Housebreaking Made Easy

    House training your puppy can be a very easy thing to do if you take advantage of their natural tendencies. If you ignore those tendencies, the process can be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible.

Probably one of the most difficult concepts for many people to grasp is that a puppy is not a furry four legged person. She is a dog. She is as different from us as if she were a grizzly bear or a Siberian tiger.
    Our dogs are direct descendants of the timber wolf. For practical purposes, they are still timber wolves, only in slightly altered clothing. 

    Twenty thousand years ago there were no dogs on the face of the earth. The way that dogs came into being was that our cave dwelling ancestors would find where a mother wolf had a litter of cubs, steal one of the cubs and take it back to their cave where they raised it as a pet.  Over time, the cave dwellers noticed that the pet wolves exhibited behaviors that were valuable to people. For instance, when strangers approached the cave, the wolf noticed and gave warning long before the people would have otherwise known. Likewise, the wolves would alert hunters to the presence of game long before it was actually spotted. Some wolves had a tendency to swing around game and drive it back toward the hunting party. This, incidentally, was the start of the herding instinct of the collie type dogs. Gradually, man discovered that by breeding together wolves that showed a strong tendency to do a particular thing that the behavior would be inherited by the offspring. Thus, we had the start of selective breeding and one of the beginnings of agriculture.

    As our ancestors bred to strengthen certain traits and weaken others, the wolf was slowly changed into dog. Today, our dogs come in many shapes and sizes. We have strengthened natural wolf drives into specific dog vocations. But, every gene that gives us a particular breed of dog is one that originally occurred in the wolf. We have added nothing. Our dogs are still wolves. When we accept that fact, house training becomes easy.

    Wolves and, by extension, dogs are den dwelling animals. They are clean animals that given a choice will not soil where they live. This simple fact, coupled with the use of a crate makes house training easy.

    Every dog should have a place of her own. It should be a place where she can rest, find sanctuary. Her den, if you prefer. A crate can be that place. Crates are a marvelous invention.  They make raising a puppy so easy that I would not even consider attempting to do so without one.  Safely tucked away in a crate your puppy will not be able to eat your home and possessions while you are away. When your nerves are become frayed at her ceaseless bounding you can give her time out while you catch your breath. And, safely confined, she will resist the urge to go to the bathroom as long as she can.

    What you are doing when you house train a puppy is to develop in her the habit of having grass under her bottom when she goes. The only way to do this is to have her on grass every time she does.

So, how do we manage to do this. Well, for one thing, we let the pup sleep at night in her crate. The first thing she needs to do when she awakes is to go to the bathroom. When she wakes up is not necessarily when you wake up. If she’s free to roam around, she’ll travel what he considers a proper distance from her bed and do her business. If she is confined to a crate she’ll hold on as long as she can. Now, if you leave her in the crate so long that her choices are explode or go, she will always opt to not explode. But, within reason, in a crate, she’ll hold on and this gives you a chance to get up and take her outside.

    Once outside, the pup will probably very quickly urinate. Most will also defecate. There are a high percentage of pups, though, that will start to chase butterflies or sniff where mice have run through the grass. In short, they play and will actually forget what they are outside for. When you bring them back in the house, they suddenly remember and you have a cleanup job to do.  When I have a pup who wants to play, I take her out on a leash. I stand in one spot until boredom causes her to do her business. Then I take the leash off and let her play. This becomes her reward for going outside and within a few days it greatly speeds up the process.     

    I don’t like to spend a lot of time standing around waiting for the pup to clean out. If within about five minutes she hasn’t gone, I take her back in and put her back in her crate. Fifteen or so minutes later, I take her back out for another opportunity.  In time, she will go. Then and only then do I let her loose in my house.

    Also, be aware that there are certain pups that will need to go more than once. Only observation will tell you if yours is one of these. If she is, stay with her until she has finished before you take her in.

When I take the pup back in, I feed her breakfast. Within a given amount of time after eating, she is going to need to go to the bathroom again. This time varies from puppy to puppy, but with each puppy it is so fixed that you can almost set your watch by it. Have her on grass again when this time comes.

There are certain other predictable times when a puppy is going to need to relieve herself. Any time she wakes from a nap, after she has eaten or drunk water, whenever she has had a play session, at night before going to bed and then, depending on the puppy, about every hour that she is a month of age. In other words, a two month old pup (eight weeks) needs to be offered a bathroom break about every two hours. At twelve weeks ( three months) she needs to go about every three hours. Your job is to have her on grass when these times occur.

    After several days of being taken to the grass and being praised and rewarding for using it, your puppy will get the idea that grass is a wonderful place to relieve herself. And you will have completed exactly half of your task. The other half is to teach her that it is wrong to go in the house. This requires the use of punishment and it also requires that you watch your puppy every moment that she is loose in your house.

    Punishment is a wonderful teaching tool. You can stop any behavior you choose by the use of punishment. But punishment is not a broad club. Punishment is more a surgeon’s scapel and if it is going to affect a behavior it must be applied with a surgeon’s skill. What few people understand about punishment is that it only affects a behavior while that behavior is happening. After the fact is too late. This applies to dogs. It applies to children.  It applies to you and me. YOU CAN ONLY CHANGE A BEHAVIOR WITH PUNISHMENT WHILE THE BEHAVIOR IS HAPPENING. After the fact, it is not punishment, it is not teaching, it is not behavior modification. It is abuse, pure and simple. And there is too much of that in our world.

    So, how do we punish? When your puppy is loose in your house, you must have two eyes on her. You can’t fold clothes, you can’t wash dishes, you can’t kiss your spouse. Your job is to watch the puppy. If you can’t, she should be in her crate. When she squats, apply the punishment, scoop her up and get her outside. When she goes outside praise and reward her for doing so even though you had to take her outside.

    I punish my puppies for squatting in the house by throwing a bean bag at them. Bean bags are easy to make. Pour some beans into the toe of a sock and tie a knot in it. When I’m housebreaking a puppy, I make quite a few bean bags. I want to be able to reach out and grab one wherever I might be in my house. And when I throw the bean bag, it is to hit the puppy, not to scare her. There is enough give in the bean bag that I don’t fear breaking the pup. And, punishment that is not uncomfortable is not punishment.

    Should you find a pile or a puddle that you did not see the puppy deposit, simply clean it up.  Taking her back to it, showing it to her and punishing her will not facilitate housebreaking.  What it will do, in many cases, is cause your puppy to start destroying the evidence. I leave it to your imagination as to how she will do this.

    Given time, most dogs will start telling you when they need to go out. Seldom is this the classical barking at the door. My old Lab, Widgeon, used to lie by the door. Trim, the Border Collie, just got a desperate look on his face. Bess, one of my Fox Terriers, just became a pest.  If you are observant, your dog will teach you what her signal is.

    I’m often asked, “How long should I use the crate?” My answer is, "as long as necessary."
    Beyond that, I would answer that you should use the crate on a regular basis until your puppy has gone ninety consecutive days without even once squatting in your house. Then you are probably safe trusting her out for less attentive periods.

    House training a puppy can be and is attention intensive. But it’s really not all that time consuming. It’s just a matter of doing things in a consistent pattern until your goal is reached. As my grandfather, Lewis Epps, used to say, “Training a puppy takes as much effort as training a child.  The major difference is that when the puppy is trained you can enjoy her. When you finally get the kids trained, they marry somebody and leave home. You never get to enjoy them."