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Helping Your Puppy Communicate a Need to Go

A young puppy’s housetraining needs can confuse her. Just before she eliminates, she knows something is going on down there in bladder-land, but for the life of her, she just can’t identify what. As she matures, your puppy will have increased bladder control and will be able to identify a need when it’s pressing.

When a need presses, a young puppy often whines, circles, or nips. Nipping is the most common reaction — think of it as a healthy way to reach out for your help. Even though you may want to teach her a more civilized signal down the road, for right now, be mindful that a young puppy’s nips may highlight her need to potty. Direct her with “Outside!” or “Papers!”

To help your puppy learn more-appropriate signals, teach her to do the following:

  • Bark near her area. If your puppy is a barker, teach her to bark on cue. As you approach the exit area for a potty outing, encourage her to “Speak.” When she does, praise her lavishly, and on you go outside.

  • Ring a bell or chime. Secure a bell or chime at your puppy’s nose level, raising it as she grows. Tap the bell just before you go on a bathroom run. If your puppy has access to the door, hang it there. Otherwise, start by hanging it next to that gate, stairway, or banister that encloses her. Ring the bell for or with her for a week.

    If she doesn’t catch on to the cue, discreetly smear butter or cheese on the prompter before you approach it first thing in the morning. When she goes forward to lick it, open the door immediately and reward her with a treat.

    Teaching your puppy to ring a bell when she needs to go out is easier than you think. [Credit: Illu
    Credit: Illustration by Barbara Frake
    Teaching your puppy to ring a bell when she needs to go out is easier than you think.

Teaching your puppy to bark when she wants you can be a double-edged sword: On the one hand, knowing when she needs to go out is convenient; on the other hand, your puppy may start barking at you for other things, too. You have to decide — bell or bark?

As soon as you have the routine down pat (after a week or when your puppy is older than 12 weeks), encourage your puppy to signal you that she needs to go out. Instead of chanting “Outside,” lead your puppy to the door and wait for a sign she needs to go outside.

If your puppy’s a subtle signaler, call her to you and pump her up: “What is it? Outside? Good dog!” Show her the bell or bark with her, and then let her out. Repeat the process in rooms farther and farther from the door or her papers, running enthusiastically to the door with her and leading her to the spot on leash.

Gradually phase out the bathroom escort by letting the leash drop on your way to the spot. As she learns the drill, start by walking next to her to her spot; then stop three-quarters of the way there and let her go on alone; then halfway there; one-quarter of the way there; and stop altogether and allow her to proceed to her spot on her own.

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