How to Potty Train a Puppy

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Figuring out the best way to potty train your puppy can be challenging, but getting the job done doesn’t need to be difficult!  The puppy potty training process is actually simple and straightforward in most cases once you’ve figured out which potty training method will be best for house training your pup. This article will outline some of the basics to get you started on house training your puppy and will point you in the direction of related Housebreaking Bible articles to help you plan a complete potty-training program.

ABOUT POTTY PADS

One of the main issues that confuses owners is whether or not to use puppy pads for potty training. Many people believe this is a necessary first step in training a young puppy, but in most cases it can (and should!) be avoided. I recommend training your puppy to pee on a potty pad in the house ONLY in the following cases:

  1. If you intend to permanently have an indoor potty area (pee pads, turf patch, litterbox, newspapers, etc.) for your dog.  Many people with small breeds like to have the option of allowing their dog to use a potty area indoors, especially in cases where the owners work long hours or travel with the dog, or when the owner or dog have mobility problems that make it difficult to get the dog outside to go potty on a regular schedule.
  2. If your puppy is having bladder or digestive issues that make it impossible for her to hold it in between potty trips.  When a pup has a bladder infection or any condition that causes them to have diarrhea or soft stools, temporarily offering them an indoor potty training option may be necessary.  Taking a break from crate training and moving your pup to a pen or small room (with enough space for a puppy pad or turf patch until your puppy is back in good health) is typically the best way to keep your potty training on track.  Even though doing this may slow your potty training progress a bit, it’s much better than forging ahead with crate training your puppy and having the poor little beastie get in the habit of having accidents in her crate.  Once the pup is feeling 100%, you can go right back to your regular housebreaking plan.
  3. If you have a very young puppy who needs to be left alone for longer periods of time than she could reasonably be expected to hold it if confined to a crate as part of a puppy crate training program.  The general rule of thumb is that puppies can be crated during daytime hours for an hour longer than their age in months.  So if your pup is 8 weeks old, 3 hours in the crate, if your pup is 4 months old, 5 hours in the crate.  Of course, these rules apply only to young puppies… you can’t leave your 18-month-old puppy in the crate for 19 hours!

If you need to leave your pup for longer periods and can’t have a dog walker, neighbor or friend come in to take your pup out for a quick potty in the middle of the day, temporarily training your puppy to use puppy pads or a turf patch in the house may be the best approach.  If you think potty pad training is right for your pup, learn more about how to potty train your puppy using puppy pads or a turf patch in our Indoor Potty Training section.

HOUSEBREAKING BASICS

Your puppy potty training program should be based on confinement, supervision and scheduling (which I’ll discuss in more detail below). Please note that yelling, rubbing your pup’s nose in her accidents and smacking her with a newspaper when she makes a mistake are NOT included in that list! Many puppy owners, particularly those of us who may have seen our parents using the tougher, old-school methods of housebreaking when we were kids, think that housebreaking is about harshly correcting the puppy for having accidents inside the house. Even worse, many believe that dragging the pup over to an old accident to correct her after the fact is an effective way to teach her not to make a mess in the house. Corrections after the fact are ineffective, unfair, and just plain mean. Aside from a sharp “NO” (accompanied by a foot stomp or hand clap, if needed) to mildly startle the pup and “shut off the plumbing” if you catch her in the act, there should be no punishment in your pup’s housebreaking program.

If you play your cards right, you probably won’t even need corrections, since the best way to potty train a puppy is to prevent the pup from having opportunities to have accidents indoors so she becomes conditioned to going potty only in her designated potty area.  This is achieved through the confinement and supervision part of your training… if you’re on the ball with that, your pup won’t have opportunities to have accidents out of your sight, which are the ones that really slow down your housebreaking.  When your pup is wandering around on her own, if she has an accident on your nice, expensive rug, she’s learning that going potty in the house gets her the same relief as going potty outside.  We want to make sure she gets that relief only when she goes outside (or in her indoor potty zone if you’re doing indoor potty training), so here’s how to make that happen.

Confinement

Most dogs and puppies will instinctively avoid going potty when they’re enclosed in a small area, and we can use this to our advantage for housebreaking.  In most cases, crate training (training your puppy to stay in a wire cage or plastic airline carrier when she’s alone or unsupervised) is the best option, but in some cases, a small room like a laundry room or bathroom may also be suitable confinement spaces.  The area should be small enough that your puppy thinks of the whole area as her sleeping/living area… if you give a puppy too much space in her confinement area, she’s likely to use one half as the bedroom and one half as the bathroom, and that ain’t good! The general rule with a new puppy that’s just starting a potty training plan is for the confinement area to be just big enough for the pup to stand up, turn around and lie down in. To learn more about how to crate train a puppy and whether it’s the right approach for training your puppy, read my crate training article.

Whether your pup’s confinement area is a crate or a small room, the basic rules are the same…. your pup should be in her confinement area whenever she’s alone or unsupervised.  This will, in most cases, completely prevent your pup from having accidents.  However, in some cases, pups will have accidents in their crates or confinement areas… if that’s happening, learn how to teach your pup not to have accidents in the crate.

