Written by Ashton Aubuchon
Veteran Owned and Operated Business Owner of Command Performance K9 LLC
Retired Military Working Dog Handler-US Army
One of the most common questions I get as a dog trainer is how to house break/potty train a puppy. In this post, we are going to break down the method I have found to be the most successful, and why I have found this to be true.
Intro the proper environment
Intro a “go to the bathroom” command
Use a praise voice and rewards to encourage the behavior of going to the bathroom outside
Train different sight pictures and environmentals
Accountability and completing the communication channel
Where do you start?
When starting this endeavor it is important to remember teaching puppies the proper place to relieve themselves should be like any other command. This command needs to be introduced in a very positive environment. This helps create a clear communication channel for your pup while keeping it fun and light. When reward and positive tones are utilized your pup is able to understand what they just did is a good thing. It is a part of dog’s nature to want to please their owner. In a sense, it is a lot like children. Kids feel good when their parents praise, support and encourage them. To add onto this, we cannot reprimand kids for something they have not yet learned. Dogs have the same experience and are no different in this way. In addition, just like kids, dogs will learn certain behaviors warrant praise while others do not. This is how we start to teach them right from wrong. Since we cannot use words to explain why things are good and bad, we have to take a little different approach with our pups. To start off, placing your dog on certain surfaces to use the bathroom is important. For example, if you live in the middle of the city you need to teach your dog going to the bathroom on concrete is acceptable. However, if you only train your dog on concrete they might struggle going on grass or vice versa. This also applies to potty training your pup on or off leash. If your dog is never on leash when they go to the bathroom, they might struggle to do it on leash later on. What I am saying is, be consistently inconsistent with the sight picture your dog experiences while being trained. You know better than I do what kind of environments your dog will be exposed to, and expected to go to the bathroom in. Just be sure to train every element so your dog knows as long as they are outside going to the bathroom is ok. Regardless if they are on or off leash, on grass, sand or concrete, it is day or night, rain or shine.
Now that we have discussed proper environmental/surface training we get into the nitty gritty of this potty training business. The easiest way to start is by introducing a command every time your puppy is in a place where you want them to go to the bathroom. You simply say something like “go potty, take a break, hurry up, pit stop etc.” When the puppy starts to go to the bathroom you can then say, “Good, take a break,” or whatever words you choose to use. Anytime this happens praising and rewards should be given to your pup. Be careful with the tone you use. If your tone is too intense or excited you, might startle the puppy and have counteractive results. Get a feel for how much stimulation your puppy can take, and use whatever warrants the best response. Once they have completed using the bathroom mark the behavior with a “yes. Good “insert go to the bathroom command here”.” We wait until after the action is complete, so the puppy learns starting the action does not earn the reward, but completing it does. Be patient here. If your puppy starts going to the bathroom and then immediately stops to run over for a treat you can say “good, “insert go to the bathroom command here”,” but do not reward them until they are completely relieved. This also applies to dogs who learn the body language of going to the bathroom. A puppy might learn to squat as if they are going to the bathroom, but if nothing comes out do not reward the behavior. This way your puppy learns actually going to the bathroom is the only rewarded response. This brings me to the next question I am often asked. What do I do when my puppy has accidents inside?
Purely Positive: Why it paints a confusing picture.
Before I get into this topic, I am going to emphasize that I would NEVER tell someone to hit their dog or rub their face in urine/feces. This is never a warranted response. It could create issues in your relationship and their relationship with other humans. With that said, there are many “purely positive” trainers out there, or trainers who teach through only rewarding behaviors they approve of. Many would argue that this is the best way to train all dogs, but the truth is that this form of training is not effective. When this is the approach, I generally get clients who tell me, “my puppy was doing so well, and now all the sudden they started having accidents for no reason.” This comes as no surprise to me, because I realize the pup was not given all the information. Let me put it this way. You and I enter a room and the purpose of entering the room is for me to help you find an object. You will find the object more quickly by me telling you when you are getting hotter AND colder, as opposed to just hotter. When you are only positive the pup will learn going to the bathroom outside is good, but they might fail to learn going inside is bad. For this reason, there are action steps that one should take for both the right and wrong behaviors.
