Housetraining Your Puppy


Nothing is more adorable than a young puppy – but puppies do not come housebroken, and the younger they are, the more trouble housebreaking will be.  This is generally true even for individuals of breeds that are “easy” to housetrain, such as Cavaliers and Pekingese; more so for individuals that are “hard” to housetrain, such as Pomeranians and Maltese.  The schedule on which a puppy needs to eliminate changes frequently and without warning as the puppy grows, so that just as you get used to taking her out twenty minutes after a meal, she suddenly needs to go out an hour after a meal instead.  This is also why an adult dog is likely to be easier to housetrain than a young puppy, even if he grew up clueless about the whole thing – his physical capacity to “hold it” is much, much better than that of a puppy and his schedule isn’t going to change every time you turn around.


If you have a young puppy:  First, invest in a bottle of enzymatic cleaner, which you can buy at the vet.  You will need this because the smell of old mistakes can prompt a puppy to use the same wrong area again – and the puppy has a very, very good sense of smell.  Read the directions on the cleaner carefully.  You may have to dilute it with warm water, neither cold nor too hot, for example.  You use these special cleaners because the enzymes in them break down urea, which otherwise often draw a puppy back to eliminate in the same spot over and over.  White vinegar can be used in an emergency, but the enzymatic cleaners are much better.  Just leave the bottle out where you can get it.  Putting the bottle of cleaner away before the puppy is six months old seems to jinx housebreaking efforts.

Second, invest in a crate.  The crate should not be so large that the puppy can pee at one end and sleep at the other.  Puppies usually try hard to avoid soiling their crates, so if you’re going to take your eyes off the puppy, put her in a crate.  She should not hate her crate if you introduce her to it properly (see below).  If she does hate her crate, there are alternatives, so talk to me about it.  Normal puppies do not eliminate in crates if they can possibly avoid it, but pet store or other puppy mill puppies have usually had the cleanliness instinct knocked out of them by being forced to go in crates.  It is sometimes possible to coax the cleanliness instinct back if this has happened, so talk to me if your puppy routinely goes in her crate.

Third, keep in mind that a puppy is usually able to “hold it” for the number of hours she is months old, plus one.  Thus, an eight-week old puppy would be expected to “hold it” no longer than three hours.  Inexperienced puppy owners almost always expect more from puppies than they can actually physically manage.  Ordinarily you should not expect a puppy to be reliable before she is SIX MONTHS old at the earliest.  There is no point getting bent out of shape about accidents – they happen because the puppy is young and / or clueless and because you aren’t supervising closely enough and / or haven’t been clear about what you want.  Accidents aren’t the puppy’s fault.

Many puppies will have the basic idea down at three or four months, but they will still not have the physical capability to be reliable until they are six months – or even older.  I’ve had reliable housetraining as early as four and a half months (a Cavalier) and as late as ten months (a Papillon).


If you have an older puppy:  If your (or a previous owner’s) efforts toward housebreaking were inconsistent or ineffective or unclear early on, then you are going to have to start over and do the job for real.  Six months or not, no puppy is going to housetrain himself.  Growing up is not a magic wand.  All that age will give you is greater physical capacity and a less-changeable schedule, both of which are good but neither of which will teach the puppy the actual rules.  That is your job.  Particularly if your puppy is from a breed that is reputedly hard to housetrain (Maltese, Italian Greyhound, Pomeranian, Papillon, etc), you are going to have to actually do the training properly and consistently, or it isn’t likely to work no matter how old your puppy gets.  Toy dog owners frequently just don’t bother to really work on housetraining because accidents are small.  No excuses!  Housetrain your dog!

The good news is that experienced owners routinely housetrain dogs that were declared “untrainable” by previous owners.  Even if you started off on the wrong foot, you’ll be able to put things right if you decide to.


