The ABCs of Numbers One and Two

posted January 14th, 2013 by
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by Nancy Gallimore Werhane

I am standing outside in my back yard at an hour I can only describe as dark-thirty in the morning. I am shivering in my pajamas and robe while asking… no, make that begging my darling puppy to go potty. Finally, she squats and does her business as I sing her potty skill praises and offer her a celebratory cookie.

Now take this scene and repeat it about 20 times during various hours of the day, and you have a small snapshot of my potty training routine with Brooke, my 10-week-old Dalmatian. It is not the glamorous part of puppy ownership, but it is essential to our happy future together.

As a professional dog trainer, you would think I might have some magical formula for teaching Brooke where and when she should and should not go potty. I do not. It takes patience, supervision and maybe a baggie of yummy treats placed strategically by the back door.

While house-training is one of the most basic lessons we teach our dogs, tales of potty-training woes are among the most common complaints I get from new puppy owners. In fact, I have had more than a few harried puppy parents ask me to whisk their little darlings off for a couple of weeks of toilet boot camp. In most cases, however, it’s not the puppies that need the bulk of the training.

If taught fairly and consistently, puppies are quite happy to learn proper potty etiquette. So it falls on us as humans to understand how the puppy mind works, so we can best teach our little four-legged prodigies the ways of our rule-filled world.

Perhaps more important than discussing how to properly train a young puppy is discussing the many ways people make a mess of this vital step. All too often, people still seem to focus on techniques for correcting a puppy when it eliminates inappropriately.

Rub your puppy’s nose in the mess? Find a puddle and return your puppy to the scene of the crime for a good scolding? Catch your puppy in the act, yell at her and give her a little swat with a rolled newspaper? What is the proper punishment? The simple answer is that there is no proper punishment.

What will punishment accomplish in the house training process? Nothing but a huge set back. It simply does not make sense to correct a puppy for something it absolutely does not understand. It certainly does not make sense to the puppy.

A puppy simply cannot understand why you are upset about a soggy spot on the carpeting that happened five minutes ago, which might as well be five hours ago in puppy time. Punishment does not remind a puppy that she is to go potty outside only. The puppy just perceives it as a senseless attack by the human she generally trusts the most.

But what if you actually catch your puppy in the act of having an accident somewhere in the house? Well, if you get angry, yell at the puppy and scare it while it is going potty, what you have taught her in that moment is that it is very dangerous to potty while the human is watching.

This means you will likely now have a puppy that is afraid to potty while you are present. You just made your house training mission a lot harder, didn’t you? Because your puppy is afraid, she will now become very adept at sneaking off in the house, perhaps in your closet or behind your favorite chair to take care of business. And when you go outside with your puppy hoping for the opportunity to praise her? Well, your puppy does not yet understand that there is a difference between relieving herself inside versus outside. She only knows that when you caught her in the act, you punished her, so now she‘s not willing to potty with you present—inside or out. Since being right there to praise and tell the puppy she’s doing the right thing is key to house training, incorporating any type of correction could lead straight to a tricky little problem.

Instead of looking for ways to correct a puppy, a far more effective and positive route to potty nirvana is to create and maintain a safe routine for teaching your puppy when and where to do her business.

If you watch a litter of tiny puppies— even so young their eyes have barely opened—you will see them squirm their way off their immediate bedding when they need to eliminate. This is the first thing you have working in your favor. Puppies have a natural desire to keep their bed clean if given the opportunity. The trick is that we have to convince them that our entire house is their bed.

This is the stage I am currently in with Brooke. She is very good at keeping her bed tidy. She understands that she should not potty on my bed when she is having her snuggle time. As for the rest of the house, it’s still fair game in her mind, but that’s where I come in.

Brooke has to be supervised 100 percent of the time. I will leash her to me if need be to ensure that I can keep an eye on her. While we are in the training process, I must be diligent to keep accidents inside to a minimum and to create as many good experiences outside as I can.

If she is playing with a toy and then gets up and starts to wander, I know I need to scoop her up and head out the door for a potty break. If she takes a nap, I have to be right there when she wakes up to once again head outdoors with her. When she finishes eating a meal, we go outside. When she gets a big drink of water, we go outside. What goes in seems to come straight back out.

If I can’t keep an eye on her or if I need to be away, she is confined in her crate but only for a limited amount of time. A good rule of thumb to follow is that your puppy can hold her bladder in a crate about one hour for every month of age. That means a 2-monthold puppy can be crated for about two hours. I can’t rush a young bladder, and I sure don‘t want her to be forced to have an accident in her crate. If I have to leave Brooke longer than an hour or two, she stays in her puppy pen with a piddle pad to allow her an appropriate alternate potty spot. I feed her three consistent meals a day, so that we can establish a poop routine (there are no delicate words for it). I know that when I take her out first thing in the morning, I should not be fooled when she comes to celebrate with me after “number one.” Yes, we celebrate; but then we stay outside, not playing, but focusing on “go potty” again, because number two can’t be far behind.

I know that even if she just went, she may well go again within the next 10 minutes. I cannot let my guard down. Puppies pee a lot, and they pee often.

At night, I take her out for a last potty break. Once she is settled in bed, she is generally good to go until early the next morning. However, occasionally she will get restless in the night, and I take that cue to get her out the door for a quick toilet visit and then straight back to bed.

If I ever catch her starting to squat in the house, I am very quick to say “uhoh!” followed by “outside,” said in an easy, encouraging voice. I don’t scare her; I don’t make a huge deal. I pick her up and head out the door to help her do the right thing. It is only through keeping our routine safe, positive and consistent that I am going to soon see the little light bulb of understanding go off over her head.

What it boils down to is this: I chose to get a young puppy. It is no secret that puppies have to be taught where to potty, and it should not be a shock that they will have accidents in the house. I have a job to do. It will likely take several weeks for me to feel that she really understands the difference between the right place to potty and another-indoormess- I-have-to-clean-up. But Brooke is worth every minute. She is worth every freezing trip outside. This is but a small blip on the road to hopefully 15 or 16 years of joy. I can handle this.

So be patient, be positive, buy some good enzyme cleaner and relax. Your puppy will catch on. Technically, we are willing to house train human babies for two to three years, right? What are a few weeks with a darling little puppy? Oops! I have to run. Brooke just woke up… 

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