Housetraining a Puppy in the City

For a dog lover like me, I find it easy to see qualities in each dog that are unique and appealing. With that said, my friends have gotten used to walking down the street with me and having me point out just about every dog we pass and giving a little synopsis of the breed or potential mix, age, and of course, behavior. In fact, most of my friends, even those who don’t have dogs, have become experts at this game themselves. One even commented recently that a dog we passed was “Clearly an English Cocker Spaniel, not an American. Just look at the length of the muzzle and body.”

My appreciation for dogs runs the gamut from little, scruffy terriers (my dog Nora being one of the most exceptionally cute ones out there, of course) to the sleek, athletic types (hello Vizslas and Italian Greyhounds), to the big, powerful giants (there was a gorgeous St. Bernard in one of our Adolescent/Adult training classes last night). But, there are some dogs that make me swoon, and yesterday I met just such a dog when I had a lesson on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a family who had a new Bullmastiff puppy.

As I walked into the foyer of the family’s home I glanced to my right and there she was sitting upright in her crate. Take a chunky, little face, mix in big, soft and expressive eyes, a stocky body that gives the clear impression of forthcoming immense strength, wiggly puppy enthusiasm, and an incredibly beautiful brindle coloring and you have a recipe for one delicious puppy. My mood was best described as giddy. What a great way to start the day.

I was brought back to reality when the pup’s owner said to me “It just pooped in the crate this morning.” It? Uh oh. Every trainer knows that you can tell a lot about a person’s state of mind in regards to their dog by the words they use to describe them. Especially if they call the dog “It” just moments after you walk in the door. After I pointed this out to the owner, he laughed (OK, things were looking up). His wife walked in moments later and we all settled down on the couch to begin the lesson.

There are few things that can jeapordize what would otherwise be a joyous time in a family’s life (i.e. getting a new puppy) more than facing the realities of puppy parenting. Raising a pup can be a challenging endeavor, much more so than most people expect. Unfortunately, pups don’t come pre-programmed knowing what we expect of them. Most new puppy parents can expect that their pup will bark and whine, chew most everything they can sink their puppy teeth into (including hands), and eliminate wherever they happen to be when they need to. So, I got down to business and helped them set a plan that would result in puppy parenting success, and in this little pup being lovingly referred to by her name for a wonderful lifetime with her new family.

Housetraining a puppy in New York City can have unique challenges compared to raising a pup in a suburban or rural area where there is easy access to grass. Anyone who has stood outside trying to get a puppy to eliminate on a New York street will tell you that they have become super aware of the honking horns and sirens, people and dogs passing, and trucks noisily unloading their wares. All of this and much more can make life in NYC overwhelming, but especially frustrating when it distracts the pup from the task at hand.

For our clients in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens, the goal is to get the pup to eliminate promptly on concrete while surrounded by an almost endless stream of stimulation and distraction. Some New Yorkers choose to break housetraining down to a two step process; Teaching the pup to eliminate first on an indoor surface such as absorbant pads, and then outside on concrete. But, this family had chosen the easier, one step process of having her eliminate outside from day one. That means they have to take her out approximately eight times a day. Since one of the parents works from home, this was definitely doable.

For the obvious frustration they expressed when I first walked in, this family was already doing a lot of things right. In the two weeks they had the puppy in her new home, they had taught her to rest quietly in her crate by placing it in a highly trafficked area of the home and giving her adequate relief walks and play so that when she was expected to rest there she was ready for a nap. This is one of the reasons why starting with a housetraining plan, using management tools such as a crate, as soon as possible is advisable. Teaching a young pup to tolerate resting in a crate is fairly easy if you do so when they are tired. Young pups can’t ‘fight’ sleep as easily as an adolescent or adult dog.

It seemed we just needed to tweak a few things to help avoid future accidents. This included me advising them to feed her meals in the crate out of food stuffable toys such as the Dogzilla, Monster Mouth, Linkables, and Twist n’ Treat. This way she would be engaging in passive, non-aerobic exercise that didn’t require their participation and that would burn off mental and physical energy. I also suggested planning two or three meals a day and a set number of times when they would provide her with a big bowl of water. Knowing when input happens is a sure-fire way to better predict output.

Additionally, when the puppy is out of the crate and they are engaged in supervising or playing with her I suggested they keep her on a six-foot leash which they could hold, step on or tether to a stable object nearby. This would prevent housetraining mistakes by preventing her from running about the house, prevent destructive chewing (by keeping her focused on the chew toys provided), and as an added benefit, it would offer a great solution to the issue of her learning to interact appropriately with the family’s two children. I showed them how tethering her to a stable object meant they could have their kids sit nearby her and interact while having the easy ability to remove themselves if she play nipped or attempted to jump on them.

The use of a short-term confinement area and on leash tethering are aids for accurately predicting when the pup needs to eliminate (i.e. in either situation she would need to go out after time spent resting or playing). We chatted about how beneficial it would be to have an adult dog who eliminates promptly when taken outside, especially in inclement weather or if they are in a hurry. They had been advised to pick a potty spot of about ten feet in width (again, they were already doing a lot of stuff right!). But, they also needed to keep her moving in that spot, as movement begets movement. If she didn’t eliminate in five minutes, I asked them to pick her up and carry her back inside to sit with her on their lap for ten to fifteen minutes and then head back out to try again. This way, they avoided her spending loads of time outside trying to find the perfect spot, and most importantly, they didn’t bring her back in and allow her to eliminate indoors. This is a habit or pattern of behavior that is, unfortunately and inadvertantly, allowed to develop in lots of pups.

This out for five minutes and back in for ten or fifteen (if there is no potty success) routine can seem daunting to many people, especially if they are in a rush to get to work. Luckily, this family didn’t have that issue. But, for those who do, I suggest planning initial outdoor potty breaks only for those days or times when they can commit thirty to sixty minutes to the process first thing in the morning (i.e. on weekends). For most pups (especially if started young enough when they have less bladder and bowel muscle control) a couple of days of this pattern will set a good foundation for outdoor potty success. Teaching a puppy to eliminate promptly outside is sort of like a roller coaster ride. It starts off slowly, but once you overcome that first peak the ride tends to move along very quickly.

The family seemed right on board with the new plan and so I focused our remaining time on showing them some of the other teaching priorities for new puppy parents. All puppies require an education in regards to learning impulse control, proper greeting etiquette, and handling and gentling. But, no more so than a puppy in New York City who will be exposed to an almost endless stream of people. I showed them how they could teach her to offer an automatic sit to say hello (without the need for a cue like the word sit), how to teach her not to jump up for a bit of food or a toy held over her head (one of the first steps to instilling overall impulse control), how to set the foundation for a dog who happily accepts having food and toys taken from her (to avoid resource guarding issues), and who enjoys having her body handled (to avoid related aggression).

One of the best parts of the lesson for me was when I got to show them how to have an on and off switch for their puppy. I engaged her in play (I love my job!), and then used the new skill she had acquired of sitting automatically when I held my hand up to get her to sit (this being the ‘off’ switch). After counting to three I engaged in play again as a reward for her wonderful responsiveness and impulse control. This way she was earning play time (a sure fire way to develop a cooperative relationship with your dog) and the family could help her learn to control her play style with people by asking her to sit if she became overly exuberant.

This was a great lesson, with a terrific couple and a beautiful puppy who will forever more be called Shelby (no more “It”for her!).