Scheduling:  A good schedule for a young puppy or a clueless older puppy is to take her out after she wakes up, after she eats, after she plays, after a major chewing session with a toy, ten minutes or so after a big drink, or every two hours.  The whole point is to avoid mistakes indoors while going out with her and giving rewards for correct potty behavior outdoors.  This is why housetraining a puppy in the spring is much easier than in the dead of winter.

It is very, very, VERY important to avoid correcting the puppy for mistakes indoors until she is absolutely clear that going outside is definitely good.  That is why you go out with her to praise and reward potty behavior while she’s outside.  Otherwise, she will very likely learn that going while you are watching – indoors or out – is bad, while sneaking off behind the couch is fine.  The indoors-bad, outdoors-good distinction is not obvious to the puppy.  The punished-when-owner-watching, safe-when-owner-not-watching rule is much clearer.  You must, must, must build a good reward history for correct potty behavior before you can correct mistakes indoors.

What if your puppy has already learned this wrong rule, that he mustn’t go in front of you but should sneak away to do his business?  You can force a puppy to go outside while you are watching by giving him diluted chicken broth to drink and then crating him for half an hour or an hour.  Then you know that he really needs to go.  Take him out and wait for him to pee.  Then reward enthusiastically.  If he just won’t go outside with you present, crate him for another half hour and try again.  Eventually he will have to go and you will have a chance to reward this correct behavior.

Correcting mistakes is also crucial, but only after you have built a solid reward history for outdoor elimination.  While you work on this, you simply try to prevent mistakes.  Every mistake the puppy makes indoors that you do not correct is, first, another drop in the bucket that keeps the bad habit going; and second, a chance you missed to reward correct behavior outdoors.  This means you watch the puppy like a hawk.  You can cheat:  close the puppy in the room with you and make sure there are no spaces where she can get out of sight.  Leash the puppy to your belt so she can’t sneak off and you can’t forget to watch her.  Put a small puppy on the couch (if she can’t jump off) – a couch acts like a crate.  Most puppies won’t go on the couch as long as they’re used to playing and sleeping up there.  And, if you can’t watch the puppy, crate her.  Be absolutely sure you are giving her enough exercise and attention throughout the day if you are using a crate.  If you crate her most of the time, you will create a neurotic puppy long before you housetrain her.

When you are absolutely certain the puppy understands that outdoors is a good place to eliminate, start correcting mistakes indoors.  The best way is to catch the puppy in the act.  Don’t have a hissy fit, though, especially at first.  Just clap your hands and snap, “NO!”  Then take the puppy outside and be all smiles and good cheer if she finishes out there.  If this is the third or fourth such correction, you can be more dramatic – take the puppy to the mess she just made and scold her.  Do not rub her nose in it or hit her.

If you find a mistake in the house after the fact, put the puppy elsewhere and clean it up without comment – or some trainers recommend scolding the mess (not the puppy) while the puppy watches.  Sounds silly, but I’ve tried it and it seems to work, especially with sensitive puppies.  It’s also a fair way to scold if you have several puppies and you’re not sure which puppy made the mistake.

Four to ten corrections should more or less do the job for many puppies – the ones that have had good and consistent housebreaking routines in place from the start.


*Crate overnight, preferably in the bedroom.

*Outside the very instant you get up.  Warmly praise and reward correct behavior.

*Puppy in room with you as you go about your morning.

*Feed puppy her breakfast.

*Outside again.  Praise and reward correct behavior.

*Play with puppy.  Then outside again.  Praise and reward correct behavior.

*Confine while you’re at work.

*Pet sitter/retired mother/neighbor/friend takes puppy out after 4 hours (for a 12 week old puppy; adjust interval as necessary)

*You get home and take puppy out.  Praise and reward correct behavior.

*Play with puppy.  Then outside again.  Praise and reward correct behavior.

*Outside again.  Praise and reward correct behavior.

*Limited freedom in same room as you, if you saw her go.


*Outside again.  Praise and reward correct behavior.

