Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Housetraining your puppy or dog takes time, consistency, patience, and lots of walks! This post includes a lot of info geared toward puppies, but the methods work for dogs, also. If you are struggling, don't miss the troubleshooting info at the end.
Bladder and bowel control is not fully developed before 12 weeks of age and varies among dogs. Some puppies learn when and where not to eliminate within a few weeks while others take longer to learn, as late as 7 months of age, sometimes, even if you are doing all the right things. If you are training an older dog, we may have to undo months or years of experience of the unwanted behavior, and it may take more time, but we often see big improvements with 2-3 weeks of consistent work.
Keys to Success:
Prevent accidents through confinement and close supervision,
Don’t punish accidents that happen, and
Take the puppy or dog outside on a frequent and regular schedule and reward him for eliminating where you want him to go with 15-30 (tiny) high value treats, given immediately and one at a time.
House Training Steps
1. Have a schedule. Keep your puppy or dog on a consistent daily feeding schedule and remove food between meals - no all day buffets! Take your puppy or dog outside on a regular schedule. Go with him instead of putting him in the yard without supervision. Consider keeping a journal of mealtimes, potty trips, and accidents to try to identify patterns of behavior.
Puppies should be taken out first thing in the morning, and shortly after meals, drinking, playtime or excitement of any kind, after naps, or when they’ve been chewing happily and stop. They also need to go out last thing at night and before being confined or left alone. Older dogs might need to go out as often as 5 times a day when you begin training as they are not used to having to "hold it."
When they are out, let pups sniff and circle, but young puppies must avoid areas where many other dogs walk due to the risk of infection. Some dogs who have trouble with distractions can settle if you make a circle of kibble in the grass; as they sniff and eat in that circular pattern, it may stimulate their body to do their business.
You may want to add a cue like “go potty” when your pup is about to go, then reward him whenever he eliminates outdoors with praise, treats, play or a walk. Don’t wait until you are back in the house. High value treats really help make the connection for most puppies and dogs that going potty outside is far better than inside - use chicken, beef, cheese, etc…
It’s best to take your pup to the same place each time because the smells often prompt them to eliminate. I tend not to do a long walk before the pup goes potty. I tend to walk to the right place and just hang out there. Then after the pup potties, I give the high value rewards immediately, then go for our walk, or pull a toy out of my back pocket and we play. Going potty outside makes food and fun outings happen, so it becomes worth holding it and waiting to go out.
2. In between trips outside, keep your eyes on your puppy. Watch for behaviors like restless movement or pacing, whining, circling, sniffing, standing near a door, or leaving the room. If you see any of these, take your puppy outside as quickly as possible.
3. If you can’t watch your pup, he must be confined to a crate, exercise pen, or a small room with the door either closed or blocked with a baby gate, though he needs a break at least every 4-5 hours. You can also use the “umbilical” method - tether him to you with a 6’+ leash.
Gradually, over days or weeks without accidents, give your puppy more freedom, starting with a small area with a hard floor that’s easy to clean, and gradually expand his access to larger areas and multiple rooms. If he eliminates outside, give him some free time in the house (about 15 to 20 minutes to start), and then put him back in his crate or small room or tether him to you. If all goes well, gradually increase the amount of time he can spend free.
4. Expect young puppies to go out at least once overnight. Sleep slows down the body so one break may be all your puppy needs. Middle of the night potty breaks should be dull- no talking, no playing, etc….just a potty break. You may want to set an alarm for halfway through the night and push it back an hour every week, until it’s close to wake up time and you can try to go through the whole night.
5. Changes in his environment may cause a lapse in housetraining, so be cautious if you take him to someone else’s home, and keep an eye out if you change your home around or if you add a potted plant that looks like his favorite tree.
What if my puppy is having accidents?
Most puppies can be reasonably housetrained by four to six months of age but many may not be 100% reliable until they are eight to twelve months of age. All puppies are different, but a common rule of thumb is that the maximum length of time he can wait, while awake, is the same number of hours as his age in months, e.g., a four-month-old pup should not be left alone for more than four consecutive hours without an opportunity to go outside. I think it really depends on the individual, though, and some puppies will need to go out every half-hour or so in the first week you have them.
Some puppies may do well early on, and then they regress. This is normal – just re-visit the housetraining process. A puppy is immediately rewarded when he has an accident because he feels relief from pressure when emptying his bladder or bowels, so it’s quite important to prevent accidents and it's too late to punish them.
If you catch your puppy in the act of eliminating inside, some trainers advise clapping or startling him, then taking him out to finish. I don’t find that helpful because some puppies find that scary. If you startle or punish him instead of remaining calm, he may have no idea why you’re clapping and decide that going potty in front of people is scary! When that happens, puppies tend to start going potty in unused rooms, behind furniture, under tables, etc… out of sight, and they tend to stop going potty on walks, when you are watching.
