How to Potty Train a Puppy: Sparky’s Guide
You’ve just picked out a little bundle of joy with a wagging tail and a wet tongue. Congratulations!
As adorable as your new furry family member is, adopting a puppy can also make you worry for the cleanliness of your cozy home. You may be unsure how to potty train a puppy to go outside and do their business far away from your nice, white carpets.
Potty training a puppy is a process of patience and persistence, but it’s not as daunting as it seems. We’ve assembled our pal Sparky’s best advice and top tips on how to potty train a puppy, so that you can train your new best friend with confidence — and have a pee-free home in no time!
How to Start Potty Training
When to Potty Train a Puppy
The best time to start potty training is as soon as you bring your new puppy home! (In fact, with all of the excitement and nervousness, pottying may be the very first thing your new pal does!)
That being said, if you’ve adopted a very young puppy, be aware that their ability to ‘hold it’ is pretty limited until they are over 12 weeks old. Before this point, your puppy may not be physically able to wait when they need to go.
It’s still helpful to start potty training as soon as possible. This establishes a pattern for your puppy right away, that they will try their best to follow once they are old enough.
How to Potty Train a Puppy with a Schedule
The best way to potty train a puppy is to establish a routine and follow it consistently.
You should schedule all your puppy’s meals (2-3 a day) and designate potty times after each meal, each nap, and each playtime. At first, the more potty times you can schedule, the better.
Remember that a puppy can only ‘hold it’ for as many hours as they are months old. A four month old puppy probably can’t ‘hold it’ for longer than four hours, for example. (This is a general guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. Your puppy may need to potty more often than this.)
The key is to follow your schedule consistently, but also be prepared to change it. For example, you may find that your puppy is fine skipping their mid-afternoon potty break, but need an extra potty break in the evening.
You do want to slowly reduce the number of potty breaks over time, but don’t plan out your timetable months in advance — you don’t know what your puppy’s progress will be until you get there. Go at your puppy’s pace, not the pace you predetermined. Some pups pick up potty training faster and some slower, and that’s okay!
Potty Training a Puppy Requires Constant Supervision
The No. 1 way to ensure your puppy doesn’t potty inside…is to not give them a chance!
It’s crucial to watch your new puppy at all times. This is key to not only preventing potty accidents, but also preventing all kinds of other trouble and puppy mischief — such as chewing on non-chew-toys or eating things that are not edible.
Careful supervision will speed up your potty training, and save you from a stinky clean-up. Keep a close eye on Puppy, and as soon as you see behaviors indicating they have to potty (sniffing the ground, turning in circles, squatting) take them straight outside to the appropriate potty location.
If you do have to leave your new puppy completely alone for more than an hour or two during the day, consider getting a puppy-sitter or asking a neighbor to watch your little fluffball during the times you have to be out of the house. Since there’s few things in this world more adorable and irresistible than a playful puppy, you may even find yourself with a list of volunteers!
If neither of these options work for you, consider that this may not be the best time for you to bring a puppy into your life. An older, already-potty-trained dog may fit your lifestyle better — and shower you with just as much love!
What To Do When Puppy Potties
Use a Command Word
One of the smartest things you can do when potty training a puppy is to associate the act of going potty with a command. Pick a short, simple word or phrase, like “Go potty” or “Toilet” or “Business.”
Once you’ve picked your command word, be sure to use it effectively. What you don’t want to do is just stand there repeating, “Go potty! Go potty! Go potty!” over and over, as your puppy sniffs around in the grass and ignores you. They will soon become desensitized to that word or phrase, and tune it out completely.
Instead, when you and your puppy have reached the place you want them to potty, give them the command once and then wait. As soon as your puppy squats (or lifts a leg), say the command again clearly and praise them for pottying in the right place. (“Go potty! Good girl!”) Your pup will learn to associate that word or phrase with the act of pottying, and soon they will be able to potty on command.
It may seem pointless at first to turn pottying into a ‘trick.’ After all, once your dog is fully potty trained, they will be more than happy to potty in the correct location without you explicitly telling them to every single time they pee.
