Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Puppy Housetraining

Puppy on a leash

Puppies are great fun. They run and play and live in the moment, completely uninhibited – including when they get the urge to eliminate. Housetraining can feel like such a challenge that many people just give up and mop up. Others, so completely flummoxed and frustrated that they lose their patience, have resorted to yelling or punishment.

We have research-based methods to get this chore accomplished that will do more than keep the stool and urine outside where it belongs. While your shiny new puppy learns where to find the dog bathroom you can also be teaching him that all good things come from you. He can earn anything he wants from his reliable leader just by following the canine-specific structure that you consistently support.

Can the arduous chore of housetraining really be that rewarding? Everything between you and your best friend will be excellent if he gets it. It won’t be hard for either of you if you avoid trying to foist a human behavior structure on your dog – a member of a different species. Sure, they’re a lot like us in some great ways but there are important differences. One of those is the bathroom thing.

May I briefly discuss dominance? Thank you. You don’t have to look far to find well-intentioned dog people, happy to share the idea that dominance must be established early. Miss the opportunity and your dog will push you around and run your life. Really? Not really. This badly flawed concept had been considered sacred dogma (no pun intended) back to the early days of the cold war. Behavioral research has come a very long way. With only the rarest of exceptions dogs regard all humans as leaders. Behaving like Napoleon is unnecessary and would risk damaging a fledgling friendship.

Your new pupster will delight in following your lead if you avoid scaring the little rascal. The method below is a canine-specific structure for helping a young dog learn the house rules. Canine leadership will be much easier than trying to teach human followership. You are smarter than your dog. If you become an educated canine leader your dog will recognize the concept right away. Get ready to be the benevolent and loving head honcho who controls the resources that you will be delighted to help your dog learn to earn. This won’t be hard but it won’t be human either. It will be dog-specific.

To make this workable for you and the kid I’ve broken it down into three steps. Get ready for straight-forward success.


Step 1 – One Day Housetraining

Really? One day? New puppies can accomplish the first step that fast. Yours can be trained to eliminate in only one outdoor location, she will get consistent fun rewards for good work, and you will give her the security of a reliable structure.

Dogs are not really little people in furry suits and that’s why their rules are different. Essential to their innate social programming is the process of leaving the living/eating/sleeping area (your house) to eliminate near the territorial boundary (your yard), and then to enjoy the specific reinforcer of a jaunt in the wilds (that special leash walk). This is where they check the canine bulletin boards and post a few messages of their own. This social construct is innate to the canine brain. It’s a gift to dedicated puppy parents.

Pick one day (real soon) that you can commit to intensive housetraining. Your first (OK, maybe second) responsibility after bounding out of bed will be to lead your little charge outside for her first opportunity to pass urine or stool. If she eliminates in the general vicinity of the target she can have a treat, an expression of your undying love, and best of all, an immediate walk with you off- property. After coming back inside with your canine honor student you’ll want an award ceremony and photo op for her but that’s not canine-specific, so forget it.

Immediately after walking through the door put your shiny new puppy in a confined area like a small bathroom, sans rugs, towels, and shower curtain. She can have food or, better, a food-dispensing toy or puzzle. An Adaptil pheromone diffuser plugged into a wall outlet will help calm your puppy, making it easier for her to learn. Don’t interact with the kid except hourly when you put a leash on her and exclaim in a happy voice, “Puppy, Outside!” Head out to the dumping ground with special treats in your pocket. If she does her business within a few minutes she earns another, “atta girl (or boy), a tid bit, and of course, another brief leash walk in the neutral turf beyond your property line. If after three minutes she has not produced, you must say nothing. Just lead her back to the guest bathroom for another hour of extracting food from her food toy. Some trips to the latrine will be successful, others will be dry runs. Repeat hourly until bedtime.

Brand new puppies, right out of the box, usually catch on in just one day. Those with established bad habits, on the other hand, need a few consecutive days of the same routine. Adult dogs with house training deficits may have other, coexisting behavior challenges. These can be complex cases that need help from a credentialed specialist. But with a new puppy you can have faith, supply plenty of food rewards, and immediately follow every good outdoor deed with that high-value reinforcer of a jaunt off-property.

