House Training 101: How to Potty Train a Puppy

Cute puppy golden retriever laying on a white ground

Setting Expectations

Potty training can be a frustrating process, but there are a few hard and fast rules that can accelerate the process:

  1. Have the right tools.
  2. Create a potty schedule.
  3. Keep a potty training log.
  4. Learn how to use food reinforcement effectively.
  5. Be patient.

Expect that your puppy will need constant reminders to go potty outside until they are around 10-14 months of age. While some puppies will be more effective at communicating their needs, you should not expect or rely on this until your puppy is more mature. This first part of this article will dive into each of these points in more depth. The second part of this article will talk about common mistakes.

Training Tools

To properly potty train your puppy you will need the right tools and the right set up. Here’s a list of puppy training supplies that I think are a must have: 

black and blue dog training pouch on white background
  1. Gated Kitchen or Exercise Pen (for unsupervised time during the day)
  2. Crate in your Bedroom (to sleep in at night)
  3. Training mat – Threshold kitchen mat, from Target, recommended
  4. High value food – Happy Howie’s rolls recommended 
  5. Training pouch – one that straps around your waist
  6. Nature’s Miracle – an enzymatic cleaner that will effectively eliminate the smell of urine if your puppy ever has an accident on a carpet or rug. 
  7. Spill Proof Water Bowl

Step 1: Creating Management Strategies

Accidents happen. It’s important that we are setting the stage for success by creating areas in which those accidents are less likely to occur, or easier to clean up when they do happen. Here are three management tools that will accelerate your puppy’s potty training process.

A Crate

Place a crate next to your bed at night for your puppy to sleep in. Keeping your puppy close will help them feel more relaxed, and will help you know when and if they need to go potty in the middle of the night. Follow the training recommendations in this crate training video for puppies to make sure that your puppy develops a calm, positive association with their crate. The crate should be large enough for a puppy or dog to stand up, turn around and lie down comfortably. It’s okay to provide a larger crate once you feel confident that your puppy shows a clear desire to keep that space clean.

What If My Puppy Isn’t Ready for a Closed Door Crate?

Until your puppy is comfortable walking into the crate and relaxing inside you should avoid closing the gate. In this case, you can have your puppy on a harness and leash. As a short term management option at night you can attach the leash to a heavy piece of furniture that cannot be moved or tipped over. Give your puppy access to a cozy open door crate or to a fluffy bed. Back tying the leash will prevent your puppy from roaming the room, chewing on off-limit items, and having accidents while you are sleeping.

Baby Gates

white dog gate on a white background

During the day, when your puppy is home alone, keep your puppy in a safe space that gives your puppy room to move. Avoid confining dogs behind solid doors or in remote areas that are not socially significant, like a laundry room. This usually leads to more distress, frustration and anxiety since the puppy will feel isolated. This means puppies are more likely to bark, scratch at the door, howl or whine when you bring them to this area. It’s better to use a space that is centrally located in your home, I recommend a gated kitchen. This is usually one of the easiest rooms to puppy proof, and since it’s in the main hub of your home, most puppies will feel fairly comfortable staying in this space with the help of a little training. A lot of puppies learn how to jump over or push down gates. This is especially true of shorter gates, with horizontal bars. To prevent this issue from occurring I recommend using an extra tall baby gate, with vertical bars and a door that swings open and closed on a hinge. (see picture)

Exercise Pens (an alternative to baby gates)

Wide self standing gates can be used to section off wide thresholds, but if your house has an open floor plan, this might not be feasible. If this is the case, you can purchase a sturdy, extra tall exercise pen that will accomplish the same thing. Again, place the pen in a central area of your home. You will be doing training with the pen, just like you would with a crate, to help your puppy view the pen as a desirable place to be.

Open Door Crate or Cozy Dog Bed

Keep the crate door open until you have done sufficient training and your puppy genuinely feels safe with the crate door closed.

