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House Training Your Cocker Puppy

House training is a term I use to encompass more than just training your dog to go to the bathroom outside.  For me, house training means teaching your dog to be a well-behaved, all-around good dog at home and in social situations.  This training encompasses teaching your dog not to bark uncontrollably at strangers, not to jump on guests, not to exhibit hostile/dominant behavior with other animals, not to bolt out doors, not to scarf food from any plate that happens to be within reach, not to dig up the yard/flowerbeds, not to dump and plunder the trash can and not to chew/eat household furnishings, clothes, shoes or children’s toys.  House training also includes teaching your dog “manners”.  This means the dog is able to interact acceptably in social situations at home and in public, with adults or children, and that he will (at a minimum) “heel”, “sit”, “down”, “stay” and otherwise obey specific commands when given.

House training is what turns "any old dog" into a pet and cherished member of the family.   While most people consider house training to be a matter of teaching the dog where and when to eliminate, much more is required to turn a rambunctious puppy into a pleasant house companion.  Even if your dog is potty trained, if he is not pleasant to be around - destroys the house, bites the children, accosts guests – no one will want to spend time with the dog or even have the dog around.  A large number of potty trained dogs are abandoned each year to shelters and rescue groups because no one took the time to teach the dog to be a good companion.  Please remember that every minute of everyday is a learning experience for your puppy/dog and if you don’t take the time to teach your dog what you do and don’t want him to do, then chances are he will not be a pleasant companion.  Good dogs don’t just happen.  They are formed, shaped and trained by a conscientious breeder and caring owners! 

Any dog can be taught to be a good companion, but it takes a commitment by the owners and consistent training to accomplish this goal.  Each person in the house must work with the dog whenever it is not in its crate and there has to be a common theme to the training.  In other words, it’s not fair to the dog for one person to allow the dog on the furniture or in the living-room, if another person is going to scold the dog for this behavior.  All of the adults in the home need to come to an agreement about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors so that the dog’s training is consistent.  Everyone needs to reward the chosen acceptable behaviors (sitting at the door, chewing his own toys, lying quietly by your side) and they need to discourage unacceptable behaviors (eating the chair, growling at strangers, chewing on fingers, jumping on guests).  This needs to be done during each period of interaction with the dog.   Everyone working with the dog needs to use the same commands as well.

The most advanced training tool you can use to help train your dog is his crate.  This wonderful invention allows you to confine the dog in a safe, secure location when you are not able to supervise and train the dog.  This will make training your dog quicker, easier and much less frustrating for you AND the dog.  If used correctly, a crate will ensure that your dog is never able to get himself into serious trouble.  “Used correctly” means that he will never be left unsupervised while out of the crate and an adult will be “training” him every moment he is out of the crate.  This means he will never have an opportunity to eat the couch, destroy your new boots, potty on the floor, chew an electrical cord or misbehave with the kids.   If your dog is properly crated, supervised and trained, then you won’t become frustrated with the dog, the dog will not be confused about what is and is not allowed, and the entire relationship between the dog and your family will be more enjoyable and fulfilling. 

 A puppy should have no problem accepting the crate as its own den. The puppy will most likely "carry on" for a while for the first few times it is crated.  Don't give in and get the puppy out of the crate. As with any other training, you must be patient and understanding, but firm. You must remember that it is not the crate that the puppy is protesting, but the separation from you. Unless you know the puppy needs a potty break, never remove the puppy from the crate if it is whining. Sooner or later it will settle down, and then you can take it out of the crate if you wish.

To help the puppy adjust to the crate you can keep a couple of safe toys in the crate (like a knotted rope bone or a plush toy if the puppy is not an aggressive chewer).  Another good crate distraction is a small sterilized bone (the ones with the hole in the middle) that you have filled with broken treats and peanut butter or another type of treat mix.  This will distract the puppy and keep him busy for a time after he has been put in his crate.  Or you can give him a dog biscuit before closing the door. If the puppy is crated where it can see you, it may not feel quite so put out.  Ignore the wails and whines as best you can, and remember never to take the puppy out of the crate while it's still fussing.  However, if the puppy continues to make noise and won’t settle down, you can remove the crate to a quiet place such as a bathroom, bedroom or utility room where you can close a door to diminish the disturbance. 