However, associating pottying with a word is useful for one simple reason: what happens when you’re not at home? If your pup is used to pottying on a certain type of grass or next to a certain bush in your yard, for example, and now you’re traveling and you’re expecting them to potty in the exposed dirt next to the road, your little pal may be confused and uncertain if they really can or should potty under these strange circumstances.
If they’ve learned a command to associate with pottying, then you can simply tell them, “Go potty!” and your dog will be reassured that yes, it is okay to potty in this unusual place!
Praise and Reward
The best way to potty train a puppy is to treat every instance of appropriate pottying as the amazing accomplishment that it is: with lots of praise and high-value rewards!
It may seem silly to praise your pup for doing a natural bodily function, but because pottying outside is a behavior you want your puppy to learn, you need to make it abundantly clear to your new pal that it’s worth the effort for them.
Remember: this positive reinforcement is only effective if you praise your puppy as they are pottying and immediately afterwards. If you wait until you get back inside, or more than a few seconds after they’ve finished, your pup won’t make the connection and won’t realize that it’s the act of pottying which earned them the praise.
Every time your puppy potties in the right location, tell them what a good and wonderful puppy they are and reward them with amazing treats, pets and playtime!
You don’t want to get into the habit of going inside immediately after your puppy is done with their business. Instead, go for a short walk or play in the yard after your puppy goes potty.
If you always go straight back inside as soon as your puppy is done pottying, they will quickly realize this, and may delay pottying in order to get more time outside.
On the other hand, if you refuse to play with your puppy or let them wander until after they potty, they’ll learn that they should go potty right away — and then they’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to sniff interesting things and explore the exciting world of the backyard.
When Accidents Happen
At some point during the four (or six, or eight) months that it may take to fully potty train your puppy, it is guaranteed that they will potty indoors at least once — no matter how careful you are.
When potty accidents happen, it’s crucial that you clean the area with a special spray that not only eliminates odors but also breaks down enzymes. Dogs have a much better sense of smell than we do, so even if you can’t smell urine or poop anymore, if any enzymes remain your dog will still detect it — and that aroma is a neon flashing sign to your pup that says “Potty Here!”
If you catch your puppy ‘in the act,’ make a high-pitched sound or clap your hands to startle them (startle, not scold!) and immediately take your puppy outside to finish. Praise them when they potty outdoors, but don’t worry about issuing any kind of ‘correction’ for the potty accident; the moment has already passed.
Similarly, if you find evidence of an unlawful indoors potty after the fact — even minutes after the act — we can guarantee that your puppy has already forgotten all about it! They likely won’t make the connection between anything you do now and the fact that they pottied recently.
All you can do at that point is clean it up thoroughly, and try to get ahead of it for next time. For example, if your puppy had an accident 15 minutes after eating, you now know that you should take your puppy outside 10 minutes after eating.
Be Patient With Your Puppy
Potty training a puppy can be a long and frustrating process, but losing your cool with your puppy is always unhelpful.
You should never yell at or hit your puppy for pottying inappropriately, and never rub their face in their pee or poop. The truth is, your pup probably won’t understand why you are angry. All they will learn is that you can be unpredictable and scary, and that’s not the impression you want your puppy to have of you, their loving parent.
Punishing your puppy for pottying can easily backfire. Even if your puppy does make the connection that you are angry at them for pottying, nine times out of ten their natural response will be to start pottying secretly so that you don’t see it and yell at them. Now, instead of pottying in the open where you can see it and immediately clean it up, your puppy is peeing and pooping in hidden corners of the house!
Yes, potty training a puppy can be a bumpy ride. When it’s 2 am, rainy and cold, taking the puppy outside to potty is probably the last thing you want to do. But, it’s not your puppy’s fault that they need to pee and that we humans demand a pee-free house, so try to be patient with your new best pal.
You will get through potty training together, and then you will have a harmonious home (that smells breezy clean!).
Useful Training Tools
It’s useful to teach your dog a way to communicate to you that they have to potty.
If you’d rather not encourage your dog to bark to be let out, and you don’t want your back door scratched up, there are other options for a ‘potty cue’ for your pup. Potty training a puppy with bells is one popular technique; simply hang a bell near the door, and teach your puppy to ring it when they have to potty.
