How To Potty Train a Dog

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Learning how to potty train a dog is an important first step in new pet ownership, and it will help you better enjoy good times with your new puppy.

Thinking about adding a canine companion to your family? If so, you’re not alone. An incredible 23 million American households adopted dogs or cats during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you’re just welcoming a new puppy into your home or you’re considering doing so, it’s fun to focus on the good stuff — puppy kisses, cuddles, antics and all the joy of bonding with your new pet. But don’t overlook the hard work. Things like teaching your new puppy not to eat the couch cushions and, even more importantly, teaching them to do their “business” outside.

“Potty training a puppy is one of the first and most crucial steps in having a happy life together with your new puppy,” says Courtney Briggs, head trainer at Zoom Room Dog Training.

A pet owner who knows how to potty train a dog winds up with a puppy that’s less stressed out because they’re not constantly scolded for “messes” in the house. Then you and your family can relax and enjoy the new addition without constantly worrying about accidents.

Here’s how to potty train a dog.

How To Train a Dog to Pee Outside

Unless you live on the 58th floor of a high-rise with a slow elevator, you’re probably looking to train your dog to do their bathroom business outside.

Dr. Gary Richter, veterinarian and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition, says this is one of the most difficult aspects of dog training. He recommends a combination of outdoor potty training and indoor puppy pads. Follow these steps with outside breaks and indoor pad training:

  • Pick good spots. “From the moment you bring your puppy home,” Richter says, “you should have already chosen the places you want them to go, both inside and outside.” These become their spots — the areas they will always associate with going potty. Richter recommends avoiding areas with high foot traffic.
  • Set a schedule. Your puppy will thrive on a repetitive schedule that helps them learn when to do their business. Richter says that as soon as your dog wakes up, in the morning or after a nap, immediately put him on a leash and take him to his designated potty spots. “Go to the inside spot first, and then the outside spot,” says Richter. “If he doesn’t use the bathroom immediately, keep him on the leash and try again in a few minutes.” When your pup finally gets the idea, Richter says give them lots of praise and love, and maybe even a treat. Briggs says that during the first four months of a puppy’s life, owners should get used to the following “go outside” schedule:
    • First thing in the morning;
    • Last thing at night;
    • After playing indoors;
    • After spending time in a dog crate;
    • Upon waking up from a nap;
    • After chewing a toy or bone;
    • After eating;
    • After drinking.
  • Positive reinforcement.Treats and love are part of the positive reinforcement approach to dog training,” says Richter. “The more you provide a reward when your dog goes in the right place, the easier it will be to train them. They associate doing the right thing with something rewarding.” Given a puppy’s short attention span, Briggs says “you have 1.3 seconds to reward the puppy for eliminating where you want it to. So right after the elimination, mark this behavior with a nice happy ‘Yes!’ and a reward.”
  • Keep your cool. We get it. It’s frustrating when your pup doesn’t seem to be learning and makes the same mistakes over and over again, especially on your favorite rug. But potty training a dog is all about positive reinforcement, not punishment or harsh tone of voice. “One mistake pet parents make in potty training a puppy is to get upset when puppies have accidents,” Briggs says. “It’s up to us humans to change our perspective on this. Never yell, or make a loud noise to startle a puppy should you catch it in the act of peeing inside where it’s not supposed to.” She adds that punishing a pup for accidents will actually backfire. “Dogs instinctively avoid danger, and if you become scary when a puppy pees, they learn that you are the danger,” she says. “So the dog will find a place where it feels safe for them to eliminate, somewhere you can’t see them do it.” Try the following tips for calm puppy-training:
    • Act fast. “If you catch your dog in the act of peeing, calmly and gently pick up your puppy to redirect by taking them where you want them to go,” Briggs says. But you need to act immediately. “If you react even just two seconds after the incident, chalk it up to human error and let it go.”
    • Don’t react with alarm. When you catch your puppy in the act, Briggs says, don’t give the dog any attention. Just let it finish and know you can work on improvement for next time. “Most puppy accidents are in fact the human’s fault, not the dog’s, so do your best to not get frustrated with your puppy,” she says.
    • Don’t punish. NEVER, ever rub a dog’s nose in their pee. “This is old-school thinking that will never lead to potty training success,” Briggs says.