Although I want you to be consistent about not allowing your pup the freedom to roam around the house unsupervised, this doesn’t mean the pup should be in the confinement area most of the time… whenever possible, have your pup with you and closely supervised so you have lots of time to bond and teach her the rules of her new home.  If you’re getting tired of having to keep an eye on the pup, but don’t want to put her in her supervision area, you can also let her wander a bit if you have a safe, enclosed outdoor area for her.  Hanging out with the pup in the yard is a nice way to spend some relaxed time together, since it’s okay for her to go potty out there and you don’t have to watch her as vigilantly… just enough to make sure she doesn’t eat anything dangerous, chew up anything valuable, or fall into the pool!

Supervision

Strictly supervising your pup when she’s in the house with you is a critically important part of potty training your puppy as quickly and easily as possible.  If you’re careful about making sure you know what the pup is doing at all times, she won’t have any opportunities to have accidents out of your sight… and she may not have any accidents AT ALL during your housebreaking!  Even if she attempts to have an accident, since you’re supervising her and will be able to catch and correct her immediately, the attempt is simply an opportunity to teach her what not to do, not a failure that will cause a setback in your training.

When supervising your pup, you need to have your eyes on her or she needs to be in contact with you, either by being held, being in your lap, or being attached to you by her leash.  This will prevent the common scenario in which you think you’re supervising her by being in the same room, but you walk around behind the couch, find a puddle and wonder how the heck it happened… pups can wander out of your sight and have an accident in the blink of an eye, so just being in the same room isn’t close enough supervision in the early days of potty training your pup.

To learn more about supervision techniques to use when potty training your dog or puppy, check out our Puppy Airlift and Umbilical Cord Training articles.

Scheduling

Keeping your puppy on a reasonable potty training schedule is critical.  If your pup doesn’t have sufficient opportunities to go potty in the right area, accidents in the wrong areas are inevitable.  A common mistake made by lots of new puppy owners is underestimating how often a puppy needs to go potty, which can be a LOT in the early days!  People often assume they’ll be able to take their puppy out 2 or 3 times a day like they did with their last dog, but that’s not nearly enough for a young pup.  So, how often SHOULD that little tinkle machine go out?  You can get a general idea of how often your puppy should have a potty trip using the chart below, but keep in mind that if she’s having accidents on that schedule, you’ll need to take her out more frequently.

6-12 weeks 12-16 weeks 4-5 months 6-7 months 8-11 months 12 months and older
daytime 1 hour 2 hours 3 hours 4 hours 5-6 hours 8 hours
nighttime* 3-4 hours 4-8 hours 8 hours 8 hours 8 hours 8-10 hours

*nighttime hours assume that the puppy or dog was not fed or watered less than 3 hours before bed

Regardless of your puppy’s age, for the first few days of your potty training program, I’d recommend more frequent trips outside… every 30-45 minutes is usually a good way to go.  This will minimize the likelihood of accidents and make sure your pup gets off to a good start, even if she’s thrown off by her new environment.  Once you’re past those first few days, you can start making those potty trips less frequent as you get an idea of how often your pup needs to go.

In some cases, your new puppy may not go potty at all or may go potty very infrequently on day one, due to the shock of being in a new environment.  Don’t panic if this happens… it typically straightens itself out after that first day.  Just keep giving your pup opportunities to go to her potty area, and keep an eagle eye on her so when she finally does go, it doesn’t end up being in the wrong place!

One of the best ways to get a handle on the potty schedule that will work best for your pup is to keep a written potty schedule.  Remember to include other scheduling info that may affect housebreaking your pup, including meal times and any notes about digestive issues or excessive water intake throughout the day.

Nighttime scheduling for your pup can be tricky, so be sure to check out Surviving the Night with your New Puppy to learn how to schedule your pup’s overnight potty trips.

AVOIDING COMMON PUPPY POTTY TRAINING MISTAKES

  1. Allowing your puppy too much freedom too soon.  This is by far the most common mistake that dog owners and new puppy owners make when trying to housebreak their hounds, so my first piece of advice in nearly all cases when people are struggling with potty training is that the owner needs to tighten up their supervision.  This was covered in the “supervision” section above, but it bears repeating… if your puppy is having accidents out of your sight, you’re not supervising her closely enough.  Implementing an umbilical cord training program (to stay on top of what your pup is up to) is a great way to get a huge, instant improvement in your puppy’s housebreaking progress!
  2. Thinking the job is done when you’re not there yet.  When housebreaking is going well, I always warn my clients not to get a false sense of security and slack off on the rules. When you’re on a proper housebreaking program, your pup will very likely have few or even no accidents right from the start, so it’s easy to convince yourself that your puppy “gets it”then when you start to relax and ease up on your supervision, confinement and scheduling, the pup you thought was housebroken starts having accidents. No matter how well your pup is doing with housebreaking, I typically tell clients that they’ll have a chance to breathe and relax when the pup is 5-6 months old. Until then, things will be progressively improving and getting easier, but you still need to be on the ball to make sure your puppy doesn’t get off track.
  3. More people = more problems!  When there are multiple people in the household, it’s easy to think someone else is watching the puppy or taking her out.  When there are a bunch of you sitting around the living room, you feel like the pup is being well-supervised, but if there’s not one person assigned to the job, it’s likely nobody’s really paying close attention. If you’re hearing a lot of “I thought YOU were watching her!”, an umbilical cord training program will be a huge help.  Whoever’s holding the leash is in charge of watching the pupwhen they can no longer do it, they’re responsible for either handing the leash off to another person or putting the puppy in the crate.  This is an especially helpful approach for kids, whose attention to supervision can drift away easily… and it’s great for easily distracted adults, too!

