Housebreaking Your Puppy (Without Losing Your Mind)

There are lots of things to look forward to when adopting a puppy: cuddling, playtime, kisses, and the pitter-patter those four tiny little feet. One thing that dog owners do not look forward to, however, is housebreaking their new puppy. A notoriously challenging task that can try your patience and lead to some embarrassing moments, housebreaking is a necessary part of puppyhood.

Dog Tails’ Puppy Month continues with the best advice we can find to quickly and successfully train your puppy to “go outside.” Trust us, we’ve been through it all with our dogs, so we understand!

Based on our experience and what we’ve learned from dog trainers around the country, we believe that there are three universal rules of housebreaking your puppy:

1) Consistency

Dogs thrive on routine, especially when they are young. Housebreaking is no exception. The “Dog Whisperer” himself, Cesar Millan, asserts that daily consistency is the key to successfully housebreaking your dog.

Basset Hound sitting in front of doorEven before you bring your puppy home for the first time, work with your family to a devise a daily dog schedule. Meals, walks, playtime, sleep, trips outside – try work in these activities at the same time every day. Your puppy will soon learn to associate these times with these activities. “7:00AM, I eat. 7:30AM, I go outside. 8:00AM, I play with toys…”

When creating this schedule, be sure to include plenty of “potty breaks,” and not just first thing in the morning and before bed. A good rule of thumb from the Humane Society of the United States: a puppy can typically control his bladder for one hour for every month of age. Because of this fact, Millan suggests scheduling “potty breaks” at various times throughout the day, including immediately following each meal, after waking up from a nap and after long play sessions.

Finally, be aware and vigilant about where your puppy spends his time in your home. Set clear rules about what rooms are off-limits to the puppy, and make sure everyone (even the kids and visitors), follows them. You can use baby gates to help enforce these rules, or you can talk to your DogWatch dealer about indoor hidden boundary solutions.  These safe, small, wireless systems will teach your dog to recognize “off-limits” areas, such as formal rooms, kitchen counters, couches and even the cat litter box. Your DogWatch dealer can help you design a system for your home, and work with you to determine the right age for your puppy to start training with an indoor boundary system.

We know it will be challenging to fit a rigid schedule into your fast-paced, crowded, multi-tasking life. Just remember: establishing a routine and sticking to it is the fastest way to rid your house of puppy “accidents.”

2) Commitment

Neglecting the routine, on the other hand, can quickly lead to housebreaking failures and months of frustration. This brings us to the second rule of housebreaking – be committed. Teaching your dog important lessons like housebreaking when they are young is a great way to set up your pet for a healthy, well-behaved future.

Of course, commitment means that even if you hate getting up at, say 7:00AM on Saturday morning, you’ll have to tough it out. If this strict schedule is a struggle for you, ask family or friends to help, reminding them that help now makes everyone’s life easier later. And don’t forget, when you’re walking on those dreary early Saturdays, you can always take a nap with your new cuddle buddy when you get home, once all the hard work is done!

Another aspect of this commitment is promptly cleaning up after your dog when he has an accident in the home. A dog can quickly associate an area of the house as fair game if he can still smell the scent of his waste there. Keep a supply of pet cleaner in the house at all times, and thoroughly clean messes as soon as you spot them. Your dog will appreciate it, and so will you, once that odor disappears.

Maintain this vigilance by keeping a close watch on your puppy at all times, encouraging and rewarding good behavior. When your dog does her “business” outside, reward her immediately. If you happen to catch her eliminating inside, interrupt her and firmly address her with “outside” or any other chosen word or phrase you associate with housebreaking.

If, however, you catch it after the fact, do not scold your puppy and definitely don’t rub her nose it in. Experts agree that this tactic will only serve to make your dog afraid to eliminate in front of you, and encourage her to eliminate in hidden places when you are not looking. In addition to the added cleaning time, this negative reinforcement actually prolongs the entire housebreaking process and can lead to more training problems down the road.

Finally, for those times when you are unable to watch over your puppy, keep her in a crate or another enclosed area. This will not only protect her from common household hazards (e.g. falling objects, poisonous plants or food, open windows, etc.), but also teach her how to be alone, thus preventing separation anxiety – another behavior challenge that leads to household messes.

3) Patience

This last rule of housebreaking is, surprisingly, the most difficult to follow. We all love our puppies, but even the most dedicated pet parent can reach the breaking point when they are forced to deal with yet another carpet stain or morning mess. How will you get through it?