Most puppies pick up on this process quicker than you’d expect. Of course, the risk with this method is that your dog may start ringing the bell every time they want to go outside to play, not just to potty!
The solution to this is to take your dog out when they ring the bell, but if they don’t potty right away, bring them straight back inside — no playtime.
If your dog does potty right away, you can then play with them in the yard for a bit or allow them to sniff around afterwards. Your pup will learn that only doing the action you want (pottying) will get them what they want (playing outside).
If clanging bells drive you just as crazy as a barking dog, a quieter cue would be to teach your dog to sit down on a designated mat near the door when they have to potty. However, for this method to be effective, you do have to keep an eye out so that you notice right away when your dog is obediently sitting in the ‘potty spot’!
Using a Crate for Potty Training
Even if you plan for your puppy to ultimately share your bed when they grow up, there are still many advantages to potty training a puppy with a crate.
Dogs and puppies naturally won’t want to potty where they sleep, so they’re unlikely to potty in their crate overnight as long as you give them plenty of chances to potty elsewhere (i.e. outside). If they do have an accident in their crate, at least the ‘damage’ is contained.
If you don’t use a crate while potty training Puppy at night, you may wake up to puppy potty puddles all over the carpet — or your bed! It will also take much longer for your puppy to learn that there is nowhere inside the house that is an acceptable place to potty: no room, no surface, no piece of furniture is an okay option.
When you take your pup out to go potty during the night, it’s important that you distinguish between ‘playtime’ and ‘potty time.’ Simply give them the command to potty, and wait. When your puppy potties, praise them and give them a treat. Then, take them back to their crate and back to bed.
Your pup will learn that nighttime escapades are for pottying only, and that will make them less likely to bark in the middle of the night just because they’re bored or want to play.
Puppy Pads or Pee Pads
If you’re potty training a puppy in an apartment or other situation where taking your puppy outside is a little more complicated than just opening the back door, you may be wondering how to potty train with puppy pads as a backup option.
While it is possible to utilize puppy pads (also known as pee pads or wee-wee pads) during potty training, and many dog trainers offer sound advice on how to use puppy pads and outdoor potty training together, it’s typically best to avoid using puppy pads if you can.
Teaching your puppy to use the puppy pad, and then later teaching them to stop using it, adds additional training steps that may confuse your puppy and ultimately makes it take longer to get to the final goal: a puppy who only potties outside and nowhere else!
How Long Does it Take To Potty Train a Puppy?
After a few weeks (or months) of following your potty training schedule, you may start to wonder…how long does potty training take, on average?
If you stay consistent and positive with your puppy, most puppies will be reliably potty trained in about four or five months. However, if your training is inconsistent, disrupted by things out of your control, or if you are using puppy pads as an intermediate step, potty training may take longer.
Your new puppy’s breed is also a factor. The fact is, small dogs have smaller bladders! Even once your small-breed puppy understands they shouldn’t potty indoors, they may not be big and strong enough to ‘hold it’ for as long as you expect until they are a little older.
And, of course, every puppy is an individual! Some puppies understand potty training very quickly, while others need more time and patience to get the hang of it. Just don’t give up!
Ongoing Potty Training Problems
It’s not uncommon for a puppy who appears to have achieved fully housebroken status (or is making very good progress towards it) to suddenly regress and start pottying indoors again. If this happens, don’t assume that it’s due to a behavioral issue such as ‘teenage rebellion’ or ‘asserting dominance.’
The first thing you should do in this case is to take your puppy to the vet! UTIs (urinary tract infections) are common in puppies and young dogs, and the resulting discomfort can definitely cause your puppy to go potty as soon as they feel the need.
Another common potty challenge is what’s known as ‘excitement urination,’ in which overly-excited dogs pee when they greet someone. Pups who are prone to this aren’t necessarily able to physically control this reaction, so don’t interpret it as your dog choosing to ignore their potty training.
Preventing excitement urination means desensitizing your pup to greeting someone — so that you coming home or a new person entering the house becomes no big deal to them, something not worth getting worked up over.
Potty training success means a fresh-smelling home and a strong bond with your new best pal. With patience, persistence and consistency (and some strong carpet cleaner) you can master potty training a puppy, ensuring your new bundle of love grows up into a responsible canine citizen!