PUPPIES

How to Potty Train a Puppy: Back to Basics

Puppy on a potty pad
John Walton
Written by John Walton

So you’ve added a new 4-legged addition to your family, now what? If you’re like most pet parents, you are eager to get started on potty training. There are a couple of different methods on how to potty train a puppy that have stood the test of time.

The first method, which is sometimes referred to as “active” potty training, is the most popular option and is a great fit for owners who have a lot of time to spend with their new dog.

The second option, known as “passive” training, is not as popular, but it is an effective way to train a dog not to eliminate in areas of your home where you would prefer him not to. This latter option is typically more common for owners who cannot spend a lot of time taking the dog outside.

This article will discuss both methods, the pros and cons of each, along with offer a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for new pet parents on the potty training field.

When to start?

Most pet parents are ready to get started potty training as soon as they arrive home with their new pup. However, keep in mind that a puppy’s bladder is not ready for potty training until at least 12 weeks of age.

Most experts agree that puppies should not be separated from their mother and litter mates until after 8 weeks anyway, so ideally the potty training transition will occur when the puppy has been home with his new family for a few weeks, or around 3 months of age.

When puppies are first born, they are blind and deaf and certainly not capable of jumping out of their den to go outside to do their business.

However, if you have ever seen a litter of puppies in a den with their mother, you probably noticed that the space was relatively clean. This is because the mother dog will lick and clean her puppies soon after they eliminate so that the smell of urine and feces does not linger in the den.

This helps to potty train the puppy right off the bat, because the smell of urine or feces to a dog is like a reminder to eliminate. If those smells aren’t around, then the puppy does not get used to them. It is for this reason that dogs do not prefer to eliminate in their eating or sleeping areas.

Puppy potty stages infographic

Before you bring your puppy home, it is a good idea to research which method of potty training will be best for you, your dog, and your family. Consider your living space: do you have a backyard or a designated area outside for the dog? If you are in an apartment, do you have access to a balcony or a rooftop?

Also think about your family’s schedule and how much time you have to invest in potty training. Once you make your decision, go ahead and purchase the necessary items like a leash, a quality carpet cleaner (for those inevitable accidents), and puppy pads (discussed more below in “passive” training).

Method #1: active potty training

By far the more popular method, active potty training refers to owners whose end goal is to get their puppy to eliminate outside. The first step for success is to purchase a crate for your dog. The crate should be big enough for your dog to lie down, stand up, and turn around in, but not big enough for him to use the corner as a space to eliminate.

Remember that dogs do not like to eliminate in their sleeping area, so the crate is simply a tool to reinforce this behavior. Do not think of the crate as punishment: it is simply a safe place for your dog to rest. If you use it as punishment, or as a place to keep your dog confined for hours on end, then he will come to resent it (and you).

Young puppies need to urinate about every 30 minutes, so start by taking your dog to the designated potty area outside at least twice an hour. You will want to select an area that has straw, grass, or mulch, and is preferably free from distractions and secluded. In addition to 30-minute trips outside, you will also need to take your puppy out first thing in the morning and last thing before bedtime.

French poodle puppy

To ensure that your puppy will not eliminate on the way to the outside designated area, you will probably want to “taxi” him outside—meaning that you pick him up, carry him outside, and place him down right where you want him to go. Always have your dog on a leash.

Wait patiently for your dog to eliminate, and when he does, praise him enthusiastically and perhaps offer him a treat. You may have to wait several minutes for your dog to do his business, and having the same designated potty area will help because the scent serves as a mental prompt to eliminate.

Pup-Head Portable Dog Potty

Once back indoors, monitor your puppy at all times to ensure that he doesn’t have an accident. Accidents usually occur the second dog owners take their eyes of the puppy, so the moment that you cannot give Fido your undivided attention, place him in the crate until you want to play with him again.

Universal signs that your dog might be about to eliminate include pacing, turning in circles, and sniffing the floor. If you see any of these telltale signs, taxi him outside right away.

To be successful with crate training, you will want to establish a feeding routine for your dog. Effective potty training happens when you have consistent feeding times because a dog’s digestive system is fairly quick—most dogs need to eliminate just a few minutes (or up to an hour) after eating breakfast.

Make a habit of taking your dog outside shortly after meals, and also after he drinks an excessive amount of water. And unless told otherwise by your veterinarian, do not “free feed” your dog (which means to leave food out all day for him to eat).