In the meantime be sure to eliminate any lingering, bad-habit-triggering odors of old indoor urine or stool with an enzymatic cleaner like Anti Icky Poo or Zero Odor. Both are available on Amazon.


Step 2 – Close tethering

There is nothing like success. Your puppy will revel in his accomplishment but with just one day of a great structure this easily distracted young’un’ could lose focus and revert to, you know, barbaric indoor eliminating. You’ll need to be as sure as possible that the lesson sticks.

Close tether training will help you and your young or adult dog bond nicely while it prevents somebody from sneaking off to engage in a nefarious activity. You don’t want the canine handyman. This is the dog who does odd jobs around the house and then makes a bolt for the door.

When you and your pupster believe that the basic housetraining concept is in place (one day of the One Day method may be enough) connect a 6 -10 foot leash or rope to his collar and then hitch the other end to your belt using a light weight carabineer. We call this “close tethering” because the great leader (you) will always be close by. This is very different, by the way, than tying a dog to tree outside. Besides dumped-over water bowls and direct sun exposure chained dogs can get frustrated and become reactive/aggressive.

During this second phase of housetraining you’ll want to take the kid out every few hours to see if it’s time for a whiz or a generous bowel movement. If he produces, reward him with praise and a walk (it doesn’t need to be a long one) to investigate the wide, wide world off your property. Tether him to your belt when the two of you arrive back inside. Once his basic needs have been satisfied it’s simply a matter of your new dog lying quietly next to you while you go about your business.

Oh, that’s easy-getting a puppy to lie still for two or three hours at a time. Well, if you treat him like the dog he legitimately is, it won’t be hard at all. When the little guy close tethered, you can set him up for success with a comfortable pad and a food-dispensing toy or puzzle (see below). You can motivate him to work food loose from these challenging devices by not feeding him from a bowl. Just like his free-living feral counterparts your puppy’s brain is already programmed to forage. He was born to be wild. If he’s hungry and there’s dog food in a gizmo that must be manipulated he’ll apply his brain, lips, teeth, tongue, and paws to the task of extracting his sustenance. Dogs are naturals at this because they’re survivors. Remember what I said about treating your dog like a dog? This is another great way of getting out of his way so he can be all he can be – a real live dog.

And don’t forget to catch him doing something right – often. Quietly reinforce good behavior every chance you get. Eliminating outside should always get rewarded. So should diligently prying or shaking loose his food when he’s tethered next to you inside. He’ll catch on quickly that doing the right thing is always followed by a canine-specific paycheck.

Do you have a life outside of dog raising? During close tether training it won’t matter who is on the other end of the leash. Any responsible member of your household can fill the temporary position of puppy wrangler.

If there isn’t someone available to function as your surrogate, such as during the night, it will be important not to allow the kid to rehearse the unhealthy behavior of house soiling. Prevent this atrocity when you are away by leaving your canine student in the yard or crated inside – with a food-dispensing toy or puzzle.

So, how long should step two, close tethering, continue? If you feel that your puppy is catching on well, you can limit this phase to a few days. If you are at all concerned that he’s not entirely clear on the concept you should stay the course for a week. Don’t assume too much too soon. Better to take a bit longer than necessary than to bestow a genius IQ and have to start all over because your confidence was misplaced. Sowing confusion in a puppy’s brain isn’t fair to anybody.


Step 3 – the Stealth Phase

After your new puppy has learned the rules of decorum she may actually be ready to fly solo. Don’t be nervous; your dog isn’t.

Plan for this challenge by wearing ballet slippers, your sneakiest sneakers, or by simply going barefoot. You’ll be the Ninja on patrol. Call this phase entrapment if you must but you are now in the business of busting a crime in progress. Not to worry. You will be the benevolent enforcer. Second chances will be granted as necessary.

