Updated: Apr 11, 2021
One of the first major challenges of puppy-parenthood is teaching your puppy to go potty outside. Below we’ve outlined our favorite tips for potty training, as well as some ways to overcome difficulties in the potty training process.
The key to a potty training program is taking your puppy out to their potty spot each time they have to go and rewarding them for going in that location. Feeding your puppy an an extra special treat (something they don’t otherwise get!) each time they go potty outside will motivate your puppy to hold it until they’ve made it to that special place where peeing and pooping pays off! Make sure to feed this treat immediately as the finish going potty - not when they come inside - to ensure they learn that going potty in that location is what’s earning them their reward. It’s also important to feed this treat right after they empty their bladder, not mid-stream, or they may stop what they’re doing to eat the treat!
Schedule for Success
Following a consistent schedule will help set you and your puppy up for potty training success! A good general rule of thumb is that puppies can hold their bladder for approximately one hour per month they’ve been alive, so a 4 month-old puppy is likely to be able to hold it for 4-5 hrs. But, there are many activities that can make your puppy need to go more frequently.
Take your puppy out at the following times, to avoid accidents inside:
• Immediately after they wake up from sleeping or a nap
• 10-15 minutes after eating or drinking (feeding on a regular schedule will help you know when they are likely to have to go next!)
• Every 30 minutes when playing, training, or exploring the house
• At the first sign that they need to go (e.g., walking away from play, sniffing the ground, circling, pacing, whining)
Keeping a potty training journal can help you track of when your puppy typically has to potty and to show your success as accidents happen less frequently!
Supervision and Management
In between potty trips, it’s important to keep an eye on your puppy to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to take them out. Supervise your puppy whenever they are active, and if they show signs of needing to potty, such as walking away from play, sniffing around the ground, or circling, immediately take them outside.
Having your puppy spend time in a crate when not actively supervised will set you both up for fewer accidents and a faster potty training process. When potty training, its best to use a crate that is large enough for the puppy to stand up, sit down, lay down, and turn around, but not big enough for them to potty in a corner and avoid it. It’s important to let your puppy out the crate every 4-5 hours for an opportunity to go potty outside, stretch their legs, and explore. For those of you with busy schedules, a dog walker or friend letting the puppy out every 4 to 5 hours will not only give them a chance to empty their bladder, but also provide them with great socialization opportunities.
Understanding Substrate Preferences
Have you ever wondered why your dog will only pee on the sidewalk? Or why whenever your puppy gets on a blanket they suddenly need to poop? Your dog may be showing a substrate preference. Substrate preferences develop at a very young age. When a puppy first starts peeing and pooping on their own, their brain records information about the feel and smell of the location they are going; these surfaces will then stimulate them to pee and poop as an adult. When your adult dog steps onto a substrate they pottied on as a puppy, they feel like they’ve arrived in the bathroom.
Here are some common substrate preferences:
• Preferences for pottying on blankets are common in puppies who were raised in the house and relieved themselves on the blankets underfoot.
• Dogs who were born in puppy mills may show a preference for peeing in grates because they were left to pee in wire crates as puppies.
• Puppies raised in the shelter often show a preference for peeing on cement, since this is a common surface for shelter kennels.
Setting Puppy Up for Substrate Success
Let’s say your puppy has a preference for peeing on blankets. Our very first step is managing the environment so the puppy does not have access to blankets to pee on. This means we won’t leave puppy in and area with any blankets, bedding, or towels that they may have accidents on. Following the rules for potty training, we heavily reinforce the puppy for peeing and pooping outside on any substrate (e.g. grass, rocks, concrete, etc.). This will teach the puppy that there are opportunities for reinforcement for pottying in any outside area, but no opportunities to potty on blankets.
Handling Accidents and Troubleshooting
It can be very hard to stay patient with your little one when your socks are soaked by an accident you didn’t notice. If you catch your puppy in the middle of an accident, interrupt them and immediately take them outside right away to see if they need to finish up. Once your pup is done finishing up outside and the accident site is clean, it helps to note when the accident happened, so you can be prepared to take your puppy out sooner next time. It is extremely important that you do not punish your puppy for having an accident in the house, whether you catch him in the act of find the accident after the fact. Punishing your puppy is much more likely to teach them that pottying in front of you is a bad thing than it is to teach them that pottying in the house is undesirable; this will make it extremely difficult for you to capture and reward the behavior you want to see - pottying outside - because your puppy may be afraid to potty in front of you.
