Open your heart to a puppy, and you'll never be sorry. Those tumbling balls of fluff are pure happiness on four paws - and are just as lovable when they turn into grown-up dogs. But unfortunately, no matter whether it's a rare breed or the most popular breed in your state, puppies aren't born housetrained. Their human families need to carefully teach them to do their business outdoors, and not to treat the living room sofa like a bathroom. Dr. Mary K. Burch of the American Kennel Club is a certified applied animal behaviorist, and she explained to The Active Times the best way to potty train your pooch.
"Puppies want to be clean," Burch said, pointing out that even 4-week-old pups in a whelping box will seek out a far corner for bathroom breaks. The youngest age that pups are supposed to leave their mother is 8 weeks - but that's not too early to begin the gentlest steps of housetraining. At this age, you should take the puppy outside often, and praise it lavishly when it does its business.
Don't expect too much at first
The best age to start getting serious about housetraining is when your puppy turns 3-4 months old. "Before 12-16 weeks, you should not expect your puppy to 'hold it' for any length of time," Burch said. Like babies, tiny dogs have tiny bladders, and they're not born knowing where and when to let loose. Ideally, by this point, you've already been taking the pup out frequently and joyfully rewarding it when it does go.
First thing, last thing
Burch said the two most important times to take a puppy outside are first thing in the morning and before going to bed at night. Yes, you might have to delay your own breakfast or bedtime, but it'll be worth it in the end.
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Don't skimp on trips outside
Those morning and night trips are vital, but don't forget to take your pup out frequently throughout the day as well. According to the Humane Society, a puppy can generally control its bladder for about one hour per month of age, so a 2-month-old puppy needs to go out at least every two hours.
Find a favorite spot
At first, take your dog to the same general area in the yard so they begin to associate that spot with elimination. Repeat the same phrase every time you see the dog begin to urinate, such as "go pee." The idea is to have the dog associate the phrase and action, so in the future, the pup will hear those words from you and know what you expect.
Use treats and praise
Never be afraid to praise your dog for doing its business outdoors - that's what you want, so be generous with the happy words and joyful tone of voice. Food treats are OK, especially at first, Burch said, but ideally, you'll start cutting back on the snacks and relying on verbal praise once the puppy gets the idea.
Adult dogs may need training, too
Some adult dogs have had a bad start in life or were raised outside and may need housetraining, too. Don't leave untrained adult dogs alone in the house for hours and expect them to hold it, even though their bladders are bigger, Burch said. Teach an untrained adult dog as you would a puppy, with frequent trips outside and plenty of patience and affirmations. And don't forget, rescue dogs make the best pets of all.
Crate training works for some
A common method of housetraining is using a crate when the owners are away. Burch noted that some trainers suggest a small crate, as the dog won't want to soil its area. But if you're gone for a very long time, consider a larger area. That way, you won't stress out the puppy by making it stay in its own waste if it has an accident.
Even crated dogs need water
Be careful with crate training. Don't use it as an excuse to avoid taking the dog out for much-needed exercise and vital bathroom needs. And make sure your dog has access to water, because there can be consequences if they don't drink enough. If your pup is a chewer, reconsider putting soft bedding in the crate - eating part of the blanket or pillow may mean a scary trip to the vet.
Consider blocking off a room
One alternative to crate training if you're gone for a long time is to block off a room, perhaps a kitchen with a tiled floor. If your pup is being raised indoors, be sure to put pads in the corner of the room as a relief station.
You may want to hire a dog walker
Young puppies shouldn't be crated more than one or two hours without a bathroom break, Burch said, but most bosses want employees in the office much longer than that. If you're gone from home for huge blocks of time, consider hiring a dog walker to take your pup out, or look into doggy daycare.
Get some exercise
Just like it's important for humans to get exercise, puppies need exercise, too. Let them play, let them run, let them chase a ball. The more they look forward to their time outside with you, the happier they'll be to take those bathroom breaks.
During the housetraining process, keep your puppy on a regular feeding schedule, Burch said. Choose a healthy dog food, keep the food consistent to avoid a change in bowel habits and don't let them free-feed, where they have access to food all day long; that can have a host of bad consequences, including eventually needing to put your pooch on a diet.
Make those outdoor breaks regular
Those first-thing-in-the-morning and last-thing-at-night outside visits are very important. But also get into a habit of taking your dog out after every meal. Puppies don't mean to anger you by having accidents, they just can't control their bladder and bowels.
Choose the right spot, and clean it up
As we noted earlier, Burch said it's ideal to choose a certain spot in your yard that your dog will associate with bathroom time and to use the same phrase each time. But what about on walks? Keep your dog on a leash, and redirect if you sense that the pup is going to go on someone's front lawn or another tricky spot. Guide the dog to an out-of-the-way spot that's not on a prime walking path, and don't forget to be a responsible owner and clean up after your dog.
Know the signs
So you've got your dog on a generous, regular outside schedule. You still need to stay alert to other times when the dog may begin to indicate it needs to go out. "Puppies will sometimes look anxious when they need to go out," Burch said. "They may cry or whine, or start turning in circles. When they are old enough to pair the door with going outside, they might go and stand at the door and whine or scratch the door."
Never punish your pooch
Forget those stale old images of someone whacking their dog on its nose with a rolled-up newspaper, or even worse, rubbing a dog's nose in its accident. Burch said there's one way to use a rolled-up newspaper when your pup has an accident: "take the newspaper and hit yourself with it." Maybe you haven't been taking the dog out enough, or just haven't given it enough time to learn. And don't punish your dog for making you sneeze; there are plenty of hypoallergenic breeds to choose from.
Your vet is your friend
If your puppy was making good progress and suddenly has a setback, back up to the previous step in housetraining and start over, Burch said. If the dog was able to hold it for an hour and now can't, start taking it out more frequently. "If the problem persists, see your veterinarian," Burch said. "Your puppy may have a medical problem such as a bladder infection."
Accidents will happen
At some point, your dog is bound to have an accident in the house. Burch recommends using a cleaning product meant for pet accidents; the packaging will note that the cleaner has enzymes to break down urine and feces. A real soaker of an accident on wall-to-wall carpet may require the use of a professional carpet-cleaning company, though.
Housetraining isn't instantaneous. Burch noted that the amount of time it takes can depend on your puppy's history and age, and that may vary a great deal. Some dogs only take two weeks to get the concept, but it may take three or four months for others. Be patient and loving and your dog will love you right back - just one of many reasons why having a dog makes you a better person.