Potty training your puppy – probably the #1 training goal in the first few weeks and months after adopting your new family member. A house-trained puppy will know where it is ok to go to the bathroom (outside) and to hold his bladder inside.
In potty training we combine management (setting up a situation/environment that naturally limits unwanted behaviors) with actual training (changing/creating a behavior on the long term).
(In Don’t Distract Your Anxious Dog you can read more about the difference between those two, and their applications in other areas of dog ownership.)
Setting up situations that limit your dog from rehearsing the unwanted behavior will make it much easier to train your dog to do the right thing.
Let’s start at the beginning. Dogs are naturally clean animals that tend to not want to relieve themselves in what they consider their living quarters.
When puppies are first born, their mother clean them up every time they relieve themselves and keeps their whelping box squeaky clean. She teaches your puppy early on that cleanliness is a part of life. Later, as they slowly learn to walk many breeders keep a litterbox with wood shavings in their puppy pen so that they can do their business in there.
This is where it gets tricky: Young puppies are actually pretty good at using the right potty area in a small space. They are however not very good at understanding that your whole house does not contain a place to go.
Until your puppy moves in with you, his whole life has been restricted to a rather small area. Absolutely no breeder or rescue worker lets a litter of puppies have the run of the house – they would destroy it very quickly.
Now that you adopted the puppy, he probably has a multitude of the space he used to have. He does not understand how there can possibly not be a bathroom space in all these rooms and hallways in your house. He will probably make an effort to pick a quiet spot that is not very frequented by the family, such as a corner in your office, and decide that this is where he will go to the bathroom.
It is not enough to open the door to the yard or install a doggy door and hope that your puppy will go outside to do his business in the beginning.
If you do not see what he is actually doing, you cannot be sure that he urinated – if you stay inside it can also happen that your puppy only “squeezes out a few drops” because he wants to get back in and be with you fast.
The best way to ensure your puppy empties his whole bladder is to go with him and wait until he is done. Then you can also give him a treat or play with him as positive reinforcement.
These potty breaks need to happen very, very frequently in the beginning.
For a 2 months old puppy I recommend taking him out after waking up, after eating, after playing, and every waking 20min regardless of the activity. At that age he cannot yet go for long period of time without needing bathroom breaks.
If your puppy plays for a long time, he might also need to be taken out during his playtime. It is a good idea to keep an eye on your watch or even set timers to help you stay on track.
Learn his cues: before he goes he will sniff the ground and start turning in a circle, that is when you pick him up and take him outside. (Once you observe closely, you will notice that the “potty dance” looks quite different from a dog who turns around and lies down when making himself comfortable.)
This is a management aspect – the less time your puppy spends by himself in the “less occupied” areas of the house, the less likely he is to have an accident there.
Make sure to keep your puppy in the same room that you are in and do not allow him to wander off too much on his own devices.
Introduce all areas of the house to him – if he tends to have accidents in a room or corner of the hallway that you do not usually use, you can make a point to take him there for play time or some food games to show him that this is indeed part of your house!
While you cannot actively supervise him, restrict him to a smaller area, such as the kitchen blocked off with a baby gate, or an exercise pen in the living room.
Accidents will happen. Do not scold your puppy – he will not understand you are scolding him for picking the wrong spot. He will think you are unpredictable and become weary of you – we do not want that!
As he grows up, he will naturally learn to hold his bladder for a longer period of time.
If you find a soiled area, clean it up and try to be more observant next time. You can get specialty urine remover products in a pet supply store.
If you catch your puppy in the act, simply pick him up and carry him outside so he can finish there.
Do you have an older dog that needs potty training? Potty training like this can happen at any age.
In the beginning your puppy might not understand that he is supposed to go to the bathroom when you take him to his designated potty spot. He might tug on the leash, dig in the dirt or try to chase leaves.
It is important that you do not give up thinking “Maybe he does not have to go”. As soon as you taker your puppy back inside, all the distractions are gone and will make him remember he needed to go to the bathroom, and he will do it in some corner.
Instead, once you take your puppy outside, stand with him on a leash at his potty spot until he has gone to the bathroom. As soon as he does, you should reward your puppy. This can be done either in form of treats or games. Over time, he will learn that in order to play and get cookies, he needs to pee first, and get quicker and quicker at doing it.
Potty pads are frequently sold as alternative to taking your puppy outside for every bathroom break. I do not recommend them for the following reasons:
If your puppy can go to the bathroom any time he feels like it by using the potty pad, he might never be able to hold his bladder for any longer amount of time. In potty training your puppy, the eventual goal is for him to be able to not pee for several hours if left alone. He can only learn this if we gradually increase the time between his bathroom breaks.
A potty pad makes this approach impossible, as the puppy has to never hold it, but can go at any point in time. This will slow down his learning and can even lead to a life-long dependence on potty pads (more on that below).
While the idea of a potty pad that can simply be thrown in the trash might sound a lot more sanitary than a puppy peeing on the floor, the reality is often a different one. The puppy does not know he is supposed to pee on the potty pad, and the potty pad only – this often results in half of the urine on the floor and the other half on the pad or a pile of poop just next to the edge of the potty pad.
In the time that it takes to teach your puppy how to properly use the potty pad, you might just as well teach him to go to the bathroom outside!
Think of a young puppy who sits in his exercise pen, a bit bored and on the lookout for fun. If there is a potty pad in his pen, he will definitely try out his teeth on it. Some dogs do not destroy them too much, while others will tear the whole pad to shreds. Again, not really a gain in hygiene or cleanliness!
Throughout the regular potty training process the dog learns to hold his urine for longer and longer amounts of time. If however he always has a pad available, this learning never happens. While pads can be a temporary option (for example after your dog has had surgery and cannot climb stairs to go outside), they should never be used as a long-term solution for potty training. Every healthy dog (yes, even small ones) is capable of being potty-trained without pads.
Hang in there – the first weeks of potty training can be hard and tiring. It will get easier!