It is essential to clean each accident with an enzymatic cleaner, such as Nature’s Miracle, in order to break down the ammonia-producing bacteria and molecules that dogs can smell but humans can’t. These scents act as a sign to your dog that they’ve arrived at a bathroom, just like we use signs that say “restroom” to indicate a public bathroom. It is important that we remove these scents to avoid accidents in the future.
The Problem with Punishment
The most common potty training error we see is scolding the puppy for having an accident inside. Scolding a puppy for a previous accident is ineffective and confusing for the puppy. Even if you catch your puppy in the act, scolding or other forms of punishment can actually make it harder to teach your puppy not to potty inside. When we scold a puppy for pottying inside, the most likely connection they can make is that they should not go potty in front of the human. This is likely to result in a puppy who pees when you aren’t around or learns to run behind the couch or pee in another room so you won’t see. This will have little effect on decreasing the number of accidents in your home (in fact, it may increase the number of accidents) and may make it harder to get your puppy to go potty near you outside.
It is a commonly believed myth that dogs who have been previously punished for pottying inside feel guilty when they have an accident. Analyses of these dog’s body language show that these dogs are most frequently showing appeasement signals, which are used to avoid conflict and say “please don’t hurt me”. As opposed to knowing that pottying in the house is “wrong,” the dog’s are responding to the angry human by showing signs of fear and trying to avoid potential harm, not displaying signs of guilt. Dogs who show these signals before the human even sees the mess have likely made the association that human and potty together is a dangerous mix, so they start their appeasement signals before the human even sees the mess in order to prevent conflict.
Long story short, punishment is not only ineffective but can cause more harm than good, slowing down the potty training process as a whole. When you work with your pup and follow a plan that helps set them up for success, everyone wins!
Handling Accidents on Particular Items/Substrates
What should you do if your puppy keeps peeing on your down comforter? You can set up training scenarios to change what the comforter (or any item your dog has accidents on) means to your puppy. This is done by having the puppy practice an incompatible behavior on the surface/item. Eating is a behavior that is incompatible with urination. Most people would assume sleeping and peeing are also incompatible, but many animals (including some dogs!) have an instinct to mark their sleeping areas with their scent, and urine is a great way to do this.
Try the following to change what blankets mean to your pup:
• Make sure you’ve thoroughly cleaned the previously soiled item with an enzymatic cleaner.
• Start by having your puppy in a different room, lay out the blanket and place your pup’s food bowl on top, let your puppy in to eat their meal, then put the blanket away.
• Outside of training, have the blanket away where your puppy can’t access it.
• Over time, the blanket will represent a feeding spot as opposed to a potty spot!
When to talk to the vet
If you’ve been following the rules above and are still struggling to potty train your puppy, there might be a medical reason for your puppy’s accidents. Keep an eye out for symptoms of common illnesses and infections that can make potty training more difficult. Talk to your vet if you see any of the following:
• Your puppy is peeing more frequently than every 30 minutes
• Your puppy is having accidents while sleeping or laying down
• Your puppy’s urine is an unusual color or has a foul odor
• Your puppy is having diarrhea or other abnormal bowel movements
• Your puppy’s feces or urine contain blood or are black
As you move forward in your potty training plan and your puppy is starting to recognize that that bathroom is outside, they may naturally start to signal to you when they need to go outside. Here are some signals for which to watch:
• Walking towards the door
• Sitting and barking near or at the door
• Standing by the door
• Scratching at the door
Having a puppy who tells you when they need to go out will make both of your lives easier, and can help when your bring puppy to new locations such as friend’s or family’s houses.
Teaching your puppy to ask to go outside
For puppies with ambiguous signals, or those who haven’t yet figured out how to ask to go potty, you can teach them a signal:
• Have your puppy perform a consistent behavior before letting them out, such as ringing a bell or sitting at the door, your puppy will learn that this behavior predicts the door opening for them.
• Take your puppy to their potty spot each time they perform this behavior to reinforce the use of this signal.
• At some point, they will try the signal on their own, and this is the opportunity to show them it works by letting them outside!
Potty on cue!
You can also teach your puppy to go potty on cue! By consistently saying “go potty” right as the start peeing, then feeding the treat after, you can associate this word with the deed. Over time when you say “go potty,” your puppy will know there’s an opportunity for a treat if they empty their bladder now!
Potty training is a difficult time in any puppy-parent’s life, but with these tips you can make this training fun for both you and your pup. Enjoy the process, and let us know if you need any help!
Author: Laura Maihofer, CPDT-KA