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How to Potty Train Puppies: A Comprehensive Guide for Success

By Mara Bovsun for

Learning how to potty train puppies at the right time and place is one of the most important first steps you can take for a long, happy life together. House soiling is among the top reasons why dogs lose their homes or end up in shelters. Few people are willing to put up with a dog who destroys rugs and flooring, or who leaves a stinky mess that needs to be cleaned after a hard day at work. ​ That’s why it’s so important to make sure that you do some research in advance on how to house train a dog, decide what will work best for your situation, and make a plan. ​ There are tried-and-true methods for training your puppy, says Mary Burch, Ph.D., director of the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen and S.T.A.R. Puppy programs. While she says there are pros and cons to each, they all can be successful if you follow a few basic tips. ​ Crates Rank High as a Potty Training Tool Many people who are new to dogs cringe at the idea of confining their puppies in a crate, but the reluctance to use this tool generally evaporates after a few days of living with a new pet. Dog crates make life easier. It’s a good idea to get your dog accustomed to one for many reasons, such as vet visits or traveling. ​ Dogs are den animals and will seek out a little canine cave for security whether you provide one or not. That makes it relatively easy to train your dog to love their crate. ​ The principle behind using a crate for housetraining is that dogs are very clean creatures. They don’t like a urine-soaked rug in their living spaces any more than you do. It’s important that the crate is the right size — just large enough for the dog to lie down, stand up, and turn around. If it’s too large, the dog will feel that it’s OK to use one corner for elimination and then happily settle down away from the mess. Many crates come with partitions so you can adjust the size as your puppy grows. ​ When they feel an urge, a puppy will usually let you know by whining and scratching. That’s their signal that they have to go and want out of their little den. Now! If you let your dog lose control in their crate, they’ll get the idea that it’s OK to mess up their living space. Then they’ll think nothing of leaving little packages around where you live, too. ​ Using Puppy Pads and Paper Training Dr. Burch says the use of puppy pads and paper training can be tricky. “You’re reinforcing two different options for the puppy,” she explains. In an ideal situation, puppies would learn to hold it indoors and only eliminate at specific spots outdoors. But some cases may require a bit of creative thought, such as a person who has a job that makes it impossible to get home several times a day, or for a tiny dog living where the winters are brutal. Puppy pads give a dog the option of relieving themselves in an approved spot at home. There are also indoor dog bathrooms that even work for male dogs. After the dog matures, the owner can then work on having the dog do their business outdoors all the time. ​ Create a Housetraining Schedule for Your Puppy Keeping a consistent housetraining schedule is critical to success. Puppies have tiny bladders, and water runs right through them. The same is true for solid matter. You have to make sure you’re giving your puppy ample opportunity to do the right thing. ​ A good guide is that dogs can control their bladders for the number of hours corresponding to their age in months up to about nine months to a year. Remember, though, that 10 to 12 hours is a long time for anyone to hold it! A 6-month-old puppy can reasonably be expected to hold it for about 6 hours. Never forget that all puppies are individuals and the timing will differ for each. ​ Monitor daily events and your puppy’s habits when setting up a schedule. With very young puppies, you should expect to take the puppy out: First thing in the morning and last thing at night After playing indoors After spending time in a crate or upon waking up from a nap After chewing a toy or bone, eating, or drinking ​ This could have you running for the piddle pad, backyard, or street a dozen times or more in a 24-hour period. If you work in-person, make some kind of arrangement to keep that schedule. It can be helpful to have a dog walker or a person familiar to your dog stop by your home to take them out to go potty. The quicker you convey the idea that there is an approved place to potty and that some places are off-limits, the quicker you’ll be able to put this messy chapter behind you. ​ Observing and Supervising Your Dog You have to watch your puppy carefully for individual signals and rhythms. Some puppies may be able to hold it longer than others, while some will have to go out every time they play or get excited. Others will stop in the middle of a play session, pee, and play