You might choose to place an open door crate or a cozy dog bed inside the gated kitchen or exercise pen. This will provide a comfortable place for your puppy to rest. Keep the bedding proportionate to the size of your puppy. Avoid the temptation to line the exercise pen with lots of blankets. Your puppy might have accidents inside this area, and when that happens, its preferable for those accidents to occur on a solid surface where they will be easier to spot. The other reason this is important is because once a puppy learns to begin peeing on fabric, this can be a very difficult habit to reverse. Watch this video I created that will show you how to introduce your puppy to a crate.

Water Bowls

Water bowls are easy for puppies to tip over. This is a common problem with exercise pens and crates. This can make your puppy’s bedding wet, and it can make it difficult to determine if your puppy has had an accident. Spilled water can also be problematic because it can lead to a puppy that becomes comfortable with the sensation of lying down on wet or soiled bedding. To avoid this problem you can use a spill proof water bowl. I do not recommend withholding water at any point to facilitate potty training as I find it can lead to dogs that are not able to regulate their water intake.

Wee Wee Pads

Puppies that are taught to go on wee wee pads might struggle with potty training more than those puppies that are taught to go outside. The more black and white the process is, the easier it is to learn. That being said, in some cases it is necessary to use wee wee pads. People that live in apartment buildings, in cold weather climates, or that plan to travel with their dog by boat might want to teach their puppy to go on a wee wee pad. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to simplify the training by keeping the wee wee pads in an enclosed area – like a bathroom. When your puppy is in the early learning stages you should provide access to these areas at regular intervals of time (ie. every 30 minutes) and reinforce just as you would when your puppy goes outside. This will help your puppy learn how to “hold it.” You should still use baby gates and exercise pens, don’t allow your puppy to be free range in your home until they are 9-12 months old or have consistently demonstrated a solid understanding of where to go potty for a solid 3 months.

Puppies that have free range of your home may not consistently learn to use a wee wee pad. In fact they are likely to have more accidents on carpets, rugs, bath mats and kitchen mats because of the similarity in appearance and texture to wee wee pads. If possible, avoid putting wee wee pads in exercise pens as most puppies get into the habit of tearing up the pads, and making a mess of the pen. This could result in a puppy that becomes accustomed to living in unsanitary conditions.

Step 2: Create a Potty Schedule

Create a schedule and stick to it!

Every puppy is different, but generally speaking, taking puppies outside every 30 minutes is a good starting point. Excitable puppies may need to go more frequently, other puppies may be fine if they are taken out every hour. Set a timer on your phone as a reminder. Increase time in 30 minute intervals of time if your puppy goes one week without accidents. Decrease the interval of time if your puppy ever begins to backslide. Potty training is not always a linear process. You might find your puppy doing great one week, and then having more accidents the next. Their ability to “hold it” will depend on the context, environment or emotional state. For example, puppies are likely to go more frequently in high stimulation situations (like when you have guests over), if they are in a novel environment or if they have been engaged in a play session.

Nighttime Potty Schedule

Young puppies might need at least one potty trip in the middle of the night. If your puppy routinely wakes you up at 2am, I recommend setting an alarm for for 1:30am and taking them out in advance so that your puppy doesn’t become accustomed to the idea that they need to bark, whine or scratch at the crate door to get you out of bed. The same thing applies for their morning wake up. If they routinely wake up at 7am, I recommend setting the alarm for 6:30. 

By the time your puppy is 3-4 months of age you should find that you can begin to fade out the night time potty trip with ease. By the time your puppy is 10-14 months of age you might also find that you can start sleeping in again on weekends, because your dog never learned to bark and whine to get you out of bed. 

Most adult dogs can learn to “hold it” for 6-8 hours during the day, and for as long as 8-10 hours at night.

Step 3: Keep a Potty Training Log

Write down when and where your puppy goes potty. Keep track of the time, location and if they went pee or poo. This will help you identify some important patterns, make necessary changes, and accelerate the potty training process. For example, you might learn that your puppy routinely goes pee right after a family member arrives home, or that they frequently have accidents on the living room rug. Once you identify these tendencies you can then set your puppy up so that they are brought outside right after your kids come home from school, or block off access to the living room rug with a gate.

“Writing down our dog’s potty habits helps us be more objective about the process, and makes it easier for us to come up with and implement solutions.”

