Happy Pups. Happy People. Happy Planet.

Potty Training 101

by Kathryn Spruill KPA-CTP

As a dog trainer that specializes in puppy care, I often get asked what the most important thing is to teach a puppy. While I love these questions, I often find that people are a bit disappointed by my answer. Most people want to teach their puppy new tricks like sit, down, and shake. While these behaviors may have a lot of value in the future, and can be taught to the puppy while it’s young, behaviors like these are towards the bottom of my list early on. For the first five months of a puppy’s life I choose to work on behaviors like potty training, crate training, handling, supervised separations, drop it, and attention. I continue to reward these behaviors throughout the dog’s entire life. Most of the time I find this list of behaviors to be well established by four months of age, but should be worked on continuously, even if you think your pup is already great in all of these areas.

What I find my clients struggle with the most with is a dangerous one. When clients come to me with an eight-month-old dog that is still having potty training issues, I feel my stomach sink. Not because the dog can’t be potty trained, but because I know the frustration that comes with a dog that soils the carpet. One of the most common reasons for surrendering a pet is potty training issues. In fact, even dogs whose owners are patient enough to keep them, still can develop damaged relationships. But I get it. A smelly house isn’t fun.

If you have a dog that still struggles to go eliminate outside, my goal is not to make you feel bad, but to give you some help with handling the issue. As a matter of fact, I had several dogs growing up that struggled to potty outside and It wasn’t until I began to understand behavior, management, and consequences that I really became a master at house training. So here are some tips to help guide you through the process.

1. Avoid giving your dog the freedom to explore the house until you can fully trust them to only go potty outside.

This may seem unfair to some people, but as long as your dog is getting the exercise and mental stimulation that they need they will likely be happy as long as they have room to move around and sprawl out. Try baby gating the kitchen, crating them, or even keeping them on a leash tied around your waist. If your dog has full access to the house, they may pee on the carpet in a room away from you, and you may not notice until hours later. Crate or gate your dog anytime they can’t be supervised. Not only while you aren’t home, but also times when you may be distracted or fully invested in your favorite TV show or game. You can’t guarantee you will notice if they need to go outside and every accident they have inside, just teaches your pup that it’s okay to go inside. can add to your dog’s learning history that going potty inside is okay. This rule, is probably cardinal rule number one.

2. Do not punish your dog for going potty in the house.

I know it is a common practice to rub your puppy’s nose in the mess and say no, but what you are actually teaching your puppy is to avoid piddling in front of you. You are actually teaching your puppy to be afraid of you and never to go potty in your presence, even walks. They will be afraid that they may get punished for going potty in general, even though we want them to go potty outside. This can also lead to your dog hiding behind the sofa or sneaking outside of view to potty. Not to mention can really back track all of your potty-training efforts. If you catch them while they are going potty in the house, interrupt them, and get them outside immediately. If they finish going outside reward them with treats, praise, play, or a walk through the neighborhood. If you find a mess in the house after they have finished, clean it up with an enzyme cleaner like Nature’s Miracle to get rid of the smell and try to be better about keeping an eye on them in the future.

3. Teach them to tell you when they need to go

We can often see in our dog’s body language that they may need to go potty. If you are new to the dog world, keep an eye out for sniffing around, pacing, whining, or hanging out near the door they normally go out of. These could be signs that your dog needs to go out. What I have found to be the most effective way to tell if your dog needs to go outside is to teach them to ring bells. Both of my adult dogs learned as puppies to ring the bells attached to a door knob to go out. This is very helpful because I live in a trilevel home and can hear the bells on any floor. Your dog might pick their own way to tell you, like a bark, whine, or a scratch at the door, but I found these things can be open for interpretation and can be harder to notice. I may not always be able to hear a scratch on the door, and sometimes my dog barks for other reasons.

4. Set a Schedule

Another way to tell when your dog needs to go outside is to keep them on a set schedule as much as possible. My Australian Shepherd always has to go about 30 minutes after dinner, and my husky always has to go out about an hour after dinner. Because of this schedule I feed them dinner early enough that I generally have time to give them 2 potty breaks before I go to bed. Keep track of how long it generally takes your dog to digest. If you have a puppy, I recommend taking them out 15 minutes after they eat, and if they don’t go, try taking them out again at 30 minutes. You may also want to pick up their water bowl a little bit before bed time so they are less likely to need to go in the middle of the night. Also expect your pup to need to eliminate immediately after a nap and after play time.

