PUPPEHS! I adopted a puppy so you should learn from my mistakes
Episode 1: You are anxious, and he needs to pee
The first thing you have to know about adopting a puppy in the modern era of pet parenting is that you worry. You worry about the puppy. Is he happy? Is he safe? Is he hungry, thirsty, hot, cold?
You become a person who monitors another being’s bathroom habits, talks about poop, carries it around in public in a bag, celebrates it; who says the phrase “go potty” in gentle, encouraging tones, and searches for clues in the puppy’s facial expressions and body language about when he might need to “go potty” and can either be hastened outside, or praised for going in the designated spot.
But this is not all you worry about. He sneezes; does he have allergies? His eyes maybe look red kinda; should we take him to the vet? He favored a paw a little; is it broken? His paw pads are dry and a bit cracked; is he in pain, should we buy balm? His nose is dry; is he sick? He’s sleeping a lot; why? He’s drinking a lot; why? He threw up his lunch; ohmygodishedyinghe’sdyingi’vekilledmypuppymysweetpuppyohnohe’stotallyfine.
You also worry about yourself. Are you really a good puppy parent? Do you have any idea what you’re doing? Are you being too relaxed and not dealing with something that will get worse? Are you being too uptight and making the dog anxious? Are you injuring his baby bones by walking him too much? Are you ruining his lovely disposition and friendliness around other dogs by taking him to the dog park with the mean, domineering dogs in it? Are you ignoring him too much? Babying him too much? Letting him “get away” with too much? Saying “no” too much? Googling “symptoms” too much? Talking about him too much? Are you any good at this at all?
Or maybe this is just me.
So, here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Don’t read too much on the internet. Ignore celebrity pet whisperers.
Pay attention to the puppy. Most of the time, he’s telling you everything you need to know.
Don’t forget the term “watchful waiting” — usually everything’s okay, but that doesn’t mean you can stop paying attention.
Try to imagine the world from the puppy’s point of view. He probably likes you — and not just because you feed him, but also because you like him. You’re a nice person, he can see that. He wants to be with you, and for you to be happy. He’s probably not spending a lot of time worrying about being happy himself, because his default setting is happy. Unlike you, whose default setting is anxious. But he doesn’t, as my mom says, speak the language yet. Empathize with the puppy and you’ll learn to communicate with him, and then, you might just unlearn anxiety.
But not right away.
Right away you’re going to be even more anxious. You might even stress yourself out to the point of tears.
Oh! Cute, tear-jerker puppy videos might be more tear-jerkier than usual. Because suddenly it’s just all so true. Dogs really are just the ABSOLUTE BEST.
You know that quote you’ve seen on Pinterest or Facebook, the one about being the person your dog thinks you are? You’re going to spend a lot of time worrying about whether you’re doing that. Whether you’re earning their love. It’d be pathetic if it weren’t actually probably making you a better person.
So, thank you, puppies.
Potty Training 101
Okay — here’s what I’ve learned about potty training. I think this used to be called “house training” but since we’re pet parents now, let’s be honest, it’s potty training.
Technology is your friend.
You feed the puppy. You give him water. He gulps down the water, he inhales the food. He occasionally looks up at you while doing this. This is partly gratitude (“thanks for the grub, mom/dad!”) and partly about seeking reassurance (“you’re on lookout in case we need to run, right? great! thanks!”).
Until he’s trained to wait a little and/or ask to be let outside, you’re going to have to watch him pretty closely. But this is exhausting! You’re on constant alert, waiting for him to get in to a position that you think might signal he’s going to go on that carpet that you used to give your partner a hard time about sometimes dribbling salsa on, but are now going to scrub a few times while apologizing to the dog for not paying attention.
After a couple of failures on my part to be prepared for my puppy’s need to pee, I started telling Siri to set a timer for 10 minutes after he drank a bunch of water. When the timer went off, I’d take the puppy outside to a conveniently located spot, and say “go potty” a gazillion times, always in the most positive tone I could muster (it surprised me about how positive I could be about saying that phrase). You do this because you don’t know when he’s actually going to pee.
Praise is the best! Also, repetition!
Keep repeating “go potty”, eventually he pees, then switch to “good boy, good potty”. When he’s done rub his ears and pat him on the back and heap more praise. Always take him to the same place — he can smell that he’s peed there before, and so this becomes a “scent post” — and he’ll realize that this place (the scent post) and this behavior (peeing) is what “go potty” means. He’ll realize that you like it when he does that there. He likes what you like.
