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Litterbox Training,
Transitioning to More Indoor Freedom, and Going Potty Outside!

LITTER BOXES - Not just for cats anymore!

More and more breeders are introducing litterboxes to their puppy raising programs.  If you are lucky enough to get your puppy from a breeder, shelter, or rescue program who has raised their litters with access to a litterbox, your house training just got easier!

How and why does it work?

As puppies' eyes open and they become more mobile, they naturally crawl away from their nest area to toilet away from where they eat and sleep.  As they do so, they begin to make a scent association to their toileting area.  Much of housetraining by using a crate is using that natural inclination to keep their sleeping place clean and scent imprinting.

By providing specific sleeping and peeing sections in the puppy area, breeders can not only make it easier to keep the puppy area clean, but begin good habits that will last a lifetime.

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Willow Thomas - the baby Boston

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Initially, there are two areas.  One for sleeping and nursing, and one for peeing and pooping.  During the first couple of weeks, mom takes care of cleaning up after the puppies.  As they become more mobile, they will wake up from sleeping and leave the puppy pile to relieve themselves.  No one teaches them this.  Mother Nature has provided this natural instinct to not pee where they sleep.  The pelleted litter area is immediately available at the edge of the sleeping area. The puppies will feel the change in surface as they leave their soft sleeping bedding and move into the strategically placed layer of litter pellets.  This change in scent and surface will become paired with the pleasant relief of expelling a full bladder. 


As the puppy pen expands to include room to play and explore, the litter will be located in an easily accessed location in a low-sided tray adjacent to the sleeping crate.  The puppies will gradually begin to search for the scent and texture of the litter, seeking it out even when they have to climb over the edges of a low-sided box to get to it.





Straight from the nest box to the litter box.  They wake up and move away from sleeping area and into potty area.

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In this photo you can see that now that the pups are more mobile, the puppy pen now has three distinct sections:  one for sleeping, one for playing, and one for toileting.  The litter box is still very conveniently located.  It is the very first place the puppies will find themselves as they leave the crate which is now their nest box.  You can already see how this will help with both crate training and house training later!

Your Puppy is Coming Home!
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Ask your breeder to send a photo of the puppy pen.  If the blueprint is similar, it will be SO much easier for your puppy to settle into their new surroundings!  If the pup woke up, she'd be able to toddle straight out of the crate and a few steps to the litter box and back, just like she did at her first home with her brothers and sisters.  

What type of bedding?  What brand of litter?   

You want it to instantly feel and smell like home. 

Ask the breeder what type and brand of litter was in their potty tray.  Buy that one. There are various types of wood pellets (found at feed stores, used for stable bedding) and green hay pellets that some people prefer because it likely smells more like lawn. 

Some breeders leave a T-shirt or towel in the sleeping area and send a piece of scented fabric home with each puppy to put in their bed to help them transition.  We also bought a "comfy pup" stuffed animal with a hot pad and heartbeat to give her something to snuggle up with.  She slept right through her first night home!

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Security in familiar routines.

Eating and sleeping rituals are as important for puppies as they are for human toddlers.  Predictability in patterns helps them feel safe.  The things you say and do, and in what order, will become part of their routine.  There is security in knowing what comes next.

We deliberately avoided separation distress by tracking her natural wake/sleep cycles and sliding her into her bed next to her heated comfy dog after she'd dozed in our lap.  We were ready to get up when she was just starting to stir, avoiding the situation of the young puppy becoming distressed or getting results by screaming.  Often, we'd come out and she'd be awake, quietly waiting for us.  Because she had access to her litter box, if she awoke needing to pee in the middle of the night, she could easily relieve herself without distress or discomfort - or waking us up!


As the puppies start to look less like furry potatoes and more like small versions of their future selves, the breeder expands their living area and starts taking them on "field trips" into other parts of the house to play and explore and into the yard for socialization outings.  Great breeders set up the puppy pen near a door that leads to a safe outdoor area and start hustling them out as soon as they began to stir from a nap and right after eating.  "Puppy! Puppy! Puppy!" is a "follow-me" cue that your puppy may already know. 


If your puppy's first human parent was an amazing puppy raiser, your new puppy has probably already imprinted on the scent of grass, dirt and bark.  *They are looking for a familiar surface texture and scent.   If they have only gone on litter box pellets, you can take some used pellets from your tray and sprinkle a bunch in a spot in the yard where you will take your puppy when you go outside.  "Sniff-sniff-sniff ... Oh, look!  A toilet!"  This is one of the easiest ways to teach your litter box trained pup to "go" in a specific part of the yard.  The pellets will break down over time, but their scent will linger in the soil.  If your puppy has never gone anywhere but his litter box, he's looking for a litter box!  Put the whole box outside.  When you see him investigating where the box used to be in his pen, you can cheer "Let's go outside!" and take him to it.  Be alert!  He may start indicating the door on his own trying to figure out how to get to his box.  Hooray!  Once he's running to the familiar box in its new location, you can gradually minimize the visual of the box until it's just a few pellets on the ground.  How long does house training take?  As long as it takes.  Less time if you are an undistracted and diligent coach!