How To Train a Dog to Potty Inside on Pads

Puppy pads — absorbent pads where dogs learn to pee and poop — are a workable solution for dog owners who live in high-rise apartment buildings, locations without easy outdoor access, or those who leave their pups alone for long periods.

Richter says there are downsides to puppy pad training, though. “A young puppy may think that any square surface on your floor is fair game,” he says. “Also, your puppy might not be able to resist the temptation to chew or eat the pads.”

But if pads are the best solution for your household, Richter offers these tips:

  • Limit your pup’s indoor access. Keep your pup on a dog leash when you first bring him home and only allow him to explore areas you want him to check out. “Whenever the dog seems ready to go,” he says, “take him immediately to the pad.”
  • Set up a specific room for your pup. Eventually, you’ll have to leave your pup alone for at least a few hours. Have a dedicated room where you can leave the dog whenever you can’t be there to supervise them. “Make sure they have not only puppy pads but also water, a few toys and a bed,” Richter says.
  • Be consistent. Richter says your dog’s feeding schedule will be crucial to your overall house-training efforts. “If you feed twice a day, put down the food at the same time, each time,” he says. “Then wait a few minutes and direct your pup to the pad.”

How to Use a Crate for House Training a Dog

Because puppies and adult dogs don’t want to soil their “den,” Briggs considers dog crates an indispensable tool in potty training.

“When crates are used properly, most dogs love being in them, because they become their den,” Briggs says. “And an added bonus to desensitizing a crate early on is that it will make it easier for many circumstances that the puppy will experience in its lifetime, such as vet visits and travel.”

Her tips for effective crate training include:

  • Use the right size crate. “Too much crate space will allow the puppy to potty in one corner of the crate and retreat to the opposite corner to lay down,” says Briggs. “You want your puppy to be discouraged from going potty in its den at all, not just one area of it.” She suggests buying a larger crate with a divider so the crate can grow as the puppy grows.
  • Watch for their signal. When the puppy feels the urge to potty, they will scratch at the crate and whine. “That’s your signal that your puppy needs to go,” she says. “Don’t delay in taking your pup out, as you don’t want an accident to happen inside the crate.”

How Long Does It Take To House Break a Dog?

Richter says potty training your puppy is a lot like potty training a child. “You need patience to successfully train both,” he says.

The amount of time it takes depends on your diligence (and that of other family members), but also on the puppy. “A puppy, like a child, has a short attention span,” says Richter. “Puppies learn at their own pace and some will get it faster than others.”

In most cases, though, about four to eight weeks is the norm. “A good rule of thumb is that puppies can control their bladders for the number of hours corresponding to their age in months, up to about nine months,” says Briggs. That gives you an idea of how long it will take before you can go to work without worrying about an accident waiting for you when you arrive home.

How To Clean Up After Dog Accidents

Accidents happen. And with puppies, they’re inevitable. For health and hygiene, it’s important to clean up messes as soon as possible after they occur.

For puppies in training, it’s absolutely essential to get the dog urine or feces smell out of the area, whether it’s carpet, hardwood floors, or a couch or mattress. Otherwise, your pet will associate the odor with “his spot” and keep resoiling the area.

Puppies can irretrievably damage a carpet in no time. The result can be carpet that’s smelly, unsightly and unsanitary. Daniel Thompson, a regional director at PuroClean, offers the following tips for treating dog messes and stains in carpet:

  • Start with a mixture of one cup of white vinegar and two cups warm water.
  • Use a spray bottle to gently mist the vinegar/water mixture over the carpet. “Be careful to not over-saturate it, as increased moisture can lead to mold growth,” says Thompson.
  • For tougher stains, Thompson says to pour a “copious amount” of baking soda on the carpet. “Don’t worry, baking soda is safe for people and pets and does not damage your carpet, and it’s an amazing odor neutralizer,” he says.
  • If you opt for a foam carpet shampoo, first vacuum the carpet, then apply the shampoo with a sponge. Let the carpet dry, then vacuum again.

Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, culinary and lifestyle writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Frommers.com, TripSavvy and many other publications. Her guidebook, An Architecture Lover's Guide to Rome, was released in 2019. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, dogs, their unruly garden and their slightly less unruly 8-year-old.