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Learning how to potty train a puppy is a challenging rite of passage for new pet parents. It takes work, but a little training trouble now will save you a lot of cleaning trouble later. The three keys to success are consistency, patience, and lots and lots of positive reinforcement.
For help along the way, we consulted two professional trainers who explained the different potty training methods pet parents can use. Each method is broken down into manageable steps, followed by common potty training mistakes and how to resolve them. Plus, we’ll lay out some handy products that can make the whole process so much easier.
How To Potty Train a Puppy: 5 Methods
There’s more than one way to potty train your puppy. With guidance from our experts, we’ll walk you through each approach, step by step. Note that some folks will have the most success using a combination of the following methods.
Rather than let your pup have the run of the house, crate training limits their access and is helpful when you can’t keep a close eye on them.
- Choose an appropriately sized crate: As a rule, dogs don’t like to lay near their waste. Avoid oversized crates that give your puppy room to pee in one area and rest on the opposite side. Instead, pick a crate that’s just large enough for them to stand up, turn around, and stretch out comfortably in. Additionally, metal dividers can be used to customize the crate’s size as your puppy grows.
- Establish a potty schedule: Take your puppy outside to a designated potty area at regular intervals. Usually, this will be every 45 minutes to an hour—plus first thing in the morning, 20 minutes after meals, after naps, and after playing.
- Choose a cue word: When you take your puppy to the designated potty area, use a consistent word or phrase to signal it’s time to go wee. “Potty” or “bathroom” are two popular options.
- Reward success: When your puppy goes in the correct location, celebrate what they’ve done right in a happy voice while offering a delicious treat. The affirmation and reward must come immediately after they’ve finished going. If you wait until you return to the house to celebrate and reward them, your puppy won’t understand why they’re being praised.
- Gradually increase time spent outside the crate: As your puppy gets better at holding their bladder, you can let them stay outside the crate for longer stretches of time.
“If owners are not able to supervise, then the dog should be crated since they aren’t likely to potty in their crate,” says Traci Madson, CPDT-KA, a certified dog trainer at Pupford. Just don’t use the crate for longer than three hours at a time during the day, and even less than that if your puppy is very young.
While they come with some downsides, puppy training pads can be helpful for pet parents with responsibilities that keep them away for longer than four hours, according to Heather Gillihan, CPDT-KA, Director of Learning & Development at Zoom Room.
In these cases, it’s better to keep your puppy confined to a puppy playpen with a designated potty area rather than leave them in a crate. Using a puppy gate to cordon off a small puppy-proofed area, like a laundry room or bathroom, is another viable option.
- Set up a confinement space: Your puppy needs a safe place to hang out when you can’t actively monitor them. This confinement space should be comfortable—Gillihan recommends including soft bedding, water, toys, and a potty area with paper pads in the corner opposite his sleep area.
- Stick to a schedule: Bring your puppy to the pads regularly—after meals, naps, and play sessions—and use your chosen potty cue word.
- Reward your puppy for using the pad: Reinforce the behavior with treats and enthusiastic praise.
- Pick up soiled pads right away: Since most dogs prefer to do their business on a clean surface, be sure to swap out soiled pads as soon as possible.
“Some owners train their puppies to ring a bell or use a specific signal (like scratching at the door) when they need to go outside,” Gillihan explains. You can purchase bells designed specifically for this purpose, such as Caldwell’s Potty Bells. Or, if you’re the crafty type, you can make your own with simple craft store supplies.
- Introduce the bell: Let your puppy inspect this new gadget. To pique their interest, you can smear cheese or another spreadable treat onto the bell.
- Teach them to touch the bell on command: Hold the bell close to your puppy’s nose, and use a cue word like “touch.” When they touch the bell with their muzzle, use your clicker and reward them with a treat.
- Hang the bell from your door: Once they’ve mastered touching the bell on command, it’s time to build the association between the bell and outside time. First, place the bell on your doorknob at your dog’s level. Then, every time you take your puppy outside for a potty break, say “touch” and point to the bell.
- Reward with treats: When your puppy touches the bell with their nose, use your clicker and give them a treat. Then take your pup to their designated potty spot, and reward them again when they use it.
Tether your dog to you with a leash
Keeping your puppy within reach prevents them from leaving little accidents all over the house. It also allows you to observe signs that they need to relieve themselves, like sniffing or squatting. “It’s best to catch puppies before they need to go potty,” says Madson.
- Keep your puppy close with a leash: Use a six-foot leash to tether your puppy to you or a nearby piece of furniture.
- Watch for signs they need to go: These include barking, scratching at the door, squatting, sniffing, circling, or restlessness.
- Intervene when signs are spotted: When your puppy exhibits signs they need to potty, interrupt, say your potty cue word (“outside,” “potty,” etc.), and take them outside.
- Reward your pup: When your puppy potties outside, give them tons of praise and a treat.
Follow an outdoor potty schedule
Getting on a strict schedule (and sticking to it) can help with successful potty training. Remember that young puppies will need to pee more frequently than adults since their bladders aren’t fully mature yet.
