How to House Train a Puppy: The Basics

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There are few things more patience-testing than a potty training puppy. No matter how many dogs you’ve had, potty training puppies is always challenging and always different; no two dogs train exactly alike.

At DogVacay, we get questions all the time about how to house train a puppy. There’s no magic to the process, and consistency is key. Let’s take a deep-dive into the subject of potty training dogs and learn more about the best ways to stay sane from start to finish.


When Puppy Potty Training Should Begin

The most common question asked about potty training puppy is when to start. The good news is, the process of potty training a dog can start as early as eight-weeks old! From around two to four months old, puppies start to absorb facts about their environment and develop bladder and bowel muscles strong enough to learn to “hold it.” This is the ideal time for puppy potty training to begin.

Remember, potty training dogs typically takes anywhere from four to six months (and sometimes up to a year!) to really take effect. All dogs learn at different rates and it’s normal to experience accidents throughout the process. There is no real answer to the question, “How long does it take to potty train a puppy” other than, “as long as he needs to get it right.”


Puppy Potty Training Techniques

Even professionals differ on the best way to potty train a puppy. Much like human toddlers, some dogs learn best through repetition and some get more from positive praise. The technique you choose isn’t about potty training a puppy, it’s about potty training your puppy.

There are three primary schools of thought on the best way to potty train a puppy, with variations. Here’s a breakdown:

Training Puppy through Constant Supervision

This is the “old school” way to dog potty train. In essence, this method involves simply staying with your puppy all the time to watch for signs of an impending potty. When the dog starts to scratch, circle, or otherwise indicate he’s about to go, his owner hustles him outside to do his business. This method works best for dog owners who can be sure someone is with the dog at all times: people who work from home, retired people, or pet owners who use a daily dog sitter.

Using Crate Training to House Train Dogs

Most people choose to potty train puppy through some form of crate training. Experts say crates are one of the most effective tools for housetraining a puppy because they quickly reinforce the idea of “inside” and “outside.” Even if you don’t have a crate, a modified version of crate training can be performed using a very small space your dog will use as his “den.” Crate training is more of a self-teaching process as puppy learns to hold it until out of his den.

Puppy Pads for Housetraining a Dog

Although puppy pads are a very popular product for puppy potty training, most experts don’t recommend them. The process involves teaching your dog to use the potty indoors on pre-treated pads (or even newspapers) in a specific part of the house. Once that technique is mastered, the dog potty training can move to the next step which involves eliminating outdoors. Most professionals say this method adds an unnecessary step to the process of housebreaking a puppy and can confuse some dogs.


How to House Train a Puppy: The Basics


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Puppy potty training is all about consistency. Whichever method you decide to use, stick with it! It’s imperative you don’t change the rules on your potty training puppy halfway through the process. This can cause confusion and set you back weeks in the housetraining process.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to potty train your dog.

Step 1: Establish a Routine

Puppy potty training is all about routine. Setting the routine is up to you – don’t let your puppy dictate the how and when. Puppies love a leader!

What should be considered in your routine for potty training a dog?

Plan exactly when each day the dog will go outside. This can be done in intervals (i.e. 8:00am, 9:00am, 10:00am…and so on, with the time stretches getting longer as the dog ages) or after specific activities. If so-called “behavioral conditioning” is used, you should condition your dog to go outside during these times:

  • Immediately after waking in the morning
  • Immediately after eating each meal
  • After playing
  • After spending any time confined/in a crate
  • Immediately after waking from a nap
  • After chewing on a toy or a bone
  • After excessive water drinking
  • Just before going to bed

Many dog owners use a hybrid combination, taking very young puppies outside on a set schedule then transitioning them to a more behavioral-based approach as they get old enough to understand the steps.

Your dog’s potty training routine should also take into considerations factors that are outside of your his control. Aim to create as much routine around your pet during housetraining as possible. This includes feeding him his meals at the same time each day, going for a walk and/or getting exercise at the same time each day, and sleeping during the same time each day. Many pet owners find consistency between weekends and weekdays challenging, but hiring a dog walker or dog sitter during the week can help.

Step 2: Learn Your Puppy’s Signals

All dogs do something specific before they eliminate. Some of the most commonly seen behaviors include walking in a circle, digging, scratching at the door, whining, and heading to a secluded spot in the house. After a few accidents you’ll eventually learn the signals your potty training puppy is trying to give you. Pay close attention those first few weeks and always take your dog outside when showing signs of elimination.

Likewise, potty training puppies look to their owners for signals, too. Choose a command to use every time you want your potty to go to the bathroom outdoors. Go Potty, Go Pee Pee, Potty, or even Do It! are easy for your dog to understand. Repeat them indefinitely until the business is done, then immediately offer affection. Never use the command unless you want your dog to go potty.