on. As with human babies, canine potty habits are highly idiosyncratic. ​ Controlling Your Dog’s Diet Puppies have immature digestive systems, so they can’t really handle a lot of food. That’s why it’s recommended that you break up the puppy feeding schedule into three small meals. Another thing to keep in mind is the food itself, which should be the highest quality puppy food. Whatever you choose, make sure it agrees with your puppy. Examining a dog’s stool is the best way for an owner to figure out whether it’s time for a change in diet. If your puppy is consistently producing stools that are bulky, loose, and stinky, it may be time to talk to your vet. They might recommend switching to a new dog food. Overfeeding may also provoke a case of diarrhea, which will only make the task of housetraining that much more difficult. ​ Reinforcing Your Puppy for “Going” Outside Scolding a puppy for soiling your rug, especially after the fact, isn’t going to do much. Likewise, some old methods of punishment, like rubbing a dog’s nose in their poop, are so bizarre that it’s hard to imagine how they came to be and if they ever worked for anyone. Praising a puppy for doing the right thing works best for everything you will do in your life together. Make them think that they’re a little canine Einstein every time they perform this simple, natural act. ​ Be effusive in your praise — cheer, clap, throw cookies. Let them know that no other accomplishment, ever, has been as important as this pee. Reward your puppy with one of their favorite treats. Make sure they’re nice and small, easy for your puppy to digest. ​ If your dog has an accident, don’t make a fuss, just clean up the mess, advises Dr. Burch. Use a cleaner that eliminates odors to remove the scent, so the dog won’t use it in the future. Blot up liquid on the carpet before cleaning the rug. ​ If you catch the dog starting to squat to urinate or defecate, pick them up and immediately rush outside. If they do the job outdoors, give them plenty of praise and attention. Remember that when it comes to housetraining, prevention is key. ​ Troubleshooting Common Housetraining Problems Following these rules will usually result in a well house-trained puppy. But sometimes, it doesn’t go as planned. Dr. Burch notes that sometimes house soiling is a sign of a physical issue. “Well before the several month mark, a dog who has seemed impossible to housetrain should have a good veterinary workup,” she says. If your vet finds that your dog is healthy, the next step is to find a trainer or behaviorist who has had experience with this issue. Here are some common complaints that trainers say they have encountered: ​ “My Dog Is Piddling All Over the House!” This is common among people who own toy dogs. Some trainers recommend teaching puppies to use indoor potty spots, similar to how a cat uses a litter box. In addition to piddle pads, there are actual dog potty boxes for indoor use. Trainers say that with consistency, you can house train a little dog. It just may take a little additional time, attention, and effort. ​ “My Dog Keeps Peeing in the Same Spot Where They Had an Accident.” That’s probably because you didn’t clean up the mess efficiently. There may still be some odor there, signaling that this is a prime potty spot. In your new puppy supply kit, make sure you have plenty of pet stain enzymatic cleaners and carefully follow instructions on using them. ​ “I Gave Them the Run of the Apartment. When I Came Home, There Was a Mess.” This is a common mistake among dog owners. They see some early signs that the dog is getting the idea, and declare victory too soon. Even when the puppy is consistently doing what you want, keep to the schedule to make sure the good habits are ingrained. ​ “They’re Soiling Their Crate!” Dr. Burch says dogs who come from situations where they were confined for long periods and had no other choice but to eliminate in their kennels will often soil their crates. The best approach would be to go back to square one with crate and house training. Here are the steps to follow: Assess how well your dog can control their bladder and bowels when not in the crate Carefully control their diet and schedule Give frequent trips outside, including after every meal, first thing in the morning, and last thing at night If you work, consider hiring a dog walker Clean everything so there are no odors left ​ How Long Does Puppy Potty Training Take? How long you’ll need to work on potty training can vary considerably, says Dr. Burch. There are many factors to consider, such as age, learning history, and your methods and consistency. An 8-week-old puppy is very different developmentally than a 5-month-old puppy. Some puppies have perfect manners after just a few days. Others can take months, especially if the dog has had a less than ideal situation before coming to you. With patience and persistence, though, most dogs can learn.

