Puppy: Getting Started and House Training Guide

dog-2911444_1920When you bring your new puppy into your home there will be a period of adjustment. Your goals should be to help your puppy to bond quickly to his new family, and to minimise the stress associated with leaving his mother, litter mates, and former home. If there are already dogs in the new home, the transition may be a little easier as your puppy is able to identify with his own kind. There are simple ways in which the transition can be made as stress free as possible for all puppies, even if they are entering a home as the only dog. Most puppies, especially those obtained before 12 weeks of age, will form attachments almost immediately to the people and any other pets in the new home, provided that there are no unpleasant consequences associated with each new person and experience.

How do I prevent my puppy from doing damage or getting into mischief?

The rule of thumb for dog training is to "set the dog up for success". This means that you need to supervise your puppy whenever possible until he has learned what he is allowed to chew, and where he is supposed to eliminate. When you cannot supervise him you will need to create a safe zone in which to leave him, which may involve introducing him to an indoor pen or a specific puppy proof room. You would not think of leaving a small baby or toddler on its own and it is equally unwise to leave your small puppy to his own devices.

Obviously you cannot put your life on hold just because you have a new puppy. One way of keeping him in sight and training him not to wander off into rooms and areas that are out of bounds, is by attaching him to a lightweight houseline which is attached to your belt. This is particularly helpful with a highly investigative puppy or for a very busy household. The line helps you to interrupt inappropriate behaviour such as bin raiding, chewing on household items or house-soiling and direct your puppy into suitable alternative behaviours which can be rewarded. Remember to never leave a trailing houseline on an unsupervised puppy as it could tangle and hurt him.

When your puppy cannot be supervised, confinement will be necessary (discussed below). Remember that it is unfair to stop your puppy doing things when you have provided no suitable alternative and this is also discussed later.

At any time when your puppy cannot be supervised, such as throughout the night or when you need to go out, it will be necessary to house him in a secure area. An escape-proof crate, a dog run, or a collapsible pen are simple, highly effective, and most importantly, safe options. Alternatively your puppy could be confined to a room that has been carefully dog-proofed.

When selecting your dog’s confinement area it is useful to consider a number of factors. 

  • The major consideration in selecting the type of confinement area is how long you may need to leave your puppy alone. If he will be left alone for longer than he can control his elimination, you must provide an area for elimination which is clearly distinct from his resting area. A room or collapsible pen with a paper-covered area would therefore be needed. 
  • Your puppy will adapt faster to the safe area if it is associated with rewards. 
  • You should actively train your puppy to enter the safe area by offering his treats, toys, and perhaps also food and water. 
  • The area should have some warm, dry, comfortable bedding.
  • The area must NEVER be used for punishment (although it can, and should, be used to prevent problems). 
  • The area should be safe and quiet but not truly isolated. Dogs are obligate social creatures and the idea of the safe area is to prevent problems and keep your puppy free from harm, rather than to isolate him from the family. The kitchen can be a good place to locate an indoor pen since it is a positive location associated with food and rest. It can also help to teach your dog to relax in his safe zone when human activity continues around him.
  • Each time your puppy needs to be confined, he should first be well exercised and given an opportunity to eliminate.

What is the best way to punish my puppy for misbehaviour?

Every effort should be made to avoid punishment for new puppies as it is generally unnecessary and can lead to avoidance of family members, at a time when bonding and attachment are critical. By preventing problems through confinement or supervision, providing for all of your puppy’s needs, and setting up the environment for success, little or no punishment should ever be required. 

If a reprimand is needed, a verbal "no" or a loud noise is usually sufficient to distract a puppy so that you can then direct him towards the correct behaviour which can then be rewarded.

It is very important to ensure that whenever an inappropriate behaviour is interrupted, your puppy is immediately guided into an appropriate behaviour that can be rewarded.

What must I do to provide for my puppy’s needs?

Chewing, play, exercise, exploration, feeding, social contact and elimination are basic requirements of all puppies. If you provide appropriate outlets for each of these needs, few problems are likely to emerge. Puppies should be given chew toys that interest them and occupy their time. For example some hollow toys can be stuffed with biscuits and treats to make them more attractive. When supervised, the owner can allow the puppy to investigate and explore its new environment and can direct the puppy to the appropriate chew toys (and away from inappropriate areas). 

Play, exercise, affection, training, and handling must all be part of the daily routine. New tasks, new routines, new people and new forms of handling can be associated with rewards to ensure success. 

Of course, your puppy will also need to be provided with an acceptable area for elimination, and will need guidance until he learns to use this area.

How do I house-train my puppy?

If you follow a few basic rules you should be able to house-train your new puppy within a few days. However, your puppy will not be able to be trusted to wander throughout the home without eliminating for some weeks to come and therefore supervision and confinement are very important elements of successful house training. 

The most important lesson for your puppy to learn is where he should eliminate. In order to achieve this we need to ensure that he is in the right location when he has the desire to eliminate. Puppies have a strong urge to eliminate after sleeping, playing, feeding and drinking. It is therefore beneficial to take your puppy to his selected elimination area within a few minutes of each of these activities. 