It took my puppy about 5 times before he would just pee a few seconds after I said “go potty”. I’m still really impressed by how easily he can pee when someone says “go potty”. Because just think about how hard it is for you to pee on command.
Over time, you can start to stretch the amount of time from water to potty. But use the timer. My watch goes off and I know that it’s time to take him outside. It only takes a couple of minutes, he’s relieved, you’re relieved.
For pooping, it’s the same thing. Start with 10–15 minutes after eating. They have very efficient systems. After you both figure out this “go potty” thing, you can stretch it out a bit, but don’t take unnecessary risks.
He doesn’t need a different phrase from “go potty”, because you’re going to praise both activities, and he knows what he needs to do. For the most part, he’s going to poop after eating, and pee after drinking, and that’s about it.
But do not be stupid! Just because you lie to yourself about how much you ate today, doesn’t mean you can lie to yourself about how much your puppy ate. There’s his three squares a day, but there’s also all those treats and snacks. For awhile, as a puppy, eating triggers pooping. It’s just the way it goes. We should be so regular.
Design for success.
Now. Stress is a factor. If you’re going to take the dog to a new place, he’s not so sure where he’s supposed to do his business. He’s a little excited and stressed out by a new place. So he’s going to “evacuate” — god, I hate that phrase — pretty much in the last place you’d want him to. Like, say, on the carpet in the dining room of that house you rented near the mountain, or maybe right in front of the fireplace. He knows the drill, he just doesn’t know where you want him to do it .So your job is to help him establish a scent post for this new location.
Dogs generally don’t want to mess where they sleep or eat. If they do, it’s because they’re sick or they’re stressed out. Try not to stress out the dog. I have feelings about crates that I’ll talk about later, but crates, stress, separation anxiety and accidents sometimes go together.
If you have a small yard, or have to share space with neighbors, you’ll want to strike a balance in managing the scent posts. You want this to be close enough to the house that it’s manageable for a puppy, but not so close that it’s offensive to you or your guests/neighbors. Or, for that matter, to the puppy. He doesn’t want to step in old poop to make new poop. You want to maintain the scent so he can find his spot, but you also need to clean up a bit. Poop bags will be your best friend.
Some of the books tell you to remove the dog from the scene of the accident while you clean it up so he doesn’t start to think you’re his maid. I think this is an odd thing to worry about. The bigger issue to me is that you really don’t need the puppy’s help to clean up the mess. And he’ll want to ‘help’. Cleaning it up means soaking up or picking up the mess itself, and then applying a carpet or floor cleaner to clean the spot. But you will thank me for this recommendation: get an enzymatic cleaner that removes the scent. You don’t want to set the puppy up to fail by confusing him about scent posts. There’s one scent post per location, not an indoor scent post and an outdoor scent post. Going outside is not optional. The enzymes will help you reinforce this.
Also, don’t freak out. Don’t yell at the dog or say “bad dog” or rub the dog’s nose in anything or hit the dog. Ever. But also not when there’s an accident. It’s just an accident. He’s not trying to ruin your carpet or floor. He’s not doing this to you. If you catch him in the middle of the act you can clap your hands or say his name and then hustle him out the door — you might succeed in interrupting him so he can finish outside. But don’t count on it. He’s a puppy, he’s a little clueless. He’s just going to look at you, slightly surprised, while he finishes pooping on the rug. Remember that this is not his fault. It’s probably your fault. Because you weren’t paying attention. But that’s okay, because you’re both learning how to live together.
And living with a puppy is really awesome.
It takes about 3 days to get to 80% success rate on potty training. Another week and you’re asymptotically close to 100%, which as you know from your own experience, is impossible to attain. Nevertheless, when you reach the point where you see accidents as an aberration, you will feel like you are the smartest and best puppy parent evah! When the puppy starts going to the door when he needs to go, or even pawing at the door and staring at you, you will feel that you and your puppy have established a bond that no other puppy and human have ever shared. You will feel very smug. Your puppy, you will say, is so smart. He’s such a good boy.
And he is.
Okay. Next time I’ll write something about crates and separation anxiety. Which I am still working on. For now, please enjoy this video of my puppy really enjoying a patch of snow in Sunriver, Oregon.