Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How do I potty train my puppy?

Sweet little Gidget
One of our newsroom staffers recently got a puppy. Gidget, the little girl puppy, is 13 weeks old now. Her owner has had a rough start with potty training — moreso with poop than pee.

I’ll paraphrase what she told me:
“Inside, she’ll poop when we’re not looking and get all excited afterward. Yesterday, we finally got her to poop outside, but when we praised her, she got scared and was upset. What is going on?”

First of all, per my previous advice, the puppy is not being reprimanded for inside accidents. This is good.

Now, let me remind you of two golden rules when it comes to potty training a puppy:
1) Timing is everything
2) The number one association dogs have with punishment is the presence of the owner

Unfortunately for Gidget’s owner, she came to them with one of the hardest behavioral imprints to overturn — the puppy had already learned that pooping around humans means a punishment will be quickly doled out. This is why she poops only when they’re not looking, and why the attention — even though it was positive — she received after pooping outside spooked her. Her association of poop = punishment is stronger than praise = reward.

So, how do you turn this around?

First, you must make the praise = reward association strong enough to trump other associations, like poop = punishment. Begin strengthening the praise = reward association by practicing repetitions of praise = reward for the dog. The dog must be absolutely confident that “Good girl Gidget!” means good things will happen for the dog. Since the puppy got scared after being praised for pooping outside, she has a very, very strong association telling her that if a human catches her pooping, bad things will definitely happen. Poop + any human attention = horrible, scary outcome for puppy.

This must be countered by making the association between praise + reward stronger.
To start, put treats on the floor, hand, etc. Anywhere you can put a small pile that will take the dog a few seconds to gobble up. As the dog is gobbling, lay the praise on thick and be sure to use the same praise that you would instinctively use in random situations. This means, if you’re most likely to react naturally by saying, “Good girl Gidget!” then you want to use exactly that, exactly how you’d say it as a kneejerk reaction.

Do this at least three times a day for a couple days. Follow up each exercise by doing an exchange rather than simply praise while dog is already in the midst of gobbling up the reward.

For the exchange, give the praise cue immediately followed by dispensing a treat, keeping in mind that TIMING IS EVERYTHING! This means, it is not praise, then a quick pat, then the treat. It’s got to be praise, treat. Praise, treat. Praise, treat. Give the treat as quickly as possible following the praise.

I’m also recommending that toys/play become part of the praise association. Follow the same steps above, but replace the food reward with the toy. Say, for instance, a tennis ball.

Throw the tennis ball. As the puppy chases it, give praise. This gives you some extra ammo in the praise = reward association. Now, praise isn’t just an indicator that a food reward will soon be delivered, it means a other good rewards — playing with owners and toys — could also pop up. Suddenly, praise becomes an incredibly exciting thing for the dog (Think, “What’s it going to be this time, Mom? A treat? A tennis ball? Maybe you’ll throw it for me? Gee, I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself!)

Once the praise = reward association is strong enough, the puppy should stop running in fear when praise is given while the puppy poops in the right spot. She may be a little unsure at first — remember, that behavioral imprint between poop + human = punishment is incredibly strong — so don’t expect to see a sudden switch in behavior.

But, the more instances of poop outside + human + praise = reward (and no punishment) the dog experiences, the more you’ll be changing those associations the dog makes. At some point, there will be an awesome switch — the dog will have had enough repetitions of the right association to begin leaving its old associations behind.

In Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson, she compares associations to blazing a trail with a machete through a dense jungle. The more times you go back and forth down that trail, the easier it becomes to travel. Conversely, the less often you go down a trail, the more it overgrows and eventually it will disappear. Think of the poop outside + human + praise = reward as the trail you’re trying to blaze and the poop + human = punishment as the trail you want to become overgrown.

If you go down that trail at all (by giving punishment), you’re keeping it alive and cleared for traveling. And on the other side, if you don’t travel the path you want to create enough, it’s going to take a lot longer to establish it as a clear, regularly-traveled path.

Meanwhile, I’ve advised her to continue ignoring accidents made in the house. Today, I told her she can take it one step farther than just looking the other way and cleaning up the mess — I told her to use the cold shoulder as the punishment.
Basically, you’re still doing the same thing, except you’re pointing it out a little bit to her. For a few minutes during and immediately after an indoor poo (but NOT ten minutes after the poo is discovered, because the dog won't make the association then. Too much time has passed and, what is the golden rule with dog training? That's right — TIMING IS EVERYTHING), ignore the dog — no touch, no talk, no eye contact, no feedback whatsoever.

This will help her learn poop inside + human = no social companionship.
A lot of people scoff at this as a punishment, but those people just don’t understand dogs. To a puppy, there is no greater punishment than losing social companionship, even if for just a few moments.

It’s effective and it allows you to not make the same mistake that most owners make and most dogs get screwed up by, which is that the NUMBER ONE association DOGS have with PUNISHMENT is the presence of the OWNER.

Last but not least, this is an excellent case-and-point as to why training methods that avoid food/toy rewards just aren’t good enough. Lots of people like to say, “Praise is all a dog needs as motivation to work.”

If that’s the case, then why would a dog run in fear while being praised? Clearly, it’s because one negative association is trumping the positive association that’s supposed to come from praise. In this case, praise alone is not enough and it needs to be turned into an indicator of things that are more positive — food, toys, play — in order to start trumping the negative association.

I suppose you could spend months on end working with praise alone, but why? It’s more wear and tear on your dog, on you, and on your carpet. Potty training is not something to gamble on a praise-only method, especially when you’re trying to rehabilitate a negative behavioral imprint — and presumably, as quickly as possible!


  1. Good advice. Especially the dominant theme... punishment/present owner. I couldn't agree more with the dog training advice that you gave!

    I don't suppose you have advice for dog bed vs dog crate and sleeping time?

  2. Thanks Claire!

    Go with the crate and buy a dog bed to fit it. They make lots of cozy, fleecy liners designed specifically for cages, or you can just get one of standard pillow type beds from Meijer, Sam's Club, etc. and squeeze it in there.

    If you do crate training properly, the crate will become your dog's bedroom and before long, you won't even be closing it. The dog will naturally seek out the crate.

    The key is in doing some active training so the dog knows the crate is a good place, not a place he has to go as a punishment. Use it as a punishment and you will lose it.

    The added bonus is the versatility of the crate — it can travel with you, helping you keep an anxious dog calm in the car (so long as the dog sees the crate as a safe place). You can buy cooling pads for hot summer camping trips and heating pads (specifically made for dogs, don't stick human ones in there. That's dangerous) for cold winter nights.

    But the nicest thing of all is seeing your dog enjoy his own little safe place.

  3. Your article was long and I just glanced through it.

    If the puppy is pooping when its people aren't looking - they should tether it to them indoors, so it's always close by. THEN it should act anxious and wanting to get away when it needs to poop/pee, and they can take it out.

  4. Thanks Karen! I appreciate the response and recommendations.