      • Although some puppies can control themselves through the entire night this is unlikely to be the case when your puppy is only a few weeks of age.
      • During the day time most puppies need to eliminate every 1 to 2 hours.
      • With each passing month, you can expect your puppy to control himself a little longer between elimination times.
      • Your puppy should be taken to his elimination area and as he begins to eliminate you can give a word or two of verbal encouragement (e.g. "hurry up"). As soon as elimination is completed your puppy should be calmly praised and patted. A few tasty food treats can also be given the first few times your puppy eliminates in the right spot, and then intermittently thereafter. This teaches your puppy the correct place to eliminate, and that elimination in that location is associated with rewards. Some puppies may also learn to eliminate when they hear the cue words ("hurry up") which can be useful at certain times, for example when traveling away from home.
      • Always go outdoors with your puppy to ensure that he has eliminated and to make it easier to give rewards that are clearly associated with the act. If you stay inside and give your puppy a reward when he comes back indoors there is no connection with the act of elimination and you may simply reward him for coming back into the house whether or not he has eliminated while he was out in the garden. 
      • Do not just shut your puppy outside alone or with his dog housemates when you want him to eliminate. It is likely that he will be either be anxious because he is alone or be distracted by his companions and so will not eliminate. If this happens the risk is that he will come back indoors with a full bladder or bowels and then will eliminate on coming back into the house.
      • It is always important to consider what your individual dog finds rewarding. For example, if your puppy enjoys being outdoors and you bring him indoors immediately after eliminating, he may choose not to eliminate immediately to prolong his outdoor time and consequently may also eliminate once inside again.

When indoors your puppy must be supervised so that you can see when he needs to eliminate and immediately take him outdoors to his elimination area. 

      • Pre-elimination signs include circling, squatting, sneaking-off into quiet corners and heading to the door. When you see these signs it is important to take your puppy to his elimination site, give the cue words, and reward him for elimination. 
      • If your puppy begins to eliminate indoors and you witness the very beginning of the process it may be appropriate to use a verbal distractor, such as a simple “no” to interrupt the behaviour. You can then immediately take him outdoors to his proper site, so that he can complete the act. However, if the process is already well advanced when you notice your puppy it is best to ignore the accident and act as if you have not seen it. Interrupting your puppy late in the process is likely to be seen as a reprimand and it may be detrimental to the house training process. Whenever you see your puppy in the midst of a mistake it is important that you never smack him, use any other form of physical punishment or any aversive interruption device such as a rattle can or water pistol. It is better to supervise your puppy appropriately than to depend on even verbal reprimand. 

When you are not available to supervise your puppy he should be confined to his safe area. 

      • Be certain that your puppy has had a chance to eliminate, and has had sufficient play and exercise before any lengthy confinement. 
      • If the area is small enough, such as a indoor pen or crate, many puppies will have sufficient control to keep this area clean. 
      • When you come to release your puppy from confinement, he must be taken directly to his elimination area. 
      • If the area is too large for your puppy to keep clean, or the puppy is left alone too long for it to control itself, the entire area, except for the puppy’s bed and feeding spot should be covered with paper for elimination. Once your puppy starts to limit his elimination to some selected areas, unused areas of the paper can be taken up. 

Why does my puppy refuse to eliminate in my presence, even when outdoors?

Puppies who are not supervised and rewarded for outdoor elimination, but are constantly being disciplined and punished for indoor elimination, may soon begin to associate the presence of their owners during elimination with punishment. This can then make them fearful to eliminate in the owner’s presence irrespective of the location. These puppies do not associate the punishment with indoor elimination; they associate the punishment with the presence of the owner. Check to see whether or not this could apply in your situation. 

If it does, stop all unpleasant reactions to elimination immediately and speak to your veterinary practice about seeking additional help with house training.

What do I do if I find some stool or urine in an inappropriate spot?

When mistakes occur it is important to remember that human error is most likely to be to blame! There is no point in punishing or even pointing out the problem to the puppy since the moment has passed and your puppy will not learn anything constructive from any such action. Instead you should simply clean the area thoroughly with a biological enzymatic cleaner to remove as much odour as possible so that this does not serve as a cue to use the area again.

puppy with a ball

How can I teach my puppy to signal that it needs to go out to eliminate?

By regularly taking your puppy outdoors, through the same door, to the same site, and providing rewards for proper elimination, he should soon learn to head for the door each time he has to eliminate. If you recognise the signs of impending elimination and praise your puppy whenever he heads for the doorway, the behaviour can be encouraged further. If you want to teach your dog to give a specific vocal signal you can go to the door with him and then wait for a few seconds before opening the door. This delay may induce enough frustration to induce a bark, and as soon as the bark occurs you can reward it by opening the door. Obviously, it is important to only delay for a few seconds and to immediately reward your dog on the first bark, so as not to induce behaviour problems associated with frustration.

When will I be able to trust my puppy to wander loose throughout the home?

Generally you will want your puppy to have been error free around the house for about a month before you can begin to decrease your confinement and supervision. The first time you leave your puppy unsupervised should be just after taking him outdoors for elimination. Gradually increase the length of time that he is allowed to roam through the home without supervision. If your puppy has been able to go unsupervised for a couple of hours without an "accident", it might then be possible to begin going out for short periods of time. Of course, if he still elimates and chews, then supervision may still be necessary when you are at home. You should continue to use the safe area, appropriately stocked with suitable chew toys, when you go out.

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