Puppies are rambunctious bundles of joy, and they'll never fail to bring a smile to your face. Unfortunately, they're sure to bring a few frowns as well, especially when they're leaving "presents" around the house in inconvenient, smelly little packages. And that's even before the Roomba gets involved!
We tend to take it for granted that dogs are potty trained and only go outside on their walks, but it takes work to get a new puppy to that point. They don't do it naturally, after all; an animal's instincts are just to go where they are, to scent mark, and to keep away from sources of food and water at most. Even cats, with their instinct to bury, are better about it than our brand-new puppies.
That said, potty training a puppy is completely doable and in a very short amount of time. Here's my guide on doing it so you can enjoy the antics of your puppy without worrying about where they've hidden their waste this time.
First and foremost, it's worth remembering that you're trying to train a relatively arbitrary behavior into an animal that has a relatively limited capacity to understand your goals, your intentions, or the reasoning behind what you want them to do.
"When you think about it, it's astonishing how high our standards for dogs are.
Protect me from a burglar, but not from the mailman. Leave that delicious roast on the counter alone and eat those dry, bland, uniform kibbles in your bowl with gusto. Walk within a couple of feet of me, wherever I want to go, at whatever speed I'm walking at, only when I want to walk, every time I want to walk, and regardless of what sort of interesting things are in the environment.
Potty training is on that list. Pee here, not there. Also, "hold it" for hours for the opportunity to do so. And do it quickly when I want you to. And do it in all types of weather without complaint. Oh, and by the way, you need to do this 100% of the time, with no mistakes for the rest of your life."
It's a lot! You can't expect your puppy to understand whyyou want them to do one thing and not do another, only that you can reinforce their behaviors in the way you want them.
Potty training is all about giving your dog a place where they can do their business consistently and with a reward. That reward, when they're young, should be something of higher value, like a treat; later on, it can be simple praise. As an adult, a dog's "reward" for doing their business is relief, but it never hurts to praise them for a job well done.
Set Them Up For Success
One of the biggest pieces of advice you can get for potty training a new puppy is setting them up for success, and the biggest driving factor for success is limits.
The American Kennel Club recommends using crates as a key tool for potty training a puppy. While crates may not seem like the most humane thing – putting the puppy in puppy jail is a common representation – the reality is that the more freedom your puppy has and the less supervision they have, the harder it will be to properly train their behavior, especially when they're very young.
The main reason you want to use a crate is to limit the amount of space your puppy has to wander and explore, particularly when you aren't directly supervising them. You need a crate that's the right size, something large enough for them to move around in but not so large that they can designate one corner as the potty spot.
This works because dogs don't like their waste sharing their space any more than you do. While that might seem counter to the puppies you know and love – you know, the ones who seem to seek out the grossest stuff to go rolling in outside at the first opportunity – that's all about exploration and new things. Their ownwaste isn't nearly so attractive to them.
Essentially, you want to make sure that your puppy is in one of three states of being at all times:
In a place where they can go potty without issues, like your yard.
Under the supervision of you or someone who is also working on training them and who can give them permission.
In a confined space like their crate where they're unlikely to do their business outside of an extreme need or circumstance, like being sick.
Now, you aren't going to be leaving your puppy unattended in their crate for long hours, or at least you should avoid letting that be the case. Young puppies are a lot of work and need a lot of supervision, so if you can't do it – like if you have a job you can't leave – make sure a spouse, partner, friend, or even a local dogsitter can come and take your place.
Get the Timing Right
Puppies are small, and while they can naturally hold their bladders and bowels for some amount of time, there really isn't much space in them to hold water or solid waste. The American Kennel Club says the general rule of thumb is that puppies can hold their waste for a number of hours equal to their age in months. So a three-month-old puppy can at most hit around three hours without doing their business, while an eight-month-old puppy can reach closer to eight hours. This also caps out at around nine hours/nine months. Adult dogs can sometimes last 10-12 hours, but it's not going to be pleasant for anyone involved.
Of course, you'll never let them hold it that long. Nobody likes the feeling of needing to go but being unable to, and you generally want to avoid putting that burden on your young puppy.
There are two schools of thought for timing with potty training. The first is to use activity milestones. For example, you can have your puppy take a potty break:
As soon as you get up in the morning.
Any time after playing indoors.
Any time after spending more than an hour in a crate.
After waking up from a nap.
After eating or drinking.
After spending time chewing on a toy or bone (as this works up saliva they swallow).
Last thing before bed at night.
For young puppies, at least once in the middle of the night.
Any time your puppy is whining and pawing to get out of their crate, which is a prime sign they need to go.
This is a decent option. It is, essentially, any time your puppy has consumed food or water or taken part in an activity that distracts them or increases their digestion. That is, any time they've done something that isn't going potty, and they're likely to need to next.
Of course, this isn't always consistent, especially with variable human work schedules and the wild swings in temperament and energy in a puppy as they grow. Another option is to use the timer method.
