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Dr. Ian Dunbar Explains Puppy House Training: How To Teach Your Puppy To Let You Know When He Needs to “Go”

Well, Kelly and I just train all of our dogs to say, “Excuse me, but I would like to go outside and urinate.” Just joking! But it does highlight the most common problem of puppy house training. When we don’t have a common language, how do we communicate with a different species, a preverbal child, or a nonverbal spouse? Of course, lure/reward training is the way we teach our dogs human words for doggy behaviors and actions, so that we may communicate our wishes to them, even in a perfectly constructed English sentence, such as, “Phoenix, come here, take this (a note) and go to Jamie please”. Now we have Malamute mail. But, how do we teach dogs how to communicate their wishes to us?

Ever since I read Olaf Stapledon’s book, Sirius, I have been interested in dogs’ wishes and preferences and trying to see things from the dog’s point of view. For example, I like to let my dogs choose the route when we come to a fork in the trail, or a crossroads and I certainly want my dogs to be able to relieve themselves when they feel the need.

The best way is to teach your puppy to “ask to go out” is to establish a routine for going outside to eliminate from the outset. Call your puppy and have him sit by the door, while you put him on leash. Or, if your puppy is in his crate, have your puppy sit, open the crate door, take the pup by the collar, snap on the leash and then say, “Let’s go” and walk your puppy quickly to the door. Have the puppy sit and then open the door and say, “Outside” and quickly walk him to the toilet area and then say, “Go Pee and Poop”. Praise profusely and give your puppy several treats after he eliminates.

With a really young puppy, you really don’t want to dilly dally around between the time he wakes up in his crate and before you get him to his toilet area and so, it’s a really good idea to practice the routine from crate to toilet after he’s emptied his bladder and bowels. Simply repeat the procedure half a dozen times and soon, your puppy will automatically sit as you approach his crate and once he is at the door.

As your puppy gets older and develops better impulse (plus bladder/bowel) control, have him stay for a while each time he sits. This is simple to teach. When your dog sits, rather than giving him a treat immediately, say “Good Dog” but hold on to the treat for a second then use a verbal release word such as “free” before giving it. Next time hold on to the treat for two seconds, then three seconds, five, eight, ten, fifteen etc. Before you know it, your pup will have a pretty solid sit stay and a built in release for added safety and clarity. Especially have him stay for a while before opening the door to outdoors. Thus, you puppy learns that sitting by the door is an effective ploy to get you to open the door. Your puppy’s pretty smart, eh? Now he’s training you to be a doorman. There are worse things, trust me.

Additionally, you might want to hang a little bell by the door and after he has sat patiently for 15-30 seconds, ask him, “Do you want to go Outside? Then “Ring Your Bell”. Hold a treat next to the bell and as soon as the dog’s nose causes the bell to ring, say, “Good Dog”, immediately give him the treat and then, open the door and say, “Outside”.

I really like doggie doorbells because they are fairly unobtrusive, unlike when dogs bark or scratch the door to go out. When they are older and well housetrained, I also like the dog to ring a bell to come in at times when you don’t go out with the dog. However, ALWAYS go outside with a puppy. You need to be there to direct him to the appropriate area, to reward him handsomely for doing the right thing, in the right place and at the right time, (i.e., quickly,) and then clean up the feces. Additionally, if you don’t go out with your puppy, you have no idea whether he actually eliminated or not. Big problem.

With the bells, in no time at all and you’ll find yourself opening the door for the dog subconsciously. Years ago in the SIRIUS office, I asked everyone, “Where’s Omaha?” and they all replied, “He rang his bell and you let him outside.” I was so preoccupied with work that I really had no recollection of hearing the bell, or letting him outside.

Of course, when you train your puppy/dog to let you know that he wants to go outside, you’re going to have a few false alarms when he realized he can get your attention and a trip outside for fun. However, a few false alarms are much better than a single mistake indoors. To reduce the number of false alarms though, I do like to put my dogs on a differential reinforcement that is contingent on what they do when outside. Basically, I give the dog one treat for each three seconds of urination and five treats in succession for a defecation. And of course, no treats for a dry run.

However, maybe you should consider that if your puppy is giving a lot of false alarms, maybe he’s really bored with you indoors and he’s telling you that he would like to be outdoors more or for you to be more engaged with him. Time to add more walks or a fun training activity. Dogs simply live to sniff. Indeed, a dog walk is the quintessential moment in most dogs’ lives. So, false alarms actually aren’t all that bad. At least it gets you off your butt and outdoors and once you’re there, why not walk your dog, (after he’s eliminated of course). Dog walks have many benefits for owners too.