5. Crate train your puppy

Crate training is the best tool to use when potty training your dog. Most dogs don’t like relieving themselves where they sleep, so the crate is a safe place you can put your pup when you aren’t home or can’t watch them. If you make the crate a good place to be, your dog will really enjoy their crate and will be happy to be inside. It’s good to invest time in crate training because it not only makes the potty-training process easier, but can be used to give your puppy a much-needed nap. It is also important to prepare your pup for future vet visits where they may have to be crated overnight, or if they need to be crated while you have a construction worker at your house, or after a surgery when your pup may need to be crated for a long period of time in order heal.

You cannot spend too much time getting your puppy adjusted to being in the crate. My dogs are both adults, yet I still give them fun treats and stuffed kongs in their crates. Before putting your puppy in the crate, try tiring him out so he can easily relax. Every time he goes in the crate give them treats and a fun activity to do like chew a bone, a treat puzzle, or a Kong. Occasionally practice having your puppy go in the crate, give him treats, and immediately let him out again. After a few reps go play a game somewhere else so they don’t always associate the crate with being left alone for long periods of time. You can also toss treats in the crate randomly throughout the day for your pup to find. Practice these activities often enough, and your puppy will begin to love the crate!

To set your pup for potty training success, get a crate that is just big enough that they can stand up and turn around, but not big enough to walk back and forth. If the crate is too spacious your puppy may have an accident in the space they don’t intend to lay on. If you have a large breed puppy, try to buy a crate that they will fit in when they are older that includes a divider for you to block off the space they won’t need at their current size.  

6. Go Time

Let’s say you take your puppy outside at a time he normally has to go potty and 30 minutes has passed. I recommend taking the puppy back inside and putting him in his crate for about 15 minutes and try again. If the pup still doesn’t go, repeat the process. If you are sure they need to go, don’t give them the opportunity to go potty in the house. I know going in and out isn’t an ideal way to spend your day, but there are ways to make the process a bit quicker.

When you take your dog out to go potty, stand still and be as boring as possible. If you continue to talk to them or repeat the words “go potty” you are likely distracting them. Simply wait. When your dog begins to potty, hold your excitement and quietly say “go potty”. As they are getting up from the squat, click, say “Yes!”, or “good dog!” and give them a treat. Be sure to reinforce your dog right as they are finishing up so they know exactly what they are being reinforced for. Have a mini puppy party! Give your dog lots of treats, run around the yard, play with toys, or go for a walk. You will notice that they get quicker each time out of excitement for the puppy party afterwards. After multiple well-timed repetitions your dog may even be able to go potty on cue. Which is the height of potty training.

A Few Last Quick Tips

  • Go out as frequently as possible. The first few weeks after bringing home a puppy, I routinely take them out every 15 to 20 minutes! Puppies have little bladders. If you can’t manage to take them out that frequently put them in a crate!
  • Go to the same spot each time. Every time you take your dog out for a bathroom break, go to the same spot. They will soon recognize potty time from play or walk time. Try picking a spot close by the door in case you are in a rush.
  • Make meal time the same time.
  • Go outside with your dog. Go outside every time your dog needs a potty break so that you can be close by to reinforce them. If you let them out by themselves chances are you are going to be late to reinforce them and they won’t understand what they are being rewarded for.
  • Potty equals walk. I have heard from clients that live in apartments that they have to walk several miles to get their dog to go. This happens because when dog parents take them for a walk they often turn around and go home once the dog pottys. The dog is then inadvertently punished for going potty by the walk ending. Instead take your dog outside and be still. Once your dog goes then start your walk. Even if it is just a short one!

Finally, if you are being consistent and still having a hard time potty training, it may be time to consult your vet in case there could be an underlining health issue. If your pup has been cleared by a vet, feel free to reach out to the Uptown Pup trainers, or another positive reinforcement trainer for help.

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