How To Housetrain Your New Puppy

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Like anyone who grew up with family pets, wore out VHS tapes of Homeward Bound, and suddenly found themselves in very dusty rooms when Vincent faithfully laid down next to Jack during the finale of LOST, I love dogs. That said, I felt no particular urgency to get one of my own until recently—I knew that my childhood strategy of promising to walk the dog EVERY DAY, and then promptly abandoning that pledge to leave my exasperated mom to fulfill the actual responsibilities of pet ownership, was unlikely to serve me well as an adult. So I scratched the occasional itch by playing with friends’ new puppies or lingering near the dog park down the street, and otherwise carried on living my life. Also: sorry, Mom.

My girlfriend, however, longed for a dog of her own for years. And because I am equal parts romantic, presumptuous, optimistic, and dumb, my first gift to her after a month of dating was a leash from her alma mater’s gift shop. Two years later, we moved across the country together to be closer to our families, and she would be denied no longer. After much discussion, which included my renewed vow to walk the dog EVERY DAY, I found myself huddled in the passenger seat of our car one evening, cradling a tiny, quivering ball of black fur during her panicked first car ride. To be fair, I was probably only slightly less nervous than she was.

Eight weeks later, getting this little puppy has proved to be a great choice. She’s joyful and loyal and only occasionally vomits in the car. However, as any new puppy owner will attest, there will be a moment after you’ve first lovingly set up your new friend’s crate—and filled the food and water bowls, and unwrapped the toys—when you’ll discover your furry social terrorist has pooped in your shoe in the meantime. What the hell have I done, you will wonder. It is perfectly acceptable to cry a little, but know that it won’t be this way forever. I promise that, in time, you can transform this peeing whirlwind into a good, smart, and happy buddy for life.


Crate Training

If you intend to keep the dog inside, and you want to own nice things at any point in your future, start by getting a crate. Crate training takes advantage of the fact that dogs (like you …hopefully) loathe the prospect of sitting in their own filth and would rather hold it until they can do their shame business in an anonymous, faraway spot. Count on six months to a year of crate training before you take a deep breath and leave her home outside the crate’s confines or, if you’re really brave, allow her to sleep on your bed.

The crate should be considered a tool, not a prison. Furnish it with a little bed and some toys, and drape a blanket over it at night to turn it into a miniature doggie sanctuary. If you expect your puppy to grow significantly, consider a crate with an adjustable inner panel. This will ensure that dog ownership doesn’t result in your apartment filling up with ominous stacks of oddly sized metal cages that creep everyone out at your next Bachelor watch party.

A warning: Your puppy, who has no way of knowing that this unjust imprisonment is not a permanent state of affairs, will absolutely hate the crate. She will whine and howl and despair of ever seeing you again, you callous monster, and you will want nothing more than to throw wide the door and gather her in your arms and bury your face in her fur as you tearfully promise to never subject her to such cruelty again. This is a bad plan, because your neighbors will grow concerned about the increased frequency of muffled sobbing. More importantly, your dog will learn that howling can be used as a tantrum to escape the crate, which defeats the whole training aspect of this exercise.

Let her carry on awhile. Yeah, it broke my heart those first few nights. But as the process became familiar, her desperate pleas for rescue subsided. I also plan to alleviate what remains of my lingering guilt by buying extra treats with our apartment security deposit that, thanks to crate training, will be refunded to us in full.


If the idea of confining your puppy like this strikes you as unfathomably barbaric, there are options. Set up puppy pads in an unobtrusive corner and hustle her over each time she starts trotting around nervously. Dogs pick up on the association quickly, and most pads have a chemical attractant that signals that it’s okay to let it fly. If you go this route, though, accept that because you give them the option, accidents will happen. Crate training just speeds up the process.