“Take the puppy out first thing in the morning, 15-20 minutes after eating, after a nap, after a training or play session, and then every so often, depending on age,” says Madson. “Then, on top of that, I recommend every 45 minutes to an hour,” she adds.
- Choose a designated potty area: Establish one area in the yard as your puppy’s potty spot, and take them to it consistently. Ideally, this will be in a corner that’s free of distractions.
- Use a leash: This helps to keep easily distracted puppies focused on the task at hand.
- Use your cue word: Say “potty” or “bathroom” to signal it’s time to relieve themselves.
- Wait patiently: Try to stand still and be quiet to help your puppy stay focused until they’re able to go potty.
- Reward success: Always have a treat on hand to reinforce successful outdoor pottying.
Common Potty Training Mistakes and Troubleshooting
If you’ve run into a snag, don’t despair! Potty training a puppy takes time and patience, and mistakes are part of the process. We’ve laid out some common issues—and how to resolve them.
Inconsistent potty schedule: One of the most common mistakes pet parents make is deviating from a potty schedule or failing to take their puppy outside enough. “If owners are having a difficult time with potty training, keeping a journal of when their pup potties successfully and when they have accidents can also help,” says Gillihan.
Remember, puppies will need to pee more often than adult dogs. “Generally speaking, a puppy can hold it one hour longer than their age in months, which is known as the month + 1 rule,” says Madson. For example, a three-month-old puppy can usually wait four hours for a potty break.
Not supervising closely enough: If you don’t catch your puppy in the act, then you can’t interrupt and redirect them. “This is why I recommend either crating or tethering the puppy to you,” Madson remarks.
Punishing accidents: It may sound contradictory, but if you see a wet spot or a pile on the floor, our experts advise against punishing your puppy. By the time you find an accident, even if it’s only a few minutes afterward, they’ve forgotten what they’ve done. Punishing a dog for something they don’t remember doing will only confuse them or even frighten them.
“We don’t want them to become afraid or start to go off and have accidents outside the presence of the owner,” Madson explains. If you want to let your puppy know that accidents aren’t okay, you need to catch her in the act of pooping or peeing in the house.
Not cleaning up accidents right away: Puppies will be drawn to the smell where they’ve had an accident. This is why they continue to pee in the same area if it’s not cleaned up properly. The most effective way to fully remove urine odor and stains is with an enzymatic cleaner.
Rushing the process: Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much too soon. Even if you see signs that your pup is catching on, make sure to allow enough time for habits to become ingrained. If you give your puppy the run of the house before they’re fully trained, you could encounter some slip-ups.
Is potty training an older dog different from potty training a puppy?
The basic principles will be similar: just like with puppies, close supervision and positive reinforcement are the way to go, confirms Gillihan.
Some adjustments to your approach will be necessary, though. Bear in mind that older dogs may have developed bad habits, like pottying indoors, which can be tough to break. “You’ll need patience and consistency to retrain them,” Gillihan points out.
What’s more, older dogs are more likely to suffer from medical conditions that affect their bladder control. “Before assuming it’s a behavioral issue, consult with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health problems,” advises Gillihan.
Lastly, Gillihan reminds pet parents that some older dogs may have anxiety, fear, or territorial marking issues that contribute to inappropriate elimination. If this is the case, it’s crucial to identify and address the root cause of the behavior. For some people, this means working with a professional trainer or behaviorist who has experience working with older dogs.
Useful Tools That Can Help Potty Train a Puppy
Having the right tools will make the whole process easier. Here are some handy items to consider.
- A crate: A properly sized crate offers a confined space where your puppy will be less inclined to go potty.
- Puppy playpen: When you can’t supervise your puppy closely, you may want to keep them in a puppy playpen with a designated potty area. MyPet’s Eight-Panel Dog Pen, for instance, is a lightweight option that offers ample room for separate areas for sleeping, eating, and pottying.
- Treats and rewards: High-value treats are ideal for positive reinforcement. “These treats should be something your puppy finds especially appealing,” says Gillihan.
- Puppy training pads: Absorbent pads like the Four Paws Wee-Wee Pads protect your floors by giving your puppy a designated spot to potty indoors. They’re especially handy when you can’t monitor your puppy closely.
- Attractants: Sprays and solutions can be applied to your designated outdoor potty area to attract your puppy to that spot.
- Bells or signals: You can hang a string of bells from your door and train your puppy to ring them when they need to go outside.
- Enzymatic cleaners: Accidents are bound to happen. And when they do, it’s important to clean them up as soon as you can. “Enzymatic cleaners are designed to break down the scent molecules left behind by urine and feces, reducing the chances of your puppy returning to the same spot,” Gillihan explains. Nature’s Miracle Stain & Odor Remover is an option that’s popular with many pet parents.
How We Chose
The products featured here were selected based on a combination of our own hands-on testing, a comprehensive look at customer reviews, and interviews with two professional trainers, Traci Madson and Heather Gillihan. We prioritized practical training tools that many pet parents love and use with great success. We’re also guided by the experience of living and playing alongside our own much-loved and strongly opinionated pets, who are never stingy with their feedback.