Let go of the leash that has tethered your fuzzy prodigy to your belt at a time when you will be uninterrupted. If she’s just polished-off the contents of a food toy you’ll want to set her up to succeed or fail according to basic physiology. About 15 minutes following a meal the body knows it’s about time to drain the internal swamp.

Keep an eye on the kid as she wanders away, dragging the leash. Follow silently at a distance. Your intention will be to collar the juvenile delinquent as the idea of eliminating begins to form in her brain. You’re not going to wait for the mess to appear on the floor.

As soon as your fine young dog looks like she is about to squat, you can silently lunge forward and step on the leash. As you pick it up say, “(your dog’s name), No!” – but not with condemnation. You’ll only be correcting a mistake, not administering the verbal equivalent of capital punishment. Lead the repentant puppy outside to where you want her to go and then tell her she’s good even if she doesn’t produce. Then take her for a jaunt in the wide, wide world off property.

Well, OK, an event like this gets less than A+. One corrected mistake means that you should close-tether your student again until the time seems right to give her another chance at success. If your Ninja routine produces another bust I would repeat the One Day method one more day and follow with several more days of close tethering. Then don your ballet slippers for another shot at redemption. Consistency and repetition make all the difference.

Long term, all dogs need to have success made as easy as possible. To communicate her needs the Nichol family dog gives us her Border collie stare and then heads for the door. Some people have taught their dogs to ring a bell that hangs from the doorknob. A dog door can be perfect. Do whatever it takes to achieve simplicity. Success is much more fun for everybody than frustration.

Finally, some puppies clearly work hard to learn but still leave messes. Before throwing up your hands be sure that physical disorders have no part in the problem. Defects in the urinary tract, bladder stones, leaky sphincters, infections, intestinal parasites, diabetes, and impacted anal glands can be significant obstacles. A diagnosis and treatment are in order for some puppies and dogs, but never punishment.

I hope you find this information useful. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your dog-loving friends. If they’re considering a new puppy or if they’re already struggling with house soiling they’ll be glad for the advice.

Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets. You can sign up at no charge on my website, drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide.

Thanks for your dedication to your pets. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.


Busy Buddy, food cubes, and Kong Toys

These toys come in a variety of sizes and are fun for dogs. They are designed to have bits of food stuffed into them. By mixing dry food, or treats that are highly desirable to your dog, with something sticky and tasty like peanut butter or Cheese Whiz he will spend his time and energy working on it. You can keep him occupied even longer if you load canned food into a Busy Buddy Twist ‘n Treat, pop it into a plastic bag, and then freeze it overnight. That dogsicle will be plenty challenging. As your dog manipulates it with great focus he’ll end up getting the food loose one bit at a time. He will also be good and pooped when he’s done. And a tired dog is a happy dog. If you use peanut butter or almond butter check the label for the sugar substitute xylitol, which can be toxic to dogs.

To make food-dispensing toys and puzzles even more compelling it’s best to have several different kinds of them so they can be “rotated”. This way your dog will have to apply his or her brain to figure out a different one each day.

Twist ‘n Treat, Kibble Nibble, The Waggle, The Groove Thing, and lots of others can be purchased at pet supply retailers or online. PetSafe has a one called the Tug-A-Jug. This is a heavy plastic bottle that you would partially fill with dry food. The dog must pull back and forth on a knotted rope that passes through the lid to get bits of dry food. They have another great food-dispensing toy called the Kibble Nibble.

A food cube is a puzzle that requires a dog to figure out how to get at the food inside. Here is the Web address of a good source. http://www.arcatapet.com/resource5.cfm?Source=GA-BusterCube

Amazon.com has a great many food toys on their site.

An outstanding way of exercising your dog’s brain as well as keeping him or her occupied is with fun and challenging interactive pet activity toys and treat puzzle games available on http://www.nina-ottosson.com/ Working together with a non-food aggressive dog can build a great relationship.

Clever Pet is another excellent puzzle that challenges a dog to think and learn. It’s a treat dispensing device that releases food when the right (big) buttons are pushed. It is especially helpful for dogs with separation-related behaviors. http://getcleverpet.com/