It’s not only against the law to let your dog off-leash in most public areas, but it can also be unsafe. Your dog could get into a scrap with another dog or run away from you. Keeping your dog leashed allows you greater control over who they interact with and what they get into. But how do you teach your dog to walk politely on a leash? Nobody wants to be dragged down the street, and with a larger dog, you can even suffer injuries if they pull hard enough. Although leash pulling is a common issue for dogs, there are simple techniques to teach your dog appropriate leash behavior. Plus, adjusting your behavior during walks can make a big difference too. If you follow these 10 tips, instead of your dog walking you, soon you and your dog will be walking together. 1. Always Reward Good Leash Behavior Never take your dog’s good behavior for granted, and that goes for walking politely on the leash as well. Dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarding, whether that reward is a treat, praise, or a chance to sniff a fire hydrant. If you only focus on what your dog is doing wrong and take good behavior for granted, chances are your pet will replace their good behavior with other less appropriate ways to get what they want. Whenever your dog is walking politely on a leash, be sure to reinforce that with some sort of reward. Take treats with you on walks or be ready with pets and praise. Don’t be stingy. Let your dog know you appreciate the behavior they have chosen to exhibit. In the beginning, reward heavily and frequently. Then, as your dog’s skills improve, you can slowly start to reduce the treats and substitute them with the chance to sniff a tree trunk or say hello to another dog. 2. Never Let Your Dog Walk When They Are Pulling Your dog wants to walk – that’s why they’re pulling you in the first place. So, if you let them walk while they’re pulling, you’re giving them the very reward they seek. And as dogs repeat behaviors that earn rewards, you will only make the leash pulling worse in the long run. Therefore, never walk when your dog is pulling on the leash. As soon as your dog pulls, stop, plant your feet, and wait for your dog to either return to you or loosen the tension on the leash. 3. Wait for a Loose Leash Before You Walk If you stop walking when your dog pulls, how do you know when you can start moving again? Wait for a slack leash – it should be hanging in a J-shape – and for your dog to turn their attention back to you. It might take quite a while in the beginning, but eventually your dog will look or walk back to see what’s holding you up. At that moment, praise and reward your dog with a treat at your side, then continue the walk. You might have to stop and start every step or two at first, but your dog will soon figure out that pulling makes the walk stop and walking politely allows it to continue. 4. Incorporate Life Rewards on Your Walk Walks should be an enriching experience for your dog. Rather than just a chance to go to the bathroom, your dog should be getting physical exercise and mental stimulation. But when you’re training your dog to not pull on the leash, it can seem like none of those things are happening. One way to boost your training while enhancing your dog’s walks is to incorporate life rewards for following the rules. Life rewards are day-to-day things your dog enjoys like the chance to sniff a shrub or greet a stranger. For example, if your dog walks 10 feet without pulling, release them to sniff for a few minutes. Bonus rewards like that will truly convince your dog that walking politely pays off. 5. Walk at a Good Pace Most of the time, humans walk at far too leisurely a pace for dogs. Even toy breeds will get those little legs pumping faster than you might want to go. And that’s part of the reason dogs pull – they want to get moving. To help your dog feel more engaged in the walk, choose a pace that’s comfortable for both of you. Of course, you can teach your dog to match your speed, but while you’re training, a quicker pace can make it easier for them to learn not to leash pull. 6. Be Consistent With Your No-Pulling Rule It can be tempting to let your dog pull when you’re in a hurry. Perhaps you’re late for work, or it’s freezing cold outside, and you just want to give them a chance to go to the bathroom. But you need to be consistent with your no-pulling rule regardless of the situation. Anytime you allow your dog to pull on the leash, you will set your training back to square one. Until you can get more than a few feet at a time, let your dog do their business in the yard or at the curb and save the walking for when you have time to train. 7. Keep Training Sessions Short and Fun It can be frustrating to work with a determined leash puller. In the beginning, you might get no further than the end of your driveway. Rather than pushing your dog until you’re both feeling cranky with lack of progress, keep your training sessions short and upbeat. Puppies in particular have tiny attention spans, and asking for too much too soon is not going to get you positive results. Remember, your goal isn’t to make it a certain distance, it’s to walk with a loose leash even if that’s just to the house next door. 8. Be Interesting and Engaging on Walks The world is an exciting place for dogs, full of new sights, sounds, and especially smells. That means there are a lot of things competing for your dog’s attention and enticing them to drag you down the sidewalk. If you’re on your phone or otherwise ignoring your dog, there’s little reason for them to pay attention to you. But if you’re interesting and worth watching, your dog will be more likely to follow your lead. Talk to your dog, take quick training breaks, stop for a game, and so on, so your dog is always waiting to see what you will do next. 9. Stay Calm Whether it’s seeing their favorite neighbor at the end of the block or the approach of a barking dog, you can encounter a lot of emotional situations on a walk with your dog. Whether it’s exciting or frightening for your dog (and you), you need to control your emotions. Dogs are experts at reading human emotions, so your mood can transmit down the leash and impact your dog, ramping them up further or intensifying their anxiety. To keep your dog calm, stay calm yourself and show your dog there is nothing to be excited about because the more relaxed your dog is, the more likely they can listen to you and behave appropriately. 10. Engage Your Dog In Distracting Situations When you encounter distractions like other dogs or squirrels, it’s easy for your dog to forget the rules and start leash pulling. The same is true for things your dog finds suspicious. Maybe strangers make your dog nervous. Your dog might pull to approach or pull to run in the other direction. Either way, leash manners can go out the window. To help your dog cope with distractions, get them focused on you instead. Calmly offer them treats or play a game. For example, ask for a sit or a hand target. These exercises are simple for your dog to do and will keep them engaged as the distraction passes. You can also teach your dog to make eye contact with you using the “watch me” cue so you can control where they’re looking. But be proactive. Grab your dog’s attention before they see the distraction, and hopefully they won’t even notice it at all. If you need expert advice from experienced trainers or have additional dog training questions, visit the AKC GoodDog! Helpline page for an online chat or to register for the GDH program.

Expert Tips: How to Stop Your Dog From Pulling on the Leash

By Stephanie Gibeault, MSc CPDT for

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