo or pee
  • Before entering a new place he or she has never been before, and after exiting your car
  • Just before going to bed

Praise and reward any time your puppy eliminates in the correct place. Reward right after the event, not before.
As time goes by and your puppy is reliably going to the back door and asking to go out, you can slowly wean off the treats but continue to praise.

A basic guideline for scheduling

  • At 2 to 3 months, toilet every 2 hours and once during the night
  • At 3 to 4 months, toilet every 2 hours and try eliminating the late-night outing. For small breeds, it may be a bit later
  • At 4 to 5 months, try toileting every 3 hours with no night time outings
  • After 5 months, expect that puppy will need to eliminate, 4 or 5 times a day with no night time outings

Gastric Colic Reflex: what it is and why you need to know about it

Dogs are built to eliminate shortly after eating, within 30 minutes after eating (and expect sooner). The first action of eating triggers the second event of elimination. Use this bit of information to set your routine. Map out your puppy’s anticipated times for elimination, and be consistent about getting the puppy to his or her elimination place, when you can expect the need. It may be helpful to create a schedule and put it on the fridge to keep yourself on track.

Why using a crate is the most effective method of house training your puppy

Along with schedule making, let’s not forget the second essential tool for potty training, that’s the crate.

Dogs are denning animals that naturally prefer not to soil their dens.
Using a crate helps you to keep your puppy on schedule since he or she is less likely to want to “go” in his or her den. In addition, if he or she takes nap time in the crate, it means you can more correctly pinpoint when the need to pee or poo is going to happen; pretty much in the few minutes just after the crate door is opened. If you are crating your puppy based on a schedule, pretty soon, those elimination needs will line up with that schedule.

It’s a myth that puppies and dogs won’t soil their crate. They just prefer not to. If you leave them in too long, eventually they will. This is not a habit you want your puppy to develop so be sure you are taking your puppy out of the crate, and to his or her elimination place, based on:

  • At 2 to 3 months, toilet every 2 hours and once during the night
  • At 3 to 4 months, toilet every 2 hours and try eliminating the late-night outing. For small breeds, it may be a bit later
  • At 4 to 5 months, try toileting every 3 hours with no night time outings
  • After 5 months, expect that puppy will need to eliminate, 4 or 5 times a day with no night time outings

Use your crate for times when you can’t directly supervise your puppy but do keep to his or her “outside” schedule for toileting. At first, when not in the crate, try keeping the puppy on a leash and nearby if, for instance, you are on the computer or fixing a meal. Keep an eye on the time though and ensure you are keeping to his or her schedule for bathroom breaks.

Keep the crate on the main level so you and your puppy can reach the back door in time. Don’t make the bedding too thick or absorbent as this invites accidents.

  • Never leave a collar, leash or harness on a puppy when crated
  • Make sure there’s no electrical wiring close enough to the crate, where a puppy could pull it inside
  • And… don’t feed or water while your puppy’s in his crate. Your puppy should not be crated long enough to require hydration or food. By feeding or providing water inside the crate, you’re going to throw off your puppy’s elimination schedule. The whole idea of using the crate is to slow your puppy’s digestion while resting, so you can be more successful at regulating his or her toilet needs.

If you crate train your puppy you’ll find it just becomes part of the daily routine, even into adulthood. Once your puppy no longer needs the crate to toilet train, you can still use it. My dog is going on 13. She freely enters her crate, on her own at times when there are guests in the house and she needs a quiet place to “get away from it all”.

A note about food and water

Do maintain a consistent feeding schedule for your puppy. Don’t leave food on the floor for your puppy to graze at will. You won’t get a puppy trained this way. Leave his or her food on the floor for maybe 20 minutes, then pick the bowl up whether all the food has been consumed or not.

The same applies to water. Ensure your puppy has access to water 5 or 6 times a day but pick it up after 15 minutes or so. You can start leaving water on the floor all day, when he or she is a little older, and fully house trained. In addition, don’t water or feed while your puppy in the crate. A puppy shouldn’t be in the crate long enough to require water or the next meal.

How to properly address accidents

Expect that:

  • Accidents will happen but don’t allow them to happen often. Frequent accidents lead to unwanted habits
  • When they do happen, eliminate all odour. Use an Enzymatic cleaner (which actually breaks up the scent molecules). If possible, cover the spot with an object, like a chair or potted plant, to stop your puppy from returning to that spot                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Puppy pads: to use or not to use

It’s better to train your puppy to go outside, right from the start, if you have the time. Puppy pads are convenient initially but can cause confusion for the dog and ultimately delay proper training down the road.

My opinion on puppy pads loosens up when considering small breed puppies, in the middle of winter. In this case, using the pads may be a necessity until the weather warms up.