Step 4: How to Use Food Reinforcement Effectively

High value food reinforcement

Use high value food reinforcement, that is moist, meaty and breaks into small pieces, to reinforce your puppy any time they go potty outside. I recommend using Happy Howie’s rolls.

Training pouch

Keep the food inside a training pouch that straps around your waist. Avoid plastic bags that are noisy and will distract your puppy from doing their business.

Six foot leashes

Walk outside with your dog on a six foot leash, even if you have a fenced in yard. Puppies that get used to going potty outside off leash can sometimes find it difficult to learn to go potty on leash at a later stage. If you ever plan on taking a road trip with your puppy, this becomes a major problem!

Designated potty areas

Keeping your puppy on a leash also makes it easier to teach your puppy to go potty in a designated area. This is helpful if you don’t want your puppy learning to go potty all over the patio or lawn. Be consistent about walking your puppy to the designated potty area and reinforcing them for going in this spot.

Timers

Set a timer for 3 minutes and say nothing.

Timing of Reinforcement

Wait until your puppy finishes going pee or poo and calmly say “good” and reinforce with 3 pieces of food approximately 1 second after they have finished. The timing is critical. 

Time to Poop

If you have been keeping a potty log you should have a good idea of when your puppy will need to go poo. If you expect that they still have to go you can set your timer for another 3 minutes. Calmly say “good” and reinforce with 3 pieces of food once they have finished going poo. Be careful not to jump the gun and interrupt your puppy before they are fully finished. 

Unsuccessful Potty Trips

If your puppy doesn’t go potty, when you know they probably have to go, you should take your dog back inside once the timer goes off. Set the timer for 15 minutes and put your puppy inside a crate, gated area, or exercise pen. You might also choose to keep the puppy tethered to you by sliding the belt of your training pouch through the handle of the leash. After 15 minutes, try again.

Getting Puppies to Poop

Did you know that puppies are more likely to have to go poop after running? Test it out. Throw a ball or play a game of tug for a minute or two, it might be enough to get things “moving.”

Step 5: Patience

Many people struggle with this process because they want to give their dog free range of the house, before their dog is ready to accept that level of responsibility. Unfortunately, the less regimented you are in the short term, the longer the training process will take. Set clear expectations, and a well structured routine, and soon enough you will be able to give your dog the type of freedom that you will both enjoy. 

As stated earlier in this article, most puppies are 10 – 14 months of age before they are reliably “holding it.” And it might take a few months beyond that for a puppy to consistently “let you know” that they have to go. In the meantime, be consistent in your routine, but know that accidents happen.

What Should I Do When My Puppy Has an Accident?

If you see your puppy beginning to pee or poo inside the house, you can attempt to interrupt them. Gently carry them outside so that they have a chance to finish. If they finish going potty outside, and you happen to have food on you, reinforce them with 3 pieces of food. Write down the time and location of the accident in your potty log and then ask yourself if there was any way you could have predicted or prevented that accident from occurring in the first place. It’s common for puppies to go potty right after they wake up, right after playtime, or in high stimulation scenarios. Adjust your schedule accordingly when these situations come up.

Potty Training Takes Longer with Some Puppies

Some puppies struggle with potty training more than your average puppy. This is common with highly excitable puppies, shy and fearful puppies, puppies with medical issues, puppies that have been trained to use wee wee pads or those puppies that were raised in unsanitary conditions.

Tips for troubleshooting that can be done in combination with the recommendations made above.

  1. Bring your puppy to a vet to rule out a urinary track infection or other medical issues. 
  2. Provide more frequent potty trips outside. 
  3. Use a longer leash to give shy puppies a little more privacy. 
  4. Gate off carpeted rooms and close bedroom doors, where your puppy is more likely to have an accident. 
  5. Roll up rugs. 
  6. Keep cleaner nearby to disinfect and deodorize carpet and fabrics. 
  7. Keep puppies off furniture until they are 10-14 months of age and have consistently demonstrated the desire and ability to “hold it” for a minimum of 2 months.
  8. Change the environment and provide a new look and feel to the flooring.  This is especially necessary for puppies that have been raised in unsanitary conditions. If a puppy is kept in small, confined spaces for prolonged periods of time they will sometimes become habituated to the idea of sitting in their own urine or feces. These dogs can be especially difficult to potty train. One effective way to modify this habit is to change the environment and surface on which the dog lives. Go to Home Depot and create a new floor for an exercise pen.