Please keep in mind that the crate is a tool to HELP train your puppy and it should not be considered a substitute for your interaction and attention.   You must balance the time your puppy spends in a crate with quality time spent with people.   The only way your puppy can learn the rules of the house is if he is out of his crate and spending time with you.   In other words, if the puppy never tries to chew the dining room chair in front of you, you will never have an opportunity to teach him that he is not allowed to chew the dining room chair.   Your puppy will only learn the lessons that you are present to teach him and this is why ALL of his free-time or loose time in the house must be supervised.  You must be there to immediately correct your puppy’s mistakes AND to reinforce good behavior when he is chewing his own toys or just enjoying your attention.  I know it sounds confusing.   "Leave him in the crate."   "No, keep him out of the crate!", but you have to find a way to do both.   Use your best judgment and determine what is appropriate for your puppy.    Every puppy is different and as you go along, you will learn what works best for you and your puppy.  

The best reason to use a crate to train your dog is, of course, to teach him not to potty in the house.  Unfortunately, this is an area of house training where many people have a problem.  Some people try to leave a puppy in the crate too long during the day, others don’t put them in the crate often enough and still others quit using the crate too soon and let an untrustworthy dog run loose in the house.  A general rule of thumb on crate time is that you take the number of months of age of the dog and add 1.  This is the number of hours that a puppy can be left in a crate without a potty break.  In other words, a 12 week old puppy (3 months old) can stay in a crate for a maximum of 4 hours.  (Of course this will vary somewhat by the dog.)  The other rule is that just because the dog has been good for a week or two, this does not mean the dog is trustworthy and should be left running loose.  Remember that house training is not just about pottying outside.  You must use the crate until your dog never tries to go to the bathroom in the house, never attempts to chew the wrong thing, never tries to eat the trash and until you are SURE the dog will not get into trouble by chewing on plants, extension cords, children’s toys, etc.

The biggest mistake people make in potty training is not supervising the puppy/dog when he is not in the crate.   If you have the dog out of the crate, he must be watched constantly.  When training older dogs or puppies this may mean the dog has to be kept on a leash at all times so he can’t sneak off and potty in another room or behind a piece of furniture.  Remember that if you have to answer the phone or the door or if you go to the bathroom, you should put the puppy back in its crate.   Keep in mind that if you don’t supervise the dog correctly and you ALLOW it to have an accident in the house or to eat your slippers or tear up newspaper all over the living-room, it’s ALWAYS your fault and NEVER the puppy’s fault!  If you left an untrained dog unsupervised long enough to do any of the above, then YOU screwed up!

Puppies, like babies, have little control and will need to relieve themselves many times during the day. They need to be taken outside when they awake from a nap, right after eating, after an active playtime, and any time they lose interest in what they're doing and start to sniff around with "that look".  The numerous trips outside will become fewer as the puppy matures, gains control and learns what is expected of it.  With consistent and proper use of the crate you can usually have your new Cocker crate trained in a few days.  This does NOT mean the dog is house trained!  Merely that you have the puppy on a schedule and that it is learning when and where to eliminate. 

One word of caution about using a crate:  NEVER leave a collar on a dog that is in a crate.   The dog could catch the collar on part of the crate and choke to death.  I use small, adjustable harnesses on puppies and they can be left on the dog in the crate when you are home.  (You must adjust the harness down so that it fits the puppy snugly and can’t be chewed.)  Be sure to remove the harness when you leave the house and at night.

To use a crate to housebreak your puppy, follow the guidelines listed below:

  •  Place the crate in a convenient location, out of the mainstream of activity, but where you can be aware if the puppy has awakened from his nap and needs to go out, and where the puppy can be aware of your presence and not feel abandoned or alone.

  • Establish a routine for yourself that takes the puppy's needs into account. If the puppy goes out at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, he should go out at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday as well. Meals should be fed on a regular schedule so that the need to eliminate can be anticipated. Pick up the water dish an hour or two before bedtime so the puppy won't need to urinate as frequently during the night.  Don’t feed the dog for 3-4 hours before bed-time.

  • Establish a "crate routine" for the puppy.  Crate him at regular intervals during the day (the puppy's own chosen nap times will guide you) and for the night. A young puppy will have to go outside almost hourly when awake, and once or twice during the night. As the puppy gets older it will be able to stay in the crate for longer periods of time.  If you are using a large crate, you might want to put a cardboard box in the back half for a few weeks to fill up some of the space so that the puppy doesn't feel he has room enough to eliminate at one end of the crate and make a den at the other end.

  • Crate the puppy when you are not actively playing with or watching him. Allowing the puppy complete freedom of the house or even confining him to a specific area before he is trustworthy is counterproductive and unfair. Not only will it make it impossible for you to be consistent in training, but also the puppy may get into real trouble. The puppy could get seriously burned chewing on an electrical cord or very sick chewing on the leaves of a houseplant. Many common houseplants are POISONOUS.