Litter boxes for apartment dwellers

Be fair, if you can’t get your dog along the hall, down the elevator and across the lobby, in time, three to four times a day, on a daily basis, it may be time to consider the use of a litter box if you live in a condo or apartment. You can easily purchase a litter box or construct one from corrugated plastic sheets (more feasible for small to medium dogs, I will admit). It should be something like 5 feet x 3 feet and 3 to 4 inches deep, to allow for circling behaviour. Cut out a semi-circle on one side to allow easy access. Leave two sides higher, for males. I had to do this for my very short-haired, three-pound puppy, many years ago, when I brought her home mid-October. I used newspaper in the box (cheap and easy to replace on a frequent basis), then moved the box outside when spring came. She started scratching at our town home’s back patio door right away, to reach her box. Within a week, the box was removed entirely, as by then the backyard offered a much greater allure.

It should be noted that all standard potty training procedures still apply to litter box training. You still need to follow a consistent schedule, and get the puppy to the box, just before he or she needs to go, with praise and reward based on successful results.

Check back next month for part 2 of Potty Training 101: Persistent potty training issues

THE DOG BLOG is a great resource for tips on training and canine well being. Got questions or a topic in mind? Let me know via the comments box. I would love to hear from you.

Dog Days of 2019

Looking back over the past year


Happy new year! 

My apologies for not posting in December. I took some time to switch blogging platforms with the intent of creating a more seamless experience for you, my welcome readers.

January 2020 began with a burst of training activity, filling nine classes throughout the week, beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. To this itinerary has been added a new therapy dog curriculum coming in March; strange as that sounds to a former marketing consultant, wandering far from the glassed-in spaces of corporate cubicles and casual Fridays. It’s ironic, I spent years creating new ways to talk to clients. Now it’s all about teaching clients how to build a language, not based on speech as we know it but based on communication as dogs know it.

Dogs, in fact, take most of their understanding about the world, from just watching us and how we are reacting to our environment. Think of yourself growing up in a different place where you don’t understand the language and can only glean an understanding of what’s happening from the actions of others around you, in essence, how they’re reacting to their surroundings. Clear, consistent body language and hand signals, are the basis of our language bridge...its scaffolding is what I teach to dog owners in my role as a trainer, with the hope that they will continue to work on this bridge, with their dogs.

Sometimes, in those rare moments of clarity, I think we come close to sensing who is actually at home behind those bright eyes. I’m sure the more receptive dog parents sense it too. For me, this happens with those calm, settled dogs, open to interaction, with no overt excitement. It’s the oddest feeling like passing a sleeve over a dusty window and catching a glimpse of the sentience and intelligence just on the other side. These are the dogs owned by people whom I suspect already have an innate understanding of how to build the bridge. These are usually the dogs that go everywhere with their people, work, vacations, shopping, etc., and have the benefit of ongoing, teachable moments throughout their lives.

Before I close I would like to leave you with some of the special moments I shared with the 300 plus, irrepressible, smart, funny, frustrating, surprising, mystifying, heart-stoppingly lovable and eager dogs whom I’ve had the privilege to get to know and coach in 2019. That must include their people, of course, the indispensable bridge builders who also surprise and inspire me with their willingness to trust and embrace what they learn in my classroom. Names have been changed to respect student privacy but I suspect the pups won't really mind.

Special moments from 2019...

•   when Britt, a shy Australian shepherd puppy, who normally does not like to be touched, crossed the floor on graduation night, to offer me her belly, then leaned against me, with her head resting on my arm.

•   when Della, an odd little miniature schnauzer (known for her backward propulsion as much as forward), finally left the classroom and the security of her carpet square, venturing beyond the slippery expanse of tile, to reach her peers as they practiced  "sit and stay" cues with their owners, in the aisles.

•   when Buttons, an irrepressible Havanese, and one of the smartest dogs I’ve encountered in the past year, held her "place" at the back of the store, on cue, watching her pet parents move so far away (a third of the length of a football field), that her canine eyes could barely see them anymore—and remained in "place" until they returned to release her.

•   when Cricket, a tall sinewy retired racing greyhound, loped into my classroom, enlightening me on a few of the challenges, post-track life brings for his breed. While Cricket certainly knew how to heel, stay, wait and run, what he didn't know or could not do, was to sit. It’s not something greyhounds are built for. The tightening of muscle and tendon from racing means many months of practicing a kind of folding process with them, to stretch flesh so the dogs regain the mechanics of the move. His six weeks with me yielded good results but his owner still had many months ahead of her with the cue and folding routine.

•   when Tally, a Chihuahua, joined my puppy class, she might have weighed all of two pounds. She’s a quiet, curious puppy though a little hesitant to move out into the greater expanses of the outer store. She sits proudly on the floor in front of her owner, bravely accepting the calamitous greetings of her classmates with cautious enthusiasm and a beckoning tail. Having micro dogs in class can be a difficult business. They have special needs when it comes to training and not all owners will go the extra mile. Tally’s owner is one of those rare people who refuse to be defeated by size or circumstance. Now at seven months, Tally’s completing her intermediate level and her owner will be taking her all the way to advanced, possibly into therapy training, where I think Tally would do well.

Check for new posts on THE DOG BLOG to get tips on training and canine well being. Got questions or a topic in mind? Let me know via the comments box. I would love to hear from you.


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