*Play with puppy.  Then outside again.  Praise and reward correct behavior.

*Crate overnight.

Allowing the puppy more freedom:  After you begin to allow your puppy more freedom, if you find she makes mistakes while you are gone, then take her for a brisk walk before you leave and if you don’t see her do her business, crate her.  Sometimes you will need to spend a month or longer at this stage. Many puppies will not tell you when they need to go out.  It is not their job to do tell you about their needs.  It is your job to figure out when they probably need to go, based on paying reasonable attention to their schedules.  You are the human with the big brain, and you are the one who cares about this issue.

You can also watch a puppy’s behavior.  A puppy who usually hangs out with you, but sudden darts away out of the room you’re in – that puppy probably needs to go out.  A puppy who’s been asleep, but wakes up and comes over to you and is very bouncy – the bounciness can be the puppy’s attempt to get your attention.  Take her out.  A puppy who goes and looks at the door – take that puppy out immediately.  If you want a clearer signal, you can put a hand on the doorknob and look expectantly at the puppy.  When she makes a sound, no matter how slight, whisk open the door.  She will learn to whine or bark to get you to open the door.  Or hang a bell from the doorknob and tap the puppy’s foot or nose on the bed to ring it every time you open the door.  Either of these techniques can create a pest who is always telling you to open the door just because she’s bored.  This isn’t a disaster, but you’ll want to learn to tell when she really needs to go out and when she doesn’t.


Two reasons training might NOT work:

1)  Is this a female puppy?  Does she pee half a dozen times in quick succession when you take her out, then still pee on the floor when you bring her in?  Does she wake you up in the middle of the night to go out, even though she is over ten weeks old?  This puppy probably has a bladder infection.  It will obviously be impossible to housetrain her until you get the infection under control.  Usually there is a big improvement after the very first antibiotic pill you give the puppy and complete resolution of symptoms after two pills.  Obviously it is important to finish the course of treatment if you don’t want the symptoms to return!  If you have a puppy who has recurrent bladder infections, ask your vet if you can try putting her on Clavamox for a solid month.  That will probably take care of the problem for good.  If she has learned bad habits while sick, you may have to start over with housetraining.   Be patient.  It’s not her fault.


2)  Is this a female puppy?  Is she under a year old?  Does she pee when you come home and walk toward her, or when you reach toward her, bend down toward her, stand facing her, or touch her?  Would you say she is more exuberant, outgoing, bold, a real little character who never met a stranger, or would you say she is more submissive and timid?  If you have a puppy who is on the submissive side, especially a female puppy, then you may be seeing submissive urination.  This is not a housetraining issue at all.  If your puppy urinates because she is submissive and then you scold her, she will get more submissive and the problem will get worse.

You fix submissive urination by looking as calm and non-scary as possible.  After you come home, greet her outside, not inside.  When you let your puppy out of her crate, face away from the crate and don’t look at her or speak to her, just walk directly to the door and outside and then call her.  Sit or kneel next to her, facing in the same direction she is, when you pet her, rather than bending down from above or in front of her.  Standing facing a puppy or bending down over her are both threatening, dominant gestures.  Pet her on the chest or cheek, not on top of the head or back.  Touching her head or back is very dominant and can make her act submissive.  Play tug of war with her and let her win.  Be very cautious about any kind of scolding or punishment – basically just don’t ever scold or slap her for any reason.  Just redirect or distract her.  The most you can do when she does something wrong is say, “Nope!” and maybe gently clap your hands.  That’s all you should need to do, anyway, with a very submissive puppy.

Most puppies, especially boys, will outgrow submissive urination by the time they are a year old, unless you do something that makes the problem hang on longer.


Crate Training:

All young puppies belong in a crate when you can’t supervise them, not loose in the house.  Not only will a crate help with housetraining, but a crated puppy won’t electrocute himself by chewing on power cords, fall off the couch and break his leg, or explore the chew-toy potential of your brand-new coffee table.