Feed him once in morning and once in the evening, leaving the food bowl down for about 15 or 20 minutes. If he has not eaten within that time frame, take the food bowl back up. Many pet parents are worried that this method of feeding may starve their dog—but for most canines, it only takes one missed meal to get the point!

Accidents are bound to happen, especially in the early stages. If you catch your puppy eliminating in the house, walk over to him quickly and (if he is urinating), pick him up—which usually stops the flow the urine—and walk with him quickly outside to the designated potty area and let him finish urinating outside. If he is defecating, it’s best (and less messy!) to let him finish and clean up quickly.

Experts agree that the one thing you shouldn’t do is scold your dog, or worse, rub his nose in his waste. Dogs do not have the same intellectual capacity that humans have, and this method of training will likely do nothing more than make your dog fearful of you.

Crate training can be difficult, but you can learn to get it right in our article on crate training your puppy.

Method #2: passive potty training

This method is for owners who perhaps can’t spend the time involved for active training but are still wondering how to potty train a puppy to go outside. Like active training, passive training also has an end goal of getting a dog to eliminate in a specific area.

Instead of a crate, however, most pet owners have a larger area that is sectioned off by gates or perhaps a dedicated room for the dog to stay. You will begin by laying down newspapers or puppy pads across the entire area. While the puppy is still very young, he will likely eliminate all over the papers with no rhyme or reason.

After some time has passed, you will notice that he will likely start to prefer a certain area or corner to eliminate in. At this point, you will want to start removing some of the papers (from the area that is not soiled). Since the puppy has always eliminated on the papers, he will prefer that to the bare floor.

Every so often, remove more and more papers from the floor so that in the end, only a small area of paper (or padding) is left. Ideally, this is the area he will eliminate. If you notice that your dog has started to eliminate on the bare floor again, add more papers back and repeat the steps.

Puppy pads

The eventual goal is to move the papers closer to the door, eventually leading to the outdoor area. If you live an apartment or perhaps have long hours where taking a puppy outside frequently is not possible, then your end goal may be for the dog to use the papers indefinitely and not go outside to eliminate.

However, keep in mind that even if keeping your dog indoors is more convenient for you, dogs need daily walks to thrive (physically and emotionally).

If you’d like to know more about this method, please read our article on pad training your puppy.

Special concern: puppy mill dogs

If you have rescued a puppy from a puppy mill, then it is likely that your dog has spent his entire life in a wire cage. While rescuing a dog from one of these conditions is benevolent and kind (and the pups rescued from these deplorable conditions can make loyal and loving pets), potty training may be more challenging because the puppy has had no choice but to eliminate in his cage, so the general rule of dogs not wanting to soil their sleeping area may not apply here.

Because puppy mill dogs are sometimes abused (and almost always neglected), it is even more vital that you stay away from negative reinforcement. Many pet parents of rescued puppy mill dogs have greater success with passive potty training. Consider working with a professional dog trainer to work on these more difficult issues if your dog hasn’t gotten the hang of potty training after a few months.

Special concern: the male dog and marking

If your male puppy has been hiking his leg and urinating indiscriminately on furniture, pants legs of house visitors, and walls, you may have a problem with marking. Though not necessarily a house-training problem, marking is more instinctive and territorial in nature and may be a tough habit to break.

Dogs that are neutered are far less likely to mark, so if you haven’t visited the vet yet, it’s time to make an appointment for your dog to be altered (usually done around 4 months of age).

Neutered dogs are also less likely to wander, are less aggressive, and are generally healthier than their intact friends. You can also feel good knowing that you are directly helping the pet-overpopulation problem.

If your male dog is still marking in the house after being neutered, try using a belly band, which is a strip of fabric that fastens underneath your dog’s groin area. This doggy diaper usually fixes the issue quickly because Fido isn’t able to urinate on an object.

