I visited Amazon.com to see how many books on how to house train your puppy were available. I counted 25 before deciding that was enough to prove my point – house training is a challenge for many people and many puppies. But why? We are told that puppies instinctively want to ‘keep the den clean,’ and the success of crating puppies seems to support that idea – most puppies in crates without room to eliminate at one end and sleep at the other do whine in distress if they need to go out. They do not want to soil their sleeping area.

But this is a learned process, and it starts in the whelping box. Breeders who provide a sleeping area, often with carpet or some sort of soft bedding, and also a separate area for elimination, usually covered in layers of newspapers, can see that puppies start to differentiate between the two very early on, in fact as soon as their eyes open and they can get their bodies to move purposefully. Evidence suggests that this ‘window’ of instinctive housetraining learning closes at about 5-1/2 to 6 weeks of age. Research has shown us that at least by the age of 8 weeks, puppies have chosen their preferred substrate to eliminate on. All of this happens before most puppies go to their new homes.

What does this mean, plain and simple? It means that by the time most owners get their puppies, the ideal window for learning to seek out a different surface for elimination has closed, and puppies have selected which surface feels normal to them to eliminate on. Puppies who have used newspaper and not grass will seek out newspaper, and may resist eliminating on grass. However, at least these puppies have internalized the concept of seeking out a different surface to eliminate on. If your puppy leaves the hardwood floors he plays on to place a deposit on your Oriental rug, it isn’t spite – it’s surface differentiation. Be grateful that he has it, and work harder to help channel it in the right direction. Puppies whose breeders have not provided a different surface for elimination, and of course puppies raised in pens at puppy mills or in kennels at breeders or shelters, have had no exposure to this concept at all during the formative weeks.  These puppies had no choice but to eliminate on the same surface they slept and played on, therefore they did not learn to seek out something different under their feet. These puppies will be especially challenging to housetrain.

Unfortunately, enlightened breeders, like enlightened anything, are in the minority. If you are looking for a pup from a breeder, it is well worth finding one who provides this early pre-housetraining for her puppies. And this is only one of many, many reasons to never buy a puppy from a puppy mill or pet shop, or through the Internet.

However, if you are acquiring a shelter puppy or a puppy from another source where its housetraining history is unknown, it’s important to remember that you are not necessarily just supporting an instinct that is already in place. You might very well be starting from scratch to teach a behavior that is utterly unknown to your puppy. Expect to be patient, expect to have accidents, expect that it will take time before the puppy completes the learning process.  Drs. Hetts and Estep of Animal Behavior Associates, Inc., report that a young puppy may need to eliminate 17 times in a day. It is a long road from baby puppy bladder control & capacity, to an adult dog who can manage with only 3-4 toilet breaks per day. Do not ask more of your puppy than your puppy can achieve.

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