Crates, if used appropriately, are perfectly humane.  My dogs like to have a crate in the living room and compete to see who gets to lie in it.  (The cats like it, too, so the competition can be intense.)  Unfortunately for them, crates are only in my living room when I’ve got a new puppy I’m housebreaking.  Usually they have to make do with just dog beds!

“Used correctly” means introduced nicely.  It also mean used in moderation.  No puppy (or adult dog) deserves to be crated all day while you’re at work, all evening while you’re out at the kid’s soccer game, and all night while you sleep.  You wouldn’t volunteer for this kind of solitary confinement:  it is torture.  Don’t do it to your puppy.  If what you really want is a stuffed animal, find your puppy a real home and get a teddy bear.

However, used at night and a few hours at a time during the day, crates can save your sanity during the your puppy’s unpredictable puppyhood.

Introduce the crate the first night you bring your puppy home.  Many dogs prefer wire crates to plastic ‘airline’ crates.  Put the crate in your bedroom.  It should be big enough for him to sleep in comfortably, but not big enough that he can pee at one end and sleep at the other.  Put the puppy in the crate, give him a treat, shut the door, and go to bed.  On the first night you should probably put the crate right next to the bed.  Then you can murmur reassuringly and reach down to touch the puppy if he fusses during the first hour.  Then suggest in a firm tone that he shush, if he is still fussing.

If a young puppy has been sleeping quietly and suddenly whines, take him out immediately!  Even if he is an older puppy he will probably need to go at night for a few nights as he gets settled into his new life.  Remember that even an older dog can have an upset tummy – always respect your dog’s sudden need to go outside unless you want to clean up a mess!  Probably your puppy will be sleeping through the night by the time he’s eight to ten weeks old.  Be patient until then.  He didn’t ask you to bring him to your home when he was so young.

Introduce a daytime crate like this:  Pick an evening you’ll be at home.  Put the crate in the living room.  Play with your puppy and take him outside – he should be tired, and he should not have to go.  Toss a small but tasty treat into the crate and encourage the puppy to go in.  Ask him out again – no treat for getting out.  Repeat this a dozen times, until the puppy is confidently and happily going into the crate.  Close the crate door, sit on the couch, and watch a movie.  Ignore your puppy if he fusses.  You can open the door when he has been quiet for at least several minutes or at the end of the movie.

Yelling at your puppy when he fusses, squirting him with a water bottle, or throwing a shake can full of pennies at or near him are all pretty extreme measures.  Simply ignoring your puppy when he fusses and only opening the crate when he’s quiet will do the trick, if you’re perfectly consistent.  If this isn’t working fast enough for you, you can clap your hands and snap “Quiet!”  Then be prepared to reward quiet behavior, even for a few seconds, by opening the door of the crate.

If your puppy whines in the crate and you ignore him for a while but then let him out while he is still fussing, the whining will get worse.  Once a whining habit is well-established, if you try ignoring the behavior, your puppy will probably try screaming instead of whining.  If you break down and let him out at that point, probably you’ll have created a crate-screaming habit.  So if you decide to ignore your dog until he’s quiet, stick to your guns and wait till he IS QUIET.

Crates can be retired after your puppy is perfectly housetrained, but most dogs do like crates.  A crate can be like a security blanket for a nervous dog in any unsettled situation.  A dog who has been crate-trained can stay at almost any hotel and also will freak out less when he has to spend a night at the vet or a kennel.  He can be confined when ill or after surgery with much less distress than a dog who has never been properly crate-trained.  In the car, a crate acts as a seatbelt, preventing the dog from flying through the windshield if you have an accident.  I know of several instances in which crated dogs were the only survivors of accidents – and several in which uncrated dogs wound up injured, terrified, and loose on the highway after accidents.  Crate-training is easy.  Crate-train your dog!