First, the set up: Put puppy in an x-pen or small enclosed space the size of about 4' x 4' or just over. Nothing too large, though. You want to use puppy's instinct to not soil its immediate area, so keep the space relatively small. In this way, puppy will be more uncomfortable pottying in this space and more readily work to communicate to you that it needs to get out of its clean space in order to potty.

Place a few things for puppy to do while it is in its own space. You can place a few chew toys and play toys, but don't give them all at once. Give puppy only a few, then rotate the toys/chews around from time to time. It keeps things interesting for puppy and always looking forward to the change. You can have water in the space, but only if there is no chance for the water to spill.

I use a harness on a very young puppy because I do not need to lead puppy by the neck, not just yet. A puppy this small will follow right behind or beside me as I walk. Also, puppy is small enough for me to manipulate by using side pressure, but that is a discussion for another post. A harness is also an easy way for me to catch pup and then lift pup up into my arms when I am carrying pup outside.

Your eyes are the most important tool because for the entire duration of potty training you MUST CONSTANTLY watch your puppy... and when I say that, I mean... do not ever take your eyes off of your puppy during waking hours when you are with your puppy in the house. When you are watching television, doing homework, listening to your children, doing the dishes, etc, use your peripheral vision to always keep an eye on your puppy. If you have to use the bathroom or leave the room for any reason, ask another family member to take on the task of being the watcher. If you look away for a second, remember to look right back at puppy to see what its doing.

When a puppy squats to pee, it only takes a second, a split-second even, to perform the act. The good new is, though, that there are very subtle signals before a puppy goes to pee that you can catch IF you are paying very close attention. You want to catch your puppy when he/she is thinking about peeing. Yes, you can know when your puppy is thinking about it, so, watch for the following signs that your puppy is getting ready or thinking about peeing:

  • puppy will abruptly stop playing or doing what it was previously doing
  • puppy will walk around sniffing
  • puppy will plop down, then get up, then plop down, then get up - as if restless
  • puppy may meander to the back of its space away from the entrance and its toys
  • puppy goes to sleep/nap and then wakes up
  • puppy eats/drinks
  • puppy may stop what it is doing and look up at you briefly in order to catch your eye- might be very briefly - this is a VERY clear signal, so pay attention in order to see it. A direct non-verbal sign like this is very valuable to catch in dog training because if you respond to it, your puppy will begin to understand that it can count on you to pay attention and respond without having to resort to more obvious measures.

If all of those signals do not work to get to the human to understand that puppy is thinking about peeing, puppy may whimper very softly if it really doesn't want to pee in its space. That is why your ears are the second most important tool in your arsenal. When you hear a very soft whimper... do not delay. Take puppy out to potty. EVERY time you hear the softest little squeak, take puppy outside. Yes, puppy may be smart enough to know that if it squeaks it gets to go outside and then you will have a puppy softly speak at you a million times a day just because it wants to go outside to play instead of pee. That's okay... never lie to your puppy. The signal is... puppy softly whimpers, the response must ALWAYS be... go outside.

When you are consistent with your response to a small, subtle signal from your puppy, your puppy begins to trust that it can effectively communicate to you and rely on you to tell it the truth. When you are inconsistent in your response to its communication, it will try to become more obvious, or it may just simply realize that you are not going to understand and it will then take matters into its own hands. Once your puppy turns off trying to communicate to you, you will have to work much harder to catch puppy when it is thinking about peeing. So, try to "see and respond" to your puppy if it should look up at you from inside its pen, goes to sniff around its pen, stops playing abruptly, wakes from a nap, and after eating/drinking. But, if you don't see puppy's non-verbal communication, then listen carefully for the very subtle whimper. When any of these things happens, take your puppy outside right away.

I always carry my puppy outside for the first five to ten times and I always go the same way to the same door and the same pee spot. I do not interact with the puppy in any way once outside, because it is not play time, it is pee time. I do not talk to puppy, reach down and pet puppy, play with toys, nothing. I simply walk around the pee spot until puppy goes. Once puppy goes potty, I whisk it back inside to its pen and the cycle continues all over again.

You can move to leading the pup outside to potty after the first 5 - 10 times of carrying pup the same way through the same door to the same pee spot. I say 5 - 10 because puppies vary in their understanding. The key is that puppy now understands and anticipates exactly where and how to get to its potty spot. Once puppy begins to understand this, then you can begin to lead puppy from the pen to the outside potty spot, walking as fast as puppy will go. Be EXTREMELY watchful at this time. If puppy stops AT ALL, immediately pick up puppy and carry it the rest of the way to the potty spot. Do not give it any chances to mess up.

The next section will discuss how to use the other tools of the trade.