How to Toilet Train a Puppy (with lasting results) and get them to Go on Command
We've all done it. Those 3am outside wee-breaks in the first few weeks of puppy being home, crossing all our fingers that they do their business asap and don't instead think it's play time with the leaf that just started blowing in the wind. Cue your heart drops and all intentions of a morning sleep-in go out the window. You only need a few days of this before you start seeing a daily lineup of 4 coffees in your future just to get you through until midday.
Toilet training a puppy can be challenging. Forget trying to follow the "5 days to a toilet trained puppy" articles - they're all liars. But with patience and consistency, it can be done so successfully that you won't have regressions and you will even be able to initiate the toilet-time routine on command (great for before long car trips or exciting vet visits!).
Here are some tips to help you get started:
Choose your designated toilet area for the long term. Your top priority here is to make sure the toilet area feels different under your feet from other areas where you don't want pup to do their business. For example, if you live in an apartment and you want pup to toilet on the pavement on the street, but not until they reach a certain spot of pavement, try to find an area you're happy with where the feeling can be differentiated from the area you don't want them to go eg. bricks vs. concrete. Grass is always a great option as it's usually always easily identified as being different from anything inside (unless you have an extra shaggy rug which you might want to roll up and pop away during your toilet training journey). Puppies will learn quickly that once their paws hit that texture, they're free to do their business as they please.
Choose your Command Word. Just a single word, not a full phrase. And be sure to choose a word that doesn't sound too similar to anything else you're currently teaching them which might start getting confusing. Fully grown dogs can understand around 150 words, so imagine a growing puppy with very little attention span is not hanging around to listen to you attempt to train them to "DRAIN THE SNAKE!" or "BUILD A DOOKIE CASTLE!" We went with 'wees' and 'poos'. Original, I know.
Now, every time pup goes to the toilet, say your command word mid-stream or mid-poop. It's important that they associate the feeling of 'going' with the word you say. Timing is everything, and getting this step wrong could de-rail your chances of a perfectly potty-trained pup.
Establish a routine. There's a general rule of thumb that puppies can 'hold on' for 1 hour for every month of age. If your puppy comes home at 8 weeks old, this would suggest they can hold on for 2 hours maximum. Offer toilet breaks at every 2 hour interval (or otherwise, depending the age of your pup) since they last went or at the following times (whichever comes first): as soon as they wake up from a sleep, after eating a meal, after playing and before bed. Take note that if you have a smart, cheeky pup, they may learn that the 'before bed' toilet break means they're about to go to bed (shock, horror!) so we like to trick pups with a fun game of chase around the house to stimulate wee-time and in turn, it becomes the before bed toilet break.
Reward Good Behaviour. When your pup toilets in the spot you want them to, go above and beyond with your excitement and praise. If they're treat driven, have treats on hand to give them. This is part of positive reinforcement training - telling puppy that they did a great job with rewards that make them want to do it that way again next time.
Don't scold bad behaviour. Puppies are still learning and don't understand the concept of right and wrong. Telling them off for having an accident inside won't give you any positive outcomes - it will simply make them feel scared of you. If they manage to associate your anger with their accident, it's more likely to teach them to do their business away from you next time. Hello, hidden poop behind your draws. Instead, see all accidents as a missed opportunity on your behalf, clean up the mess (making sure to completely eliminate the smell) and continue with your day.
Learn the signs. Pay attention to your pup’s body language and behaviour. Sniffing, circling, and whining are all signs that your pup needs to go to the toilet. When you see these signs, take your pup to the designated toilet area immediately.
- Don't get complacent. Once you think your puppy might have got the basics of toilet training down pat, start treating them like a human toddler who's learning not to wear nappies for the first time. There will still be times they don't get it, or they might have thought they could hold on for longer but it turns out they reallllly needed to go and they missed the chance. Continue your toilet training basics and take them out when they wake up, after a meal, after a play time, before bed and if they seem like they're ready to go out for at least a month after you think they've figured it out. This will ensure that they won't go backwards and forget everything you've taught them.
"But what about during the night?" We hear you.
Sticking to these steps during the night is often difficult. Some puppy parents like to commit to their pup's training and will set an alarm to take them for a wee-break every 2 hours. Others prefer to leave puppy in an area inside that you're happy for them to toilet in overnight. Both options can work providing they're still done properly:
If you're getting up every X hours to take them out: there's a few must-do's to make sure this works. First, ensure you have puppy attached to a leash at all times for overnight wee breaks. This will stop them from getting distracted, deciding it's play time and running around your backyard borking at possums. Keeping them on a leash means you're in control, they learn that it's not all fun and games when they get up overnight, and they're there to do their business and that's all. Second, start pushing out the 'hold on' time a little further each night. For example, get up every 2 hours on the first night and take note of how quickly pup goes to the toilet. If they're not busting each time, set your alarm to get up every 2.5 hours on the second night, then 3 hours on the third night and so on. From our experience, your pup might have a threshold until they're a little older that they simply can't hold on all night just yet. But you'll be well on your way to teaching them to sleep through the night as soon as possible.
- If you're happy to leave puppy to toilet somewhere else overnight: this can also work, providing you try and replicate the feeling of your designated toilet space in this area. For instance, if you're training pup to go on the grass outside and you're having them sleep in a pen or the laundry inside overnight, get yourself a patch of grass (or fake grass) from the local hardware store to put in their overnight area. If you want them to go on the pavement longer-term, buy a few concrete pavers for your inside area. New puppy parents often use Puppy Pads inside overnight as they absorb any accidents, but this will add time and confusion to your toilet training journey as the feeling of puppy pads isn't the same as the area you want them to toilet long term. By all means, lay puppy pads down underneath your patch of grass or pavers to catch the mess, but don't let these be your only toilet area overnight. If puppy has an accident overnight, treat it the same as you would with an accident at any other time - clean up and move on. If it looks like they used the correct toilet area, know that your training is working! You could praise them, but it's unlikely they'll know what you're making a fuss about if they toileted a few hours ago and you're only just congratulating them now.
When you think your puppy has understood toilet training, you've got the freedom to turn your Command Word into a small Command Phrase by adding a word or two, but still emphasising the main trigger word and you can now progress to saying this before toilet time. For obvious reasons, ensure puppy is in a spot where you want them to go before you say it as it can sometimes return instant results. For us, this works really well when we're out in public and the available toilet break locations might not feel exactly the same as the ones at home eg. the only option is dirt or gravel, whilst our dogs toilet on grass. In this case, saying the Command Word lets our doggos know that they are allowed to toilet in this area and we would like them to go stat. We've learnt that this command will either initiate ours to sniff for a spot to go almost instantly or they will sit down, signalling to us that they don't need to go. Such smart puppers!
Toilet training a puppy can be a time-consuming process, but the reward of a fully trained pup is well worth the effort. Remember to be patient, consistent, and to reward good behaviour. With these tips, you’ll have a fully trained pup in no time!