The timer method is simple. Set a timer, and every time the timer goes off, day or night, no matter what you're doing, take your puppy for a potty break.
How long do you set the timer for? It depends on how old the puppy is.
8 weeks: 45 minutes, but be generous; your puppy is still spending most of their time with their litter and won't be receptive to much training yet. Many times, you won't even be able to adopt a puppy this young, and this stage of training is handled by the foster or breeder who cares for the pup.
8-10 weeks: 60 minutes. They will be a little more independent but still can't hold it for long.
10-12 weeks: 90 minutes.
12+ weeks: 2 hours.
In all cases except the earliest, you'll be able to set the timer for 3-4 hours overnight. Your puppy will be spending a good portion of that time sleeping, and so will you. Get used to the broken sleep; at least you can get through this stage with a puppy in a matter of weeks and months, not years, like if you had a baby!
What Goes On Outside
When you take your puppy out to do their business, you can't just push them out the door and stay on the porch while they wander and do their thing. No, it requires more active supervision and guidance than that.
First, designate a space in your yard as the potty zone. This should be around a ten-foot area where they do their business consistently. It's where you take them when it's time to go out. If you don't have a yard to yourself, like you live in an apartment, find local green space or curb lawn you can use for the purpose. Don't forget to clean up after!
When you bring your puppy out to go, it's with purpose. You aren't giving them the freedom of the yard because the yard is for all kinds of things: socializing, playing, exploring, and having fun. You need to leash them up and guide them to the potty zone with the express purpose of doing their business.
When they're done, then they can play, or go back inside, or have whatever reward you want to give them. No playing, no treats, no toys, no exploring before they've done their business.
So, here's how it goes.
Your timer goes off, so you leash up your puppy, grab the stash of treats you use for training, and bring them outside. You bring them to the potty zone, and now you wait. You don't do anything, you don't say anything (no encouragement; that's distracting!), nothing. Just hold the leash, wait, watch them, and wait for them to go.
Rewarding a Job Well Done
While the relief of not having to hold it in anymore is reward enough for older dogs, puppies need additional feedback for just about everything. When your puppy has done the deed, it's time for the reward. Critically, you need to wait for them to finish, but don't wait so long that they don't connect the behavior with the coming reward.
Start with quick praise. "Yes, good job!" and some happy praise is a great start. Reward them with several rapid-fire bits of treat, like nibbles of cheese or sausage. Keep the praise up, but put the treats away for several minutes.
Once they've been properly rewarded, you can go about your business. Let them play, bring them back inside, and go back to bed, whatever it is you were otherwise planning on doing. Set the timer for another interval and get ready to repeat the process.
What If My Puppy Doesn't Go?
As a general rule of thumb, when you take your puppy to the potty zone, you stay there with them for ten minutes. Ten whole, long minutes waiting for them to do their business. Often, they will, but what happens if they don't?
At this point, you enter crisis mode. Bring your puppy back inside, and while you can do a littleof what you were going to do, you need to be vigilant. Your puppy didn't go, but that doesn't mean they didn't needto go. Chances are very good that they'll need to soon; they just didn't realize it ten minutes ago. This is the number one most common time for accidents to occur, and you want to avoid that as much as you can.
To help reinforce that this isn't time to go, put your puppy somewhere they won't want to go. On your lap might be a good idea. After ten minutes of supervision – or when your puppy starts wanting to go back out to the potty zone – bring them back out. Same routine: on the leash, to the zone, and wait.
If they go? Great! Reward time. If they don't? Repeat: ten minutes inside of waiting and watching, then back out.
You want them to have no options beyond "go where it's allowed" and "be watched where it isn't."
Monitor and Improve
Once you have this routine down, and your puppy is getting older and can hold it longer, it's time to work on increasing the timer until you can fully remove it.
Keep a log of when your puppy does their business and if they have any accidents. Each time they can go a week without an accident, you can increase the timer by about half an hour. If they have two (or more) accidents in a week, cut it shorter and go back.
I know I've labored this point before elsewhere in several different posts, but punishment doesn't work with training. Yelling, spanking, rubbing their nose in it, the spray bottle; everyone has stories of these things working, but none of them actually work. More importantly, if you're handling training right, the lack of reward and praise is punishment enough.
If your puppy does have an accident, what you do depends on whether or not you're watching it happen. If you are, interrupt them in the act – a single sharp clap usually does the trick – then leash them up, bring them to the potty zone, and proceed as normal (before going back in to clean up.)
If you don't notice it, well, there's nothing you can do. You can't punish your puppy for something you don't know when it happened, and they won't build any associations.
The goal is to make it so the reward is so good that your puppy doesn't even consider other options. If you do it right, your potty training will be successful and mostly accident-free, and other people will look at your strategy in awe at how easy it was for you.
Have you ever successfully potty-trained a puppy before? If so, what was your experience like? Was training your young canine companion a challenge, or was it relatively simple? I'd love to hear all your stories, so be sure to share them in the comments section down below!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more