Are you finding accident after accident in your house? Do you wait an eternity for your puppy to go outside, only to have them pee right in front of you as soon as you bring them inside? If you have a puppy, you already know that potty training is one of the most tedious and frustrating parts of bringing home your new canine companion. You are not alone! Many owners struggle with the dos and don'ts of potty training. We're here to help! Every dog learns at a different pace, but your puppy, no matter their age or breed - can learn how to eliminate appropriately.
An important thing to know about eliminating (peeing or pooping) is that it is a self-reinforcing behavior. That simply means it feels good to go, no matter when or where!
We humans aren’t born knowing to go to the restroom when we feel the need to go, we just go (which is why diapers were invented!). The only reason you go to the bathroom when you feel nature’s call is because you were trained to, with lots of repetition and guidance from your guardians.
Dogs are the same! They don’t know that it’s “good” to go outside and “bad” to go inside, they just know they have to go - so they do, no matter where they are. Every time they go, it feels good to them because it relieves the need they had, which reinforces the behavior and makes it stronger. In your puppy’s mind, going inside last time felt good, so they should go inside this time since that will probably feel good too.
Your puppy isn’t doing it on purpose to spite you or frustrate you. They are just fulfilling a basic biological need in the best way they know how!
How To Potty Train Your Puppy
So how do you teach your puppy to not go wherever the urge strikes them? The key to potty training really isn’t training at all, it’s management and prevention. Since eliminating is naturally self-reinforcing, you should not even give your puppy the opportunity to eliminate in places you do not want them to go.
Your puppy’s day should revolve around the same structured routine: confinement, elimination, active supervision, and repeat!
The confinement zone should be a space big enough for your puppy to comfortably stand up, sit, lay down, and turn around, but it shouldn’t be big enough for them to pee in one corner and sleep in the other. Dogs are surprisingly clean, and they will not eliminate in the same space that they sleep in unless they are desperate.
If you cannot be actively supervising them, your puppy should be in a safe confinement zone to prevent accidents. Without a confinement zone, accidents are guaranteed to happen - it’s like letting your baby crawl around the house without a diaper!
A confinement zone can be a crate, a pen, a gated-off bathroom or laundry room, etc. It should be a comfortable, safe place for your pup to be, with a nice place to lie down, a toy or two to chew on, and located in a quiet place where they can rest. Work on associating the confinement space with positivity, not using it as punishment (see our tips on crate training here!).
Confinement is not a punishment for your puppy - it’s a very important part of their routine!
A crate or similar confinement zone should become like a den or a “home base” for your pup. Freedom from a confined zone should be gradually earned as your puppy shows they can be trusted to respect boundaries. Giving your puppy total freedom from the start is stressful for them and for you!
As potty training progresses, work on gradually making the confinement space larger (like adding a pen around a crate or blocking off a section of the home with baby gates). If the puppy is successfully not eliminating within their confinement zone for at least two weeks, then slightly increase the size of their confinement zone. If they eliminate inside of the new confinement zone, scale it back down to the size they were last successful with, and wait at least another two weeks before increasing it again.
Work on gradually extending the duration of time between potty breaks as your puppy ages and develops the biological and mental ability to control their bladder and bowels.
Every puppy learns at different rates, but over time, you can gradually phase out the confinement zones completely as your dog earns freedom to the entire home (but only once they show you they have the ability and self-control to only eliminate in the appropriate areas!). There is no need to rush this. Even after your puppy seems to have potty training down, still stick with their routine for a while longer to make sure the habits have time to really get ingrained in their head. Remember, their freedom should be earned, not just given!
From the confinement zone, you should bring your pup straight to where you want them to eliminate. This should ideally be a quiet place with few distractions. Act boring (you should essentially ignore your puppy) to give them the chance to sniff and explore the space. It can take a pup a moment to find where the best spot to go is, and movement can stimulate elimination.
When we engage them in play or repetitively talk to them (this includes saying “go potty” a million times) then we distract them from the task at hand.
As your puppy is actively peeing or pooping, you can start to associate a word or phrase with the action by saying something like “go potty.” In the beginning, you want to say this ONLY when they are actively going. Otherwise, you’re just saying something and attaching no meaning to it! Over time as your pup begins to form an association with the phrase, you can start backing up this cue more and more (saying “go potty” when you see them going into their squat, for example). Do this gradually - your pup needs lots of repetition hearing the cue before they’ll understand what “go potty” means. Eventually, you’ll be able to use this cue to prompt your pup to go!
Always reward the puppy immediately after they eliminate outside with a tasty treat and praise.
