I’m posting this as part of a series of helpful articles for common problems. If you have more information to add (or disagree with anything in this post) please do so in this thread, but if you have a specific question relating to your dog, please start a new thread.
How do I toilet train?
Toilet training your dog happens when two things come together – the ABILITY to hold the toilet, along with the DESIRE to hold it in order to earn the lovely reward you will give him for doing so.
Ideally, you want him to not be in a position where he needs to toilet before you have him outdoors, so that every toilet is outside – as far as possible, there will be accidents! So set him up to succeed by taking him out even more than he needs; for example every 45 minutes to an hour and always after sleeping, eating, playing. The time between a puppy realising they need to toilet, and being unable to hold that toilet, is zero. So your aim is to have him outside before he can’t help himself.
When he toilets outdoors make a huge fuss (never mind the neighbors, act like outdoor toileting is the best thing you have ever seen) and reward him with a high-value treat. Do that immediately, don’t make him come to you for the treat so he is clear that it’s for toileting and not for coming to you. The idea is that he eventually wants to earn the treat enough to hold the toilet until he is outside – once he is physically able to control his toileting obviously.
As he is actually performing the toilet you can introduce words he can associate with it (like ‘do weewee’ and ‘busy busy’) so that later when he is reliably trained, you can use these to tell him when you want him to the toilet.
If you take him out and he doesn’t toilet after five minutes, bring him in but don’t take your eyes off him. Any hint of a toilet inside, scoop him up and get him out fast. If he doesn’t try to toilet indoors (great!) take him out a second time and repeat until you do get outside toilets. You need the outside toilet to happen SO that you can reward SO that he learns.
If you see him circling or scratching, that can sometimes precede toileting so take him out straight away.
Should I train him to use a bell?
Some people do train their dogs to ring a bell on a string by the door if they want to go out. But – what they actually train the dog to do is to ring when he wants to go out, rather than want to go out specifically to the toilet. So, they find that they have to open the door every ten minutes because the puppy wants to go and play outside.
Also, some people will leave the back door open to a secure garden, to allow the puppy to go as he pleases. But there are two problems with this. First, an open door blurs the boundary between where indoors ends and outdoors begins, and the puppy doesn’t learn where he is allowed to toilet and where not to. Second, a puppy with constant access to outside doesn’t develop the muscle control to hold his toilet.
Better to establish a good regular routine of going outside, on your terms.
Should I use a crate for toilet training?
A crate is a useful tool to help with toilet training, but it isn’t a solution in itself. A dog will try to avoid toileting in the area where he sleeps and eats, but if your puppy has to the toilet, he has to toilet; and no amount of crate training will stop him. And if the crate is just big enough for his bed, he will have no alternative but to lie in it which is unpleasant for him and creates more laundry and dog bathing for you.
Crate training takes time and effort, and is a good idea in case your dog ever has to be confined due to illness, injury or travel requirements, but introducing a crate must be done properly to avoid a stressed dog who feels trapped and afraid.
But what about accidents?
If he has an accident inside don’t react at all. Dogs cant make the distinction between you being annoyed at them for TOILETING, as opposed to toileting INDOORS. If you get cross he may learn to fear your reaction and avoid you if he needs to toilet, by seeking or creating opportunities to sneak off and do it in other rooms, or waiting until you step out. Treat any accidents indoors as your responsibility, because you haven’t had your puppy in the right place at the time he needs to toilet. Just quietly and calmly clean the area with an enzymatic cleaner to remove any trace of smell that might attract him back to the spot. Enzymatic cleaners need to be left down for about ten minutes to let the enzymes get to work and do the job properly.
What about overnight?
Overnight he is unlikely to be able to control his toilet as his little bladder and bowel are underdeveloped and not strong enough to hold all night so you will need to take him out. It’s a good idea to have your puppy in your bedroom at first so you can hear him stirring and take him out to the toilet. This won’t make him clingy, in fact the opposite – having you close by will reassure him there isn’t anything to be scared of, and that will help his confidence develop.
But my puppy hasn’t had his vaccinations, can I take him out?
Almost certainly, yes. The main risk to puppies is from the urine of rats and unvaccinated dogs, so unless your garden is used by these he should be safe. And even if you do have unwanted visitors, far better to fence off an area for him to use if you can. If you really can’t get your puppy out, perhaps because you live in a high-rise flat or similar, there are alternatives. Avoid puppy pads – they give mixed messages about whether it’s ok to toilet indoors and confuse the puppy, and when you take them away your puppy will look for a similarly textured surface – which will often be a cushion or your duvet. Instead, better to create something more like he will use outside. A large shallow tray with turf, sand or gravel on your balcony if possible or just outside your door would work well.
Once your puppy is able to go further than your garden, try to encourage him to use different substrate to toilet on. If you have a dog that will only poo on grass for example, and you are visiting somewhere where there is none, you will have an uncomfortable and stressed dog (and owner). So variety is key!