You have a puppy that is going to the bathroom in the house. This is a relatively straightforward issue to fix; yet a huge number of dogs end up in the shelter because this was never really trained.
There are many books and articles on housebreaking, and while most of them are potentially effective and a few of them are genuinely excellent, the vast majority of them suffer from the same flaw: they start from the assumption that you should get this done as quickly as possible. Superficially that undoubtedly seems like a pretty good assumption; after all, we are all in a hurry to get past this stage. But here is the rub—housebreaking is one of the first shared experiences your puppy will have with you. During this phase he is getting to know you and learning how you communicate and how you lead. Housebreaking will set the tone and create habits that will remain with you and your dog for many years.
I think it can be risky for people to think that faster is better and then put more pressure on themselves and their puppies because they feel they are failing if they have not housebroken their puppy at a certain age. Many dog owners, particularly somewhat novice pet owners, place WAY too much emphasis on quick housebreaking. On many occasions I have had people tell me how “smart” their dog was, and their evidence has been that the individual dog was housebroken in 12 minutes or less. Absolutely, some dogs naturally get the concept very easily, others have a much harder time, but this is hardly a measure of anything.
Obviously I share a desire not to have my house covered in excrement; however, I feel that establishing the tone of a lifelong relationship is so much more important, and since this is the first “training” that is going to occur for most dogs, I hate to think how many people are in such a hurry that they do not apply the same care and compassion they do with every other behavior. I have watched many otherwise competent trainers forget everything they know about communicating with animals when their innocent puppy happens to squat on their precious carpet! It is easy to housebreak quickly, but is it ideal? I would rather take longer than rush this key time in my puppy’s life. This is exacerbated by the fact that people tend to think animals should naturally be tidy and are somewhat revolted by their puppies willingness to soil everywhere. So for several weeks, puppy gets to know its new person as a frustrated, unhappy, lunatic who has a fit every now and then for no obvious reason!
Put another way, most of us would not correct a dog for failure to complete a behavior UNTIL we were certain that the dog understood the desired behavior. Yet how many people start correcting this behavior from day 1 without first ensuring the dog understands what is being asked?
So, assuming you are with me so far, how do you housebreak in a manner that will nurture your animal’s psyche and establish good habits?
1. Management—step one is to figure out how to keep your puppy from going in the house. If he is constantly able to go on the floor, nothing else you do is going to matter. So, whenever you are not able to watch your puppy, you need a plan. He can go outside in the yard, he can be in a crate, whatever, but he cannot be unsupervised in the house until he is reliably housetrained.
2. Frequency and consistency—take your puppy outside LOTS. It can sometimes feel like all you do is go outside—after he naps, after he eats, after he drinks, after he plays, etc.
3. Vigilance—my brother used to call me several times each day and tell me that he had found a puddle on his carpet. Every time he would swear up and down that he had never taken his eyes off the puppy. But when I went to visit, he would go and make dinner while the puppy played in the living room. It will only take a few weeks, but you need to be TRULY vigilant.
4. Praise—you need to go outside with your puppy so that you can praise him when he goes outside. People stick their puppies outside for ten minutes and assume they went potty. If you are not there you cannot know, and you cannot praise.
5. Disappointment—I find acting disappointed when a puppy does have an accident is surprisingly effective. I do not yell or scream, I am just sad and very disappointed.
6. Patience—if you are doing the above, this problem will get better and better and will go away in a few weeks. So do not stress about it. Believe me, I have had more animals of more species than most people have ever met pee and poop on my floor, and it all cleans up and the world does not end!
7. Correction—once you are fairly sure that your puppy understands what is being asked, you will get a few perfect opportunities to correct. I am not a big believer in correction, but this is one of those places where one well timed correction can be profoundly effective. Again, you want to be certain they understand your preference, and then you wait for a moment and just as they start you loudly exclaim, “NO” and pick them up and run them outside where you wait for them to go (it may take a while since you just startled them) and praise the heck out of them.
Here is the simple truth of housetraining—if you string together 100 times of your puppy going outside and you praising him, he will be trained. But each time you fail to praise him outside, or fail to prevent him inside, that counter resets… So, challenge yourself to be perfect 100 times in a row, and know that if you fail it is you who failed, not your puppy…