  • When the puppy has to go out, PICK HIM UP and take him outside ON A LEAD!  This is where using an adjustable harness that you can leave on the puppy will pay off.  Leave a leash by the backdoor and always go to the same spot in the yard.  The leash will keep him in the potty area and enable you to keep him focused on the job he’s supposed to be doing.  While he's learning, you can expect to go outside in your pajamas, in the rain, and right before the end of your favorite T.V. show. The habits you are developing in your puppy during these first few weeks can make the next eleven to fifteen years more enjoyable for both of you, so don’t slack off!

  • Pick a phrase (Go Potty, Do Your Business, etc…) and use it every time you want him to eliminate.   Praise him profusely when he performs. Opening the back door and sticking the puppy out for a few minutes is NOT an effective method of housebreaking ... he will probably wait by the door, run back in, and make a mess on the floor.   If you travel with your pet, or take him visiting, you want him to understand that he needs to eliminate when and where you say so. 

  • DO NOT PLAY WITH THE PUPPY on potty breaks or talk to him other than to use your potty phrase!! Take the puppy out, let him do his business, and then come back inside to play.  Or pick him up and go to another part of the yard to play.  You want him to know that he must eliminate immediately when you take him to this spot or use your particular potty phrase.  You will appreciate him knowing that he is supposed to eliminate immediately and not play when it’s 10 degrees and snowing at 3:00 AM and you are barefoot and in your pajamas!

  • NEVER discipline your puppy for an accident in the house unless you catch him in the act; if you do catch him in the act, scold him, scoop him up, and take him out to the proper place. Punishing a puppy or dog after the fact is absolutely useless; the only thing you will accomplish is confusion and fear, as the dog will not associate the past action with the present fury.

  • Do not punish a dog or puppy for submissive wetting (wetting when meeting/greeting people) as this merely reinforces the need to be submissive.  You must ignore this behavior and not make an issue of it.  Most puppies will go through a couple of stages where they may feel the need to be submissive.  Try to put the puppy outside or in its crate when company is expected.  This will allow the puppy to greet the newcomer after the excitement of coming in the door is past.  Another trick is to teach the puppy to sit and stay every time the door is opened.  This gives the puppy a “job” to help take his mind off the new arrivals.  You can allow the new arrival to give him a treat to “release” him from the sit/stay or just ask the visitor to ignore the dog for a little while.  Be sure that your submissive dog always has a pleasant experience when greeting people so that submissive urination is not enforced.  (Asking the dog to sit when opening the door is a good training exercise for dominant dogs and will also help stop the annoying and dangerous habit of the dog rushing out the door every time it’s opened.) 

  •  If the puppy does not potty when you take him outside, he MUST go back in the crate.  Playtime is a reward for doing his job outside.  If you bring him in and allow him the opportunity to soil the floor you are confusing him and hindering his training.  If you know he needs to have a bowel movement but he only urinated, put him back in the crate for 15 to 30 minutes and try again.  The object is to never allow him to have an accident in the house.

 You must remember that your puppy will need LOTS of socialization to be a well-adjusted member of your family.  Interaction with strangers and family members are both important.   You will find that spending time with your puppy is a good way to relax and have fun.  You can even use your puppy to get healthier!  After he is properly vaccinated, you can take your puppy on walks around the neighborhood or trips to the park.    This is good exercise for you both and exposes him to new sights, sounds and people.    You'll meet all your neighbor's this way too.    No one can resist petting a Cocker puppy!   

Other ways to help socialize your puppy are to take him with you on trips to the pet store or just out and about.    These activities will all help your puppy to become a happy, healthy, outgoing adult dog.   Remember that if the only time you take your dog out is to take him to the vet’s or groomer’s (both unpleasant experiences in his book!) he will begin to fear meeting strangers and being in strange surroundings.   A good idea regarding the vet’s and groomer’s is to stop by these establishments once in a while when you are out running around with your dog.  Just take him in to say “HI!” and have the groomer give him a pat and a treat so that not every visit is unpleasant. 

 To help with socialization and training, I recommend starting your puppy in Puppy Kindergarten classes as soon as possible.  Follow these classes with at least your basic obedience class and you will have a happy, beautiful, well-behaved dog that is a pleasure for anyone and everyone to be around. 

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Copyright © Sandcastle Kennels 2004

Last revised: January 13, 2006