8 Common Mistakes

#1: Repeating “go potty”

There is little value to repeating “go potty” again and again (and again) when your puppy is in the act of sniffing for squirrels or eating leaves and sticks. Dogs learn by association, so unless your puppy immediately goes potty, they are probably not learning what you want them to learn. It is better to say nothing at all so that you do not distract, confuse or desensitize your puppy to your words. 

Once your puppy is walking outside and immediately squatting to pee – so consistently that you are willing to bet 50 bucks on it – then you can start to say “go potty” a half second before they predictably squat. If you’re not confident making that bet, don’t say the cue.

#2: Long Potty Walks

Some people take their puppy out for long periods of time in the hopes of getting them to go potty. Time may not always allow for a longer walk. In the first 6 months you should be teaching your puppy to get into the habit of pottying close to home as soon as they go outside. This is one of the reasons it’s smart to use a timer, as outlined above.

#3: Verbal and Physical Reprimands

Verbally or physically reprimanding a puppy or adult dog for accidents can prolong the training process. It can teach a puppy that you do not like it when they go pee or poo in your presence. These are the dogs that begin peeing or pooing in the guest bedroom, that refuse to go potty when they are on leash with you, and that will go potty in the house even after you just came back from a 30 minute walk. This is a major problem, and can be very difficult to reverse.

#4: Expecting and Allowing Puppies to Go Outside Alone

Many people leave the back door open with the expectation that their puppy will walk outside and potty when the need arises. You have to be present with your puppy to actively teach them what it is that you want them to do. Puppies that walk outside alone may sniff, chew on sticks, bark at squirrels and then come back inside and go potty in your rug. If a person is not present, it’s impossible to know if and when your puppy went potty last which makes it more difficult to create and implement an effective potty training schedule. This will sabotage your potty training efforts on many levels.

#5: Using Dog Doors

Dog doors should not be used during house training process for the reasons mentioned above. It’s important to be present to teach your puppy what is expected of them. Supervised trips outside will also allow you to interrupt other less desirable behavior like eating plants, digging in the garden or barking at neighbor dogs or wildlife.

#6: Poor Timing with Reinforcement

The ideal timing is to reinforce your puppy 1 second after they have finished going pee or poo. If you are overly excited to reinforce your puppy and interrupt them while they are in the process of “going” that could lead to a puppy that finishes going potty once they go back inside the house. If there is too much of a delay your puppy is probably being reinforced for some other behavior. For example, some people will stand at their back door and reinforce the puppy once they’ve walked back into the house! This is a problem as the puppy is learning that walking back inside the house is the desirable behavior. In some cases, puppies or adult dogs learn to walk outside and then to walk back inside in the hopes of receiving food.

#7: Using a Bell to Potty Train

Teaching a dog to ring a bell is a nice trick, but it is not a solution to potty training. In fact, I find that it usually creates more problems than it solves as people are no longer prompting potty trips (most puppies need reminders).Your dog will learn to “hold it” and let you know when they “have to go” but this usually doesn’t happen consistently until dogs are 10-14 months of age, and will only happen if you are consistent in your training efforts. There are no shortcuts.

You might use a bell for a dog that is 10 months or older, that has consistently demonstrated the desire and ability to “hold it” until they are able to go outside. However, the bell is usually looked at in a less favorable manner once your dog starts ringing it every 5 minutes regardless of whether or not they have to go potty. It can be a great attention getter!

#8: Potty Training Pads Inside Crates

This will encourage your puppy to go pee and poo inside their crate, which can create a dog that becomes habituated to sitting in or near urine or feces. Most puppies avoid peeing and pooing inside of their crate because they have a natural inclination to keep their immediate living space clean, this could potentially eradicate that natural, desirable tendency and as a result can create major complications in potty training

Do you have a puppy that has struggled with potty training? If you found this blog helpful, or if you have any questions, let us know in the comments below.

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