Time commitment

Unfortunately, many pet owners do have the time or luxury to commit to actively potty train their new dog, and sadly, a vast majority of pet surrenders to animal shelters list indoor marking and house training accidents as the reason for surrender. However, there are many steps you can actively take to prevent accidents from happening when the issue is lack of time at home:

  • Hire a dog walker. With the help of the Internet, there are almost unlimited options in this area. Look at social media, a professional walking service, or call on family and friends to help, and hire someone local who can spend 15-20 minutes with your dog during the day. Of course, be sure that the person you are letting into your home is trustworthy and has legitimate references.
  • Consider doggy daycare. Although this may be an expensive option for some families, keep in mind that your dog doesn’t need to go to daycare 5 days a week. Some families (and their dogs) are perfectly happy taking their dog 2 to 3 times a week. It is a great outlet for your dog’s energy, and provides a great opportunity for socialization, especially if you are a one-dog family.
  • Dog door. If you are in a house, consider installing a doggy door if you have a fenced in backyard. This freedom can not only make your pup happier, but it can ease your guilt knowing that your dog can come and go outside as he pleases.  If possible, install the door on a tiled or other hard surface floor so during inclement weather, your pup isn’t tracking mud all over the house!

If you are still asking yourself “how do you potty train a puppy”, keep the following tips in mind to ensure success:

  • Be consistent. Accidents can and will happen, but your commitment to consistency (in discipline, training, times taken outside, etc) will lessen the number of accidents in your home.
  • Take your puppy outside early (before an accident happens) and often (every 30 minutes in the beginning—but then you can stretch it out once your puppy gets the hang of it).
  • Have a routine feeding schedule and always have water available to your dog (especially if he is in the crate at home alone).
  • Be patient! Most puppies will not be fully potty trained until after 6 months of age. For other dogs, it may take up to one year.
  • Buy an enzymatic carpet cleaner. While regular carpet cleaners may get the stain (and smell out), buy a specially formulated pet carpet cleaner that will prevent your dog from eliminating in the same area again.

Don’t:

  • Expect your puppy to be able to hold his bladder all day. Dogs can typically hold their bladder one hour for every month of age. So a 4-month-old puppy may be able to hold his bladder for 4 hours.
  • Yell or hit your dog when he has an accident. This accomplishes nothing except to instill fear in your pup.
  • Use a high-pitched voice when trying to get your dog to eliminate outside. This may distract him. Remain quiet and calm and wait patiently. You can, however, use a command such as “go potty” or “do your business” that he will eventually come to associate with eliminating.
  • Rub your dog’s nose in his waste. Professional trainers and dog behavior experts agree that there is no lesson learned by your dog because he cannot associate the punishment with the action. Unless you can catch your dog in the act of eliminating in the house (for an older dog that “knows better” you could try a spray bottle), punishment will generally not help.

If you’d like to learn more about the specific steps and schedules you can set for your puppy in your new home, please check out our article on how to house train your puppy.

No matter which method of potty training you decide on, remember that consistency is key, and positive reinforcement is the best strategy whether you decide on active or passive training.

Puppy on pads

While some puppies get the hang of eliminating outside by 5 or 6 months of age, others will not be fully trained until around a year old. Even adult dogs will occasionally have “accidents,” so remember to remain calm and speak with your veterinarian if you feel that that there may be something wrong physically.

Finally, if you do not have the time to commit to potty training a puppy, consider rescuing an adult dog that may already be house trained.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Liz Fraser

    I wish I knew this before we had our first dog! These tips would have helped a lot in our fumbling attempts to potty train our pup. Eventually we got through it, but I wish I was privy to puppy pads early on! They would have served me well.

  • Chynna Lambert

    Thanks for this. As a woman, I find it hard how to potty train my dog. I always put one pad beside the door and I feel so proud every time she goes there to pee or poop alone. However, there are times that she mistakenly poops on the carpet. Haha. I guess I’ll have to train her more. :)

    • Practice makes perfect, Chynna. Your dog will eventually get the hang of it.

  • Charlotte Kingston

    How do you properly train a puppy when you live 7 flights up of stairs? I know it’s exhausting going up and down the stairs. So what are the options for in-house toilet tools? Any ideas please?
    This is a problem of my brother who lives in an old apartment unit.

  • Potty training a puppy can be a challenge but it really pays off in the end. That’s a learning experience that you can apply on your future puppies.

  • Seven flights of stairs can be such a task for a puppy. One thing to be added in the considerations is the dog’s breed, because puppies with longer legs can cope up more. However, you can start slow by taking one or two flights of stairs at a time. Do not go straight with the full set of stairs because that will be extremely exhausting for the puppy and its owner. Allow the puppy to adjust with the legwork that will be required every so often.

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