    Another helpful tool for households with multiple people is the written puppy potty chart. By writing down every meal, every trip outside and every pee and poo, you’ll make sure everyone knows what’s up with the puppyso you don’t accidentally go 8 hours without taking her outside because everyone in the house thinks somebody else already took her out!

  4. Other people’s houses. Even if your pup is an advanced student with her housebreaking at home, she may have potty training issues in a new environment. Don’t make the common mistake of assuming she’ll be just as good at your friend’s house as she is at yours… when you go visiting, you’ll need to supervise your pup very carefully and make sure she knows where the potty area is. After your pup has made a few visits with no accidents, you can gradually start to allow her more freedom… but remember, it’s always best to be sure she’s had a recent successful potty trip before allowing her any freedom indoors. A slow approach is best on this one… especially if you want your friends to invite you back!
  5. Expecting a young puppy to let you know when she needs to go out.  Many owners are surprised by the fact that their young puppy doesn’t go to the door or bark to let them know she needs to go outside.  Though some puppies do quickly learn to show an obvious signal that they need to go out, in the beginning, most owners will need to watch for more subtle signs.  Most pups will walk in circles, sniff the floor or show other signs, so you’ll need to be observant to catch those less obvious early signs.  If you play your puppy potty training cards right, most pups will learn to give you a more robust signal later, but in order for that to happen, your dog needs to believe that she MUST get outside to go potty.  If you’ve been lax in your training and allowed the pup to believe going potty in the house is an option, she may never learn to signal, since she believes she can just go pee on the rug.  If you’ve been vigilant with your training program, your pup will believe she needs to get outside to relieve herself and will likely start giving you a signal that she needs you to come open the door.  Some dogs are subtle… they’ll just stare at the door or sit in front of it, while other dogs are pushier and will give more obvious signs, like barking or scratching at the door.  If you want your pup to give you an obvious signal that she needs to go out and you don’t want to wait to see what she comes up with on her own, you can teach her to bark to go outside or to ring a bell to tell you she needs to go out, but in most cases it’s best to wait until the puppy has at least a month or so on a good housebreaking program before starting that training.
  6. Using treats for potty training a puppy.  This one may surprise you, since giving your puppy a treat for going outside seems like a great way to make her want to do it more often.  I don’t recommend this approach, however… while it may work in some cases, giving treats as housebreaking rewards can cause big problems for some pups.  In some cases, puppies smell the treats and will be so interested in them that they won’t get down to business because they’re busy trying to figure out where that yummy smell is coming from.  Another common issue is the puppy who figures out that she gets a treat for going potty outside, but she’s so anxious to get it that she’ll squeeze out a few drops of pee, look up at you to say “GIMME THAT TREAT!!”, then go back into the house with a nearly full bladder, which causes her to have an accident shortly thereafter.  For most pups, you’ll find that praise and play are better rewards for housebreaking, so save the treats for your obedience training!

LEARN MORE ABOUT HOUSE TRAINING YOUR PUPPY

The following articles will provide you with additional instructions to help you figure out the best way to potty train your puppy:

Good luck with your pup’s training!!

Purchase Products Related to This Article

Midwest Life Stages Crate

This is a good all-purpose crate that’s an especially good choice for young puppies, since it comes with a divider that allows you to expand the crate as your puppy grows so it’s always just the right size.

Petmate Ultra Vari
Kennel Crate

These sturdy Vari-Kennel plastic crates are an excellent choice for dogs that like a cozy place to hang out. You can use them for travel, too, so they’re perfect for pups who want to join you when you go on vacation!

Extra Large Potty Pads

These BIG potty pads are essential if you’re pad training a larger dog, but they’re also nice for smaller dogs, since they give them more room to sniff around and choose a spot and the pads won’t get “full” as quickly!

Porch Potty

The Porch Potty is a nice-looking potty area for indoor or outdoor use. It’s a nice size for bigger dogs, but I recommend it for smaller dogs, too, if you have the space. Can be used with the included fake grass, or even better, replacement REAL grass… or sod from the home-improvement store!

Nature’s Miracle Stain and Odor Remover

Nature’s Miracle is everyone’s favorite stain and odor neutralizer. Be sure to use this product to clean up all accidents… regular floor cleaner won’t fully eliminate the odor!

Leather Leash

These high-quality leather leashes are waaay cheaper online than in most pet stores!