Instead, clean up calmly using an enzyme cleaner like Nature’s Miracle, found at pet stores, to minimize odors that might attract your puppy back to the same spot. You can use a black light to double check that you cleaned thoroughly enough – they can smell things we can’t smell, so a sniff test isn’t enough. You can also start feeding your puppy in the areas of the house where there was an accident to change the way he thinks about those spaces.
Some people have luck moving BM accidents outside to the area they DO want their puppy to use so that may be worth a try. You can sop up urine and move the towel outside, too.
If your puppy has an accident but you don’t catch him in the act and only find the accident afterward, do nothing to your pup – no punishment at all. That means do not rub your puppy’s nose in his accident and do not verbally or physically punish your puppy for accidents. He cannot understand that the punishment is connected to the accident and you may cause him to think humans are unpredictable and scary. Dogs who are afraid of humans may develop fearful and/or aggressive behaviors.
Also, if a walk ends as soon as the puppy goes potty, the puppy may start holding it longer to keep the fun from ending. Be sure to spend a bit longer walking, playing, and rewarding your dog before ending the walk.
If you are noticing frequent accidents, increase opportunities to go outside, decrease freedom (length of time and amount of space), or do both.
Also, read through these other common causes of frequent accidents:
If your puppy came from a shelter or lived in a kennel with a breeder, they may have learned that it’s ok to go potty on a certain surface – concrete, wood shavings, dirt, etc… Many puppies simply haven’t learned where to eliminate—or they haven’t learned a way to tell their people when they need to go out. It’s a good idea to teach your puppy to go on grass and on pavement, in case you move or are traveling and the environment changes. For instance, I had a dog who was trained to use puppy pads when I traveled frequently and our only available pit stop was the airport or plane bathroom. Puppy pads work well for people who live in high-rise buildings but some puppies do like to tear them up. There are also indoor grass potty stations available for sale.
If your puppy is over three months of age and urinates small amounts on vertical surfaces, he may be urine-marking. Neutering often reduces this behavior. First, go back to the basics on potty training described above for at least 2 weeks. If there is no improvement, contact me for help and consider a temporary belly band or diaper.
If your puppy only has accidents when he’s left alone in your home, even for short periods of time, he may have separation distress or anxiety. If this is the case, you may notice that he appears nervous or upset right before you leave him by himself or after you’ve left (if you can observe him while he’s alone). Destruction is often aimed at exit areas like the door jamb, as opposed to the couch or your shoes. A trainer can help you identify this issue.
Your puppy may have a submissive/excitement urination problem if he only urinates during greetings, play, physical contact, scolding or punishment. If this is the case, you may notice your puppy displaying submissive postures during interactions. He may cringe or cower, roll over on his belly, tuck or lower his tail, duck his head, avert his eyes, flatten his ears or all of the above. Most puppies grow out of this issue on their own. A good idea is to greet people outside until this phase is over and be sure greetings are quiet and low key.
If your pup suddenly starts having accidents and going back to potty training basics isn’t helping, you might want to go to the vet to rule out medical concerns like a urinary tract infection (UTI). Puppies and dogs do get upset stomachs so call your vet if your puppy has diarrhea to get his or her advice. Changes in diet, both to type of food and amount of food, can also cause issues.
It is unfair to expect your dog or puppy to stay in a crate for more than 4-5 hours without a potty break, even less time for young puppies. Imagine going to work and not being allowed to leave your office or cubicle for a drink, snack, or potty break for 8, 10, or 12 hours. I wouldn't make it! Please consider a dog walker to give your dog a break if your work schedule doesn’t allow letting your puppy out at lunch. Over-crating often leads to urinary tract infections, too.
If your puppy has ever lived somewhere that had a doggy door where he could go outside at will, he may not have started to develop bladder control, because he doesn’t have to. Be cautious in using them in your own home that you don’t skip potty training and just rely on the door. There may be a day with really bad weather where you want to keep it closed and your pup may have an accident. Always supervise puppies outside to make sure they don’t get into trouble, escape, or worse get stolen from your yard.
Even if you have never done any of the incorrect but common things mentioned in the article with your puppy, the person your puppy lived with previously may have done them, and you inherited the problem. Puppy mill dogs notoriously have accidents in their crates because they were never provided an opportunity to keep their sleeping/eating area clean. Dogs who spent extended time in a shelter also often have issues since they may not have been able to signal anyone to take them out and learned to go potty in the run. Start from scratch with these dogs as if they are a very young puppy.
Is your dog in a yard with other dogs who interrupt him when he tries to potty? Is he walking in areas where he is fearful or anxious (noisy city streets)? Is your dog worried about a shock fence or a scary dog barking across the street? Is your dog unable to eat outside? Is he sound sensitive and noises from outside the yard frighten him? Those are clues that the potty training may not be going well due to anxiety outside. Try driving to other areas and see if it makes a difference. If the walk itself is scary, going for a walk after going potty will not be rewarding. In severe cases, we may need to discuss anti-anxiety medications and a technique called counter-conditioning and desensitization to whatever he thinks is scary outside.
More great tips from a vet here: http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/canine-housetraining-challenges