Step 3: Praise and Repeat

Once you’ve implemented a routine, all you really have to do for your potty training puppy is reinforce the idea of eliminating outdoors. The best way to do this? Praise, praise, praise! Every single time your puppy goes potty outside, shower him with love. An occasional treat can be a nice gesture, but don’t make a habit of it or your puppy might start showing “signs” for a potty break just to get a treat. Be sure not to reinforce negative behaviors, either. Don’t play with or praise your dog outdoors until he does his business.

As frustrating as it is when a potty training dog uses the bathroom indoors, scolding him will only set your progress back. A simple, “No.” while pointing at the mess is enough to get the message through, and if you catch your dog mid-accident, don’t panic. Say a calm “no,” then swiftly take the dog outside to finish his business. If he goes more once you get outside, praise him effusively!

Step 4: Lengthen the Time Between Breaks

After your dog has a good grasp on the basics of potty training, it’s time to challenge him. This usually starts with longer and longer stretches during the night but can also include some time during the day spent in a crate. Crate training is a separate-but-related endeavor that many dog owners find helpful for housetraining a puppy.

Whether your dog is in a crate or not, keep him close during the night as he’s potty training; you’ll usually be able to hear the signs of elimination before an accident. And remember not to expect too much from your potty training puppy! Dog’s bladders and bowels are tiny when they’re young and they simply won’t be able to ‘hold it’ for eight hours at a stretch until they’re almost fully grown. Most potty training dogs mark their progress by first being able to make it through the night (usually in a crate) without an accident. From there, longer periods of time during the day can be spent without an accident until finally your dog can hold it for up to eight hours at a time. Never expect ANY dog to hold it longer than eight full hours.


Common Potty Training Puppy Issues

Despite anyone’s best efforts, potty training dogs is never easy. If it’s starting to feel like a battle of wills at your house, read on to find out if your issue is a common one.

Your dog keeps soiling under tables and in hidden spots.
You may want to reconsider crate training. Crate training isn’t actually about restraining your dog, it’s about creating a safe place where he feels comfortable. It will also encourage him to exercise his ability to “hold it” as he becomes housebroken.

Crate messes are a common occurrence.
Rest assured, no dog wants to be stuck in a crate with poo or pee. If your dog is soiling his crate, you’re simply leaving him in for too long. Even in a crate, a dog will make signs of elimination before going, so practice crating him while you’re nearby and can listen for cues.

Your dog gets distracted outside when it’s time to eliminate.
Some dogs are so excited to be outdoors they forget to use the potty! Taking your dog out on a leash (even in your fenced-in yard) can help him focus on the task at hand. It’s fine to remove the leash and play once he’s done his business.

The dog can’t make it through the night without a mess.
This is normal – nighttime can be especially hard for dogs with developing bladders and bowels. If absolutely necessary, set an alarm to take your dog outside during the night for a few weeks. It’s likely your dog simply isn’t physically developed enough to make it any longer than a few hours at a time.

You have to go back to work and your dog can’t hold it all day.
The easiest way to derail a puppy potty training routine is to “work the program” for a week or two then start leaving your puppy in a crate for four hours at a time while you’re gone. Very young dogs simply can’t hold it that long, so hiring a dog walker to come at least twice a day during the puppy potty training process is an investment well worth it. Be sure to give your dog walker explicit instructions on the potty training routine.

Your older dog is suddenly going inside, or you adopted an older dog that’s not potty trained.
First and foremost, check with your vet to make sure your older dog doesn’t have a medical issue that causes incontinence. If not, rest assured that potty training an older dog is much like potty training a puppy. Consistency and especially routine are key; food can be a big factor in adult dogs’ potty training progress.


What Can Drag Out Potty Training a Dog?


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You may be impeding your puppy potty training efforts without even realizing it. Here are a few of the ways you could be derailing your program inadvertently:

  • By distracting your dog with commands or nervous energy when he’s outside doing his business.
  • By leaving him alone in too-large a space during potty training; the closer he has to stay to his mess, the faster he’ll learn to “hold it.”
  • By making him afraid to use the potty by scolding him or acting angry when he has an accident indoors.
  • By implementing puppy pads then taking them away very suddenly.
  • By having different rules for potty training on the weekdays and the weekends, or when your dog is at different people’s houses.
  • By keeping an inconsistent routine.

Still having trouble potty training a dog more than six months in? Talk to your vet about your specific situation to make sure there’s no physical condition getting in the way of your progress.


Share Your Advice on Puppy Potty Training

Do you have tips or tricks for more successful potty training? We’d love to hear them. Other dog lovers are always looking for encouragement and support during the arduous process of housebreaking a puppy. Share your comments and suggestions below!

Good luck!

 

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