Because eliminating is naturally self-reinforcing, we want to make going outside the much more desirable option by adding extra positive reinforcement for the behavior right after it occurs. Eliminating outside should also be the ticket to a short amount of supervised time outside the confinement zone for play, fun, training, cuddling, etc (which is another incentive for them to go in the proper place).
If you bring your pup out to go potty and they do not eliminate, they should NOT receive the freedom to run around the house - that’s just asking for an accident!
Some puppies intentionally wait to be brought inside to eliminate since it’s warmer or they feel safer inside. If they do not eliminate, the puppy should go back to their confinement zone for 10-15 minutes, and then be given the chance to eliminate outside again. Repeat this process until they eliminate outside, and THEN they can earn free time inside.
Now that you know your puppy has relieved their elimination needs in the proper place, you can have some fun with them outside of the confinement zone! This is the time for the two of you to play, train, eat, cuddle, groom, etc.
Just because your puppy went in the proper place doesn’t mean we turn our back on them completely!
Puppies have a small bladder and don’t have the self-control over it that an adult dog may have, so you should always be looking for signs that your pup needs to go. Watch the puppy for any signals like pacing, sniffing, sneaking off, circling, whining, pawing, or sitting by the door, etc, and immediately respond to the signal by giving them the chance to eliminate outside. If the dog learns that a certain signal gets you to bring them outside, they will be more likely to repeat that signal to you in the future, rather than attempting to eliminate inside.
When your puppy is being actively supervised by you outside of their confinement zone, you should still be proactive and take them out frequently to eliminate (every 20-30 minutes). Most puppy activities (waking up, running, playing, chewing, eating, etc) stimulate their need to go. Every puppy is different, and it’s very important to monitor yours in order to learn their signals and patterns!
It’s better to be very on top of them now and take frequent elimination breaks than wish you had later!
Make sure you give your pup the chance to eliminate before they return to their confinement zone, and repeat this whole process! Over time, you will have to take your dog out less and less frequently as they learn where to go, and they will be able to enjoy more and more free time as they earn it by respecting boundaries. Structure now will pay off later!
Structured daily routines help with potty training and knowing your dog's patterns (their signals, how long it takes them to digest, etc). If you can implement a consistent daily routine (for sleeping, eating, playing, etc), track your pup’s patterns, and predict when they’ll need to eliminate, then potty training becomes much easier!
Patience and consistency are key! Potty training is definitely tedious and takes lots of time, but putting in a lot of time and effort into potty training now will be worth it in the end.
What To Do If Your Puppy Potties Inside?
If your puppy does have an accident inside, don’t despair! It might be a sign that you need to tighten up your management and prevention work - remember, your pup shouldn’t even have the opportunity to go where you don’t want them to go. If the accident just occurred, immediately take your puppy outside to reinforce that as the place they should go.
Then, quickly and quietly get rid of the spot with powerful cleaners that break down the enzymes in the urine. If your dog smells a spot that they or another dog have eliminated in before, they are likely to eliminate in that spot again (and their noses are powerful!). That’s why many owners encounter pups who seem to always go in the same spot even after they’ve cleaned it. Odds are, it wasn’t cleaned properly so it’s still a prime spot to go for your pup. It’s very important that the chemical traces of the smell are completely eliminated. Again, prevention is the best key! The more on top of your pup that you are now, the quicker they will learn.
You should never punish your puppy for having accidents. Yelling at them, putting their face in the accident, locking them up in a time out, and other similar punishments only confuses and scares your puppy, and it only teaches them to sneak off to hide their elimination from you (rather than teaching them not to go inside).
They don’t realize that you’re mad they went inside, they think that you are just mad at them for going! Instead, have empathy and patience for your pup - they’re learning!
Should You Use Potty Pads For Puppies?
Even though the methods detailed above are more tedious, it allows your dog to learn where they are supposed to go more quickly and with less confusion. Potty pads should only be used when your pup is going to be alone longer than they can hold it, and they need some sort of option for eliminating while you’re gone. A general rule of thumb is that your puppy can hold it for one hour for each month old they are (for example, a 3-month-old puppy can hold it for 3 hours).
Potty pads are generally going to prolong the potty training process since you’re reinforcing your dog both for going inside and outside.
Closely following these guidelines should eventually result in a house-trained pup! If you have a pup that still seems to have lots of trouble with potty training after months of rigorous management and training, it may be time to have a veterinary check-up to rule out any medical issues contributing to the behavior.
Work With A Trainer
If you'd like to dive deeper into positive reinforcement training, consider working with a certified dog trainer! Use the link below to see if Busy Dog serves your area and book a free evaluation with your local trainer.