How to hold your dog accountable
Earlier in this post, we talked about not wanting an overly stimulating praise voice. Just like the praise voice, you do not need an overly stimulating correctional voice either. Remember, communication with dogs all comes down to the tone you use. In this scenario, we are going to say the dog owner just saw their puppy start to urinate inside the home. As soon as the owner caught the behavior, the owner should use the “no” marker to indicate an inappropriate behavior just took place. As said before, this “no” should be stern, but you do not need to yell or scream it at your puppy. The owner should then approach the puppy in a neutral manner, pick them up from under the armpits with their legs dangling down, and walk them to the potty area. Holding the dog in this position is different than when cuddling or loving on your puppy. By doing this the puppy will not confuse you picking them up with praise/affection, which often times means you did something I like. Once the puppy is in the correct area, the “go to the bathroom” command should be given. Once the pup starts going to the bathroom, the bridge word “good” paired with the “go to the bathroom command,” should be used to mark that the desired behavior is taking place. When the puppy finishes going to the bathroom the “yes” marker should be used to indicate the puppy just completed exactly what it is you wanted them to do, and a reward should be given. When we put all of this together, we get a puppy that had an experience full of digestible information. They learned that when they went inside a harsh tone was used, they were removed from the area, no reward was given, and they were placed in a new location. When they repeated this behavior in the new location a command to use the bathroom was given, a positive tone was used, and a reward was received. In this instance, the puppy learned the same behavior had two different consequences based on the location. For this reason the puppy can start to put together that going inside is not something the owner approves of, and going outside is. By not being overly animated or loud in the correctional phase of this cycle, you prevent the pup from possibly going into a “fight or flight” response. We want to avoid this response as much as possible when teaching dogs. This response should be avoided, because “fight or flight” is a primal response. When a dog is in a primal state, they cannot process information as well as if they were still thinking with a clear head.
Why we pair a command with your dog going to the bathroom outside
I am going to guess that by this point you have noticed me use “go to the bathroom command” quite a bit. You might also be wondering why this is needed. The short answer is that this creates a more clear communication channel. By placing a command with going to the bathroom, a dog can be more specifically told what is good and bad. The dog can learn that these words are always said outside, and after I do the action of going to the bathroom, I am always rewarded. Therefore, those words mean use the bathroom. If I only ever hear these words outside, they must want me to do this outdoors. Holding your dog accountable inside stops your dog from learning you prefer them to go outside, but if they go inside it is ok, they just would not receive a reward. An additional benefit from implementing this, is teaching your dog to go to the bathroom on command. As a dog gets older, this process is phased out. Once a pup is consistently going outside, is accident free, and knows the standard you longer need to follow the action steps. With that said, through repetition, your dog will have learned when I hear the “go to the bathroom” words I need to do just that. This will allow you to have an adult dog who will go when you tell them to. This is convenient for road trips, when you are in a rush, or if there is inclement weather outside where you need the potty break to be quick.
Bell Training: Is it needed?
Prior to my dog training days, I was an owner who thought teaching your dog to ring bells when they needed to go outside was beneficial. It does after all make a lot of sense. Sometimes you are distracted and lose track of time, or your pup just drank more water than usual. Where this becomes tricky is that it is never long before a dog learns that ringing the bell means they get to go outside. For this reason, it might become hard to tell if your dog is ringing the bells because they have to use the bathroom, or because they just want to take a walk around the courtyard. Because of this, I always leave it up to the owner on what they want to do. I do not regret teaching this to my dog, but I do not regret phasing it out once he was older either. When I knew my dog was at an age of matured bladder control, and was on a good schedule, I took the bells away. If this is something you are interested in, this link takes you to a Kate Naito video I would recommend following for your bell training process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsxqxVBHwPQ
When is it time to go see your vet?
This process can be done in as quickly as seven days, or take a couple of months. This all depends on the age of your pup, and how quickly they pick up on things. With that said, there comes a time when things might need to be looked at on a medical level. If you have had a puppy since they were 12 weeks, you have been consistent with training for six months, and they still seem to have frequent accidents, you might want to reach out to their vet. A possible bladder infection or other underlying medical condition could be the culprit. I always try to tell my clients to look for patterns. If the accident is always happening around the same time, it probably is not a medical issue. If the accidents always happen after specific amount of time (every five hours) it probably is not a medical issue. If the accidents are unpredictable, and your dog is displaying a remorseful demeanor after, then there is a good chance something more than what meets the eye is going on.
* Keep in mind that although the age of the dog does increase bladder control, if you adopt a 2 year old rescue pup who lived outside their whole life, this process will need to be followed the same way; despite the dogs age. Instead of picking the dog up, you can apply slight upward pressure on the collar as you hook up their leash or walk them to the door.
Regardless of your training beliefs or experience, I hope I was able to provide some new potential training tools for your dog training toolbox. There is more than one way to win a game, but some ways are more efficient and effective than others. This is the best way I have learned to conduct the training, and I have never came out on the other side anything but successful. I would love to know if you were able to house break your pup. If so, which techniques worked the best for you?