My Yorkies do not know a lot of fancy tricks because I am a terrible trick trainer. We excel in other areas, namely potty training. Big dog people may laugh at the thought of boasting about a fully potty trained dog, but in the small dog world, this is a not-so-small achievement. Small dogs have a reputation for being difficult to potty train. I agree that small dogs often require a bigger investment in time, energy, and attention in this department, whereas larger dogs seem to be set for life once they are trained (with only health problems and old age causing accidents).
The first step in potty training small dogs is to set them up for success. Adopt a confident, positive attitude and make it easy for your pup to potty in the correct place. Anticipate your dog’s need to go, keep the target in close range, and remove the obstacles and distractions. These training tips apply to puppies and to older dogs that require re-training. My younger Yorkie was strictly outdoor trained when I brought him home at 8 months old. I successfully re-trained him to use both piddle pads and the outdoors.
Restrict Freedom and Supervise
While potty training, restrict your dog’s freedom to a small area where you can supervise as much as possible. Put up a baby gate or an xpen in a room with flooring that is easy to clean. If you choose to include piddle pads in your training, put one in a corner, away from your dog’s bed and water bowl. Observe your dog closely and learn to recognize the signs that he or she needs to go. Circling and sniffing are classic signs.
Don’t expect your dog to travel long distances to get to the correct place to potty. If you use piddle pads, a small dog, especially a puppy, is unlikely to travel from one end of your home to the other to go potty. This is particularly true if your small dog is playing and otherwise entertained. The dog probably won’t want to drop everything and possibly miss out on the fun to make a trip to go potty. Keep the target close.
There are many potty training methods: crate training, pad training, pad and outdoor training, and strict outdoor training. Choose one and stick to it. Changing tactics, moving the target around, or making too many targets during initial potty training (don’t canvas your home with piddle pads) will only confuse your dog. Once your dog has learned the basics, you can make changes through more training.
Use keywords and phrases such as “go potty” and “good potty” or whatever you like. Potty training is like any other training in that verbal commands and hand signals are useful for communicating with your dog and teaching desired behavior. Give your dog a means to communicate with you that it is time to potty. You can use bells hanging from a door knob, or a bell to ring on the floor, or your dog may sit or stand at the door leading to the yard. You may be able to tell when your dog comes to you that it is time. Watch for these signals and respond, but don’t rely solely on your dog to tell you when it is time to go.
Establish a Routine
Plan for potty breaks when your dog first wakes up from sleeping or a nap, and immediately following meals, playtime and anything that causes excitement. For small puppies, initial training may require hourly potty breaks. Establish a routine to help your dog learn when to expect a potty break. Anticipating your small dog’s needs is a large part of helping him or her maintain good potty habits.
Scheduled feedings, even when numerous as required for puppies, aid in establishing your dog’s natural body rhythm and can help make pooping time predictable. I disagree, however, with many trainers’ advice to restrict water intake at any time of the day in hope of reducing peeing accidents. Water is essential for all vital organs and systems. Small dogs are prone to hypoglycemia, low blood sugar, and withholding water before bedtime and a long stretch of time without a meal increases the risk. For both dogs and humans, drinking water and eliminating often is essential for good health. A puppy with a small, developing bladder is likely not going to be able to sleep 6 to 8 hours through the night without having to pee. Either plan to wake up for a potty break, or give your puppy a piddle pad.
Praise, Positive Reinforcement, and Parties
Forget the rolled up newspaper and other punishments for accidents. Your dog wants to please you. When your dog goes potty in the correct place, lavish your dog in praise. Throw a party! You can’t fake it. Your dog is smart and needs to know how happy you are with his or her accomplishment. Never stop giving praise. My Yorkies are 3 years old and I still cheer for them each time they potty. For puppies, follow up the praise with a tiny food reward. Once good potty training habits are established, give the food reward intermittently. I use a single piece of kibble. Most trainers will say that the food reward has to be given the very second the act is completed, but for my boys, the dash to the kitchen and the kibble jar to receive their treat is part of the routine. They know why they are being rewarded.
When your dog has an accident, whether you witness the action or find the evidence later, maintain an even temper. If you catch your dog in the act, take him or her to the appropriate place to potty and use the keywords you have established to indicate that it is the right place. Your dog likely won’t have to go anymore, but you have reinforced the right place to go. Clean up the soiled area with an enzyme cleaner to eliminate the scent that may attract your dog to return to the area and potty again.
Our first vet was strongly opposed to piddle pads. For us, piddle pads are essential. Our yard is not conducive to safely taking our small dogs outdoors at night. For people who work 8 hours or more a day, piddle pads allow their small dogs a proper place to potty when they are home alone for extended periods of time. Piddle pads are also a great solution for small dogs who refuse to go out in inclement weather. Perhaps this is indulgent, but it may save your carpet from being soiled. If you have a garage, you can train your small dog to use the pad in the garage the same way you would train your dog to go strictly outdoors.
Dogs who are not neutered and have developed a habit of marking indoors can be fitted with a belly band or manners band. You can see them in our boutique: Dog Bloomers and Manner Bands. The soft material band is wrapped around the waist and has room for an incontinence pad. Belly bands and panties should not be used in place of training and providing potty breaks.
Advanced Potty Training
My Yorkies know they have a piddle pad in their home, but other homes, stores, and indoor areas are off limits. They know they can potty outdoors, in the right place. We achieved this through training with keywords. The first time I stayed in a pet-friendly hotel with my older Yorkie Max, he sniffed the wall in our room where a dog likely had marked. He lifted his leg, but looked to me before he did anything. I said, “no potty”, and he put his leg down and waited for me to put on his harness to go outdoors. You may laugh, but I felt as proud as someone whose dog had won an obedience or agility competition. My dogs have blue ribbon potty habits!
Potty training small dogs isn’t glamorous, but treating it like a fun sport rather than a bothersome chore increases the likelihood of success. Like all training, maintaining good potty habits requires lifelong practice. Keep up the praise, stay in tune with your dog’s needs, and give your dog ample opportunity to potty in the correct place.