* What if they have imprinted on potty pads, newspaper, straw or, heaven forbid, carpet?  As above, take a potty pad or a piece of whatever surface they associate with toileting and put it in the yard where you'd like them to potty.  You'll have to weight it down so the wind (or the puppy!) doesn't spread it around the yard!

Be always ready and watchful every second your puppy is awake.  

Keep a journal.  When does he wake up?  When does he nap?  How long after he eats does he usually need to poop or pee?  Wake up before your puppy, throw on your shoes and jacket and be ready to celebrate that trip to the yard the instant you open the pen or crate door.  If it's a fair distance to the door or there are stairs, you'll probably need to gently scoop and carry your pup out at first in order to get to the yard in time. 

IMPORTANT!  Lifting your puppy should never be scary and should ALWAYS be enjoyable.  Don't chase and grab.  See article: "How to Properly Pick up Your Dog."  The trip from inside to outside MUST be the happiest part of the day.  If not, the puppy will learn to avoid you and hide when they need to pee, to avoid being swooped into the air or chased by a scolding grouch. 


"Let's go!"  TOGETHER!
As they learn how to do stairs and can make the fun trip to the door and into the yard under their own steam, lead the way.  Remember, puppies don't herd like cows- they follow like baby ducks. Engage your pup in a happy high-pitched voice and MOVE, encouraging them to chase you to the door and out into the yard.  Stay out with them!  The sounds of the world can be scary to a young pup.  They need your support.  Being alone in a new place is scary.  You need to be there to explain noises that might startle them.  You need to be there to praise and reward them for pottying outside.  How else will they know that is what you want?

"Outside" means run to the door and "Hurry! Go potty!" will be your 'relieve yourself' cue.

One phrase happens on the way "Outside" and the other as he squats and begins to "Go Potty!"   You are pairing the words with the events.  They aren't cues yet.  You are just inserting names for what is happening.  The puppy is smelling the dirt and grass and bark and remnants of his previous pellet toilet. Imprinting on scent and becoming comfortable in the yard is the first step in successful house training.


What's your puppy's signal TO YOU when they need to go outside?

He doesn't know you are trainable!  It's your job to show him what works to get your attention.

Article: Communication Buttons and bells!

Confine when you can't supervise, but don't over-do it! 
Transitioning to more free time in the house, outside the pen or crate should start early.  He needs to follow you from room-to-room and learn your daily routines.  He will notice that the pacifier chewy comes out of your desk drawer when you sit down at your desk and that pieces of carrots that you are chopping might be tossed on that nearby kitchen rug if he hangs out there.  These patterns will help shape him into an easy-to-live with future adult dog. 


He wants to be with you, lying at your feet as you work, being part of your day.  The conversations you have with your pup and your minute-to-minute guidance will help them learn the rules of the house: "Let's not get inside the dishwasher."  And how to feel about things: "Yay! It's the mail man! Let's go see what he brought us!"  You are building a healthy bond and secure attachment.  Puppies can develop separation anxiety by becoming stressed when separated at a young age.  Time in their pen should be a treat - that place where they get a special food puzzle toy.  Not a place where they are locked away for being "bad" - see "Intelligent Diversions & Creative Play".  


There is no scolding in house training.

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No, the puppy does not belong in the dishwasher. 
But right now, stop for a minute and appreciate that this 8-week-old baby is not afraid to jump up on something as tall as she is - and a metal springy surface at that, filled with clattering dishes and a rolling basket.  If you want a dog who might love to do agility, parkour, nosework, search and rescue, or pet therapy, this is fantastic!  Look at that confident pup with its tail high, seeking out an interesting smell.  Not planning to do any of those things?  Maybe you just want your dog to jump happily into the car and stand on the scale or exam table at the veterinary clinic!  Gently place your puppy on the floor and block them from getting up again.  Divert their attention to something else.  Give them a chewy to keep them occupied BEFORE you start doing the dishes.

Punishment is not necessary in training - and it may temporarily shut down one "problem" and create many others.

Yelling "NO!" clapping your hands and scaring the puppy may have a lasting impact on all future choices.  Instead of just learning to stay away from the now-scary dishwasher, it may affect the puppy's fear of all novel surfaces.  And it may have a lasting impact on the pup's ability to trust YOU.   

The same goes for house training.   No punishment for accidents.  Those are on you for not supervising better!
If you want your puppy to seek you out and communicate with you when he needs you to open the door to go outside, he must trust that you will respond happily.  Give gentle guidance, not correction.  No, you don't want the puppy to use your carpet for a toilet.  But scolding and scaring are not going to help your puppy learn where to go to the bathroom and it may actually deter them from coming to find you when they need to go outside.  Puppies who "sneak off to go pee" are really looking for a safe place where exasperated scolding doesn't happen.  Many dogs who growl when picked up or won't come when called have learned to respond this way during punitive house training. Punishment invariably has unintended consequences and can even damage relationships.

Puppies have no responsibility to "know better" - we have ALL the responsibility to be kind and dedicated teachers.

This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People - - 

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