Prepare Your Home

Even if your housebreaking efforts go well, puppies have an innate ability to identify your favorite things and then play a fun game of Destroy Those Things Completely. Before you bring your dog home for the first time, take a long, fond look at your most prized possessions. Smell them. Cherish them. (Ah, sweet, sweet Ken Griffey Jr. bobblehead.) Now, place them carefully on the highest shelf you can find, preferably inside a secured container, and bid them goodbye until next spring. Preemptive dog-proofing will both preserve your sanity and minimize your time scouring eBay and making frustrated repeat purchases on Amazon Prime.


If you are at a stage in life where you source furniture from places other than the “free stuff” section on Craigslist, great, but your puppy cares nothing for your affection for the Mid-Century Modern collection. Until you are confident that she is no longer a risk to chew your things to bits and/or pee on them (and not necessarily in that order), this relationship will require temporarily sacrificing the color-coordinated ensemble that you so carefully curated from the latest West Elm catalog. Cheap fleece blankets from Target have ensured that our furniture bears a striking resemblance to Grandma’s plastic-encased living room set. But they also protected the expensive couch that finally arrived last month after an inexplicably lengthy 12-week delivery process.

Elsewhere, eliminate the temptation of power cords by bundling unused slack into small cardboard boxes with strategically cut holes on the sides. Admittedly, some of our walls look like they belong in the apartment building’s package room, but we’ve lost only one Kindle charger so far. For anything that cannot be so easily protected (table legs, the rug, OH GOD THE RUG), take advantage of dogs’ citrus aversion. A harmless, water-based lime spray made by steeping peels in near-boiling water doubles as a way to repurpose unused margarita supplies left over from the aforementioned Bachelor watch party.


Messes Happen

Once dogs have an accident, they will treat the scene of the crime as a go-to peeing zone for as long as they can smell it. So if for some gross reason you didn’t otherwise plan to do so, clean up fast. Pet stores carry non-toxic sprays that take care of messes, prevent stains, and eliminate the residual odors that cause return trips. Pro tip: Do not mistake your bathroom’s bleach cleaner for pet spray when taking on a carpet stain. (I made this mistake, jeopardizing my security deposit all over again.) And if she gets the couch, remember to blot and not to panic-scrub, unless you are keen on working urine even deeper into that herringbone pattern.

Keep Some Perspective

While crates and chew toys are indispensable good dog owner tools, your greatest assets in raising this puppy will be patience and perspective. Particularly if you’ve never been wholly responsible for another living creature before, this journey will place significant demands on your time and attention. Even finding a half-hour of peace and quiet is hilariously difficult—within the span of 15 minutes, you might have to get up to refill a water bowl, rescue a slipper, and attempt (without success) to convince the little idiot to stop the nightly ritual of barking at her reflection in the window.


And even a crate-trained pal in a scrupulously dog-proofed house is going to have bad days. One evening, you will brush your teeth and prepare to crawl into bed only to discover that, without the slightest bit of provocation, this stupid dog chewed your brand-new glasses into a jumble of worthless plastic. In that moment, as you squint helplessly at your phone’s infuriatingly tiny screen to schedule another eye appointment, you will contemplate punting the dog out the door and into the night.

That’s okay! (The contemplating, not the punting). Remember that as with any major decision in life, choosing to raise a puppy will occasionally be an unpleasant experience. The reason to do it anyway is that the good moments, on balance, vastly outweigh the bad ones. For each time that my dog has crapped in the elevator while looking plaintively up at my horrified neighbors, there have been many more when she has leapt onto the couch and curled into a contented ball and happily fallen asleep on my lap. And suddenly I didn’t care where the remote was, or to what extent it had been chewed beyond recognition that day, because I was not really watching TV anymore, anyway.


With patience and planning, your dog will become your truest pal, and you will be the whole world to her. The messes and mess-ups will happen, but in time, you’ll make it just fine together.

Jay Willis is a lawyer and writer in Seattle. He misses the Sonics and covers politics, sports, and Taylor Swift at Needs Further Review. Find him on Twitter @FarragutWest.


Illustration by Sam Woolley.