First of all, acknowledge the fact that, just like humans, no dog is perfect. Sure, you may envy your neighbor’s well-training pooch and spot-free couch, but remember, they had to go through the same process as you are going through now with your puppy. Some dogs may be housebroken in a matter of weeks, while others might need a few months before they start to catch on. (Chihuahua owners especially know what it feels like to fall into the latter category!) If your dog is struggling, stay focused on the routine – you’ll get there eventually. Meanwhile, remind yourself about the other tasks that your dog is doing well – perhaps she gets along great with the house cat, or she doesn’t pull on the leash as much as she used to. Every dog is unique – that’s what makes them so special!

On a less philosophical note, we also wanted to introduce an alternative method of housebreaking that many dog owners have found to be quite effective – the bell method. Hang a bell or a string of bells to the door you commonly use to take your dog outside. Ring the bell each time your leave, and say your chosen command (such as “outside”) at the same time. With enough repetition, your puppy will associate the bell with going outside to do his business, and will start to tug and pull on the bell when he feels the need. Watch as 10-week old Rocky, an Old English Sheepdog, expertly deploys this skill in the video below:

We hope you have found these tips helpful, and we encourage you to share your own stories with us via Facebook and Twitter!

Hound puppy photo by Randy Salgado via Flickr.

14 Comments on “Housebreaking Your Puppy (Without Losing Your Mind)

  1. I’ve had a few dogs in my lifetime and one other has been what’s called dirty and never did change its habits and became an outdoor dog. Years gone by I’ve decided to try again, our lab/Pyrenees mix is fine but our new addition who is 5 months old now is having issues and they are showing no signs of improving. Her potty training habits are not advancing. While home and overnight no issues irregardless of who is there but as soon as we go out even for 5 minutes she urinates and has at least one bowel movement in the house. Yes she’s always taken out before our departure and no isn’t fed before we leave.

  2. Present your dog with her own crate if she does not already have one. The crate should be a good size space for her to grow into as this is her safe haven and where she will sleep at night. Then leave your dog in her personal crate anytime you leave the house, even for 5 minutes, as normally a dog will never pee or poop where they sleep and eat. (your dog could also may be angry and anxious that you are leaving her and in turn will urinate and poop to show she is angry and/or does not want you to go). Irregardless the reason, you are her pack leader and leaving her in a crate will normally stop this habit. You can even reward her when you return with either a “good girl” and/or a small treat to let her know she did a good job!

  3. We adopted a beagle mix at 8 weeks old. He is now 14 weeks and just is uncontrollable. Sleeps all night. Is crate trained while we are at work. Leave at 7 am returning at 6. No accidents in the crate. We have a routine of taking him out as soon as we get home, but after we are home for awhile he starts with peeing . We grab him say no and take him outside. He goes then when we come back in he pees. We had him at the vets because of a UTI infection and has been treated I am at my wits end. We do have another 4 year old dog no problems. Can u help

    • Thanks for your comment, Bernadette! You seem to be establishing a steady routine, which is the right way to start. Your puppy is still quite young, so it may take some time for the accidents to cease completely. Have you spoken to your vet about this issue? They may have some good advice, as they are familiar with your dog and his history. They may also recommend a pet-safe cleaning product that can get rid of any lingering smells associated with the accidents so the puppy won’t be tempted to go in the same spots in the house. We wish you good luck!

  4. I have a shih zu – maltese mix and I received him when he was 6 months old. When he came he was crate trained but he now has anxiety to the cage. he still uses the bathroom in the house at times. He will do great for about 1-2 weeks then he will have a few accidents in the house. I take him out all of the time. I even wake up in the middle of the night and take him out. Do you have any suggestions on what step I can try next. He is now 13 months old.

    • Thanks for reaching out, LaWanda. You seem to be establishing a steady routine, which is the right way to start. Small “toy” breeds have a reputation for being difficult to housebreak, so we certainly understand and sympathize with what you’re going through! Your puppy is still quite young, so it may take some time for the accidents to cease completely. Have you spoken to your vet about this issue? They may have some good advice, as they are familiar with your dog and his history. They may also recommend a pet-safe cleaning product that can get rid of any lingering smells associated with the accidents so the puppy won’t be tempted to go in the same spots in the house. We also found this interesting article from a Shih Tzu breeder about housebreaking this particular breed and breed mix: http://www.miracleshihtzu.com/house-train-a-shih-tzu.html. We wish you good luck!

  5. My 17 week old toy poodle pup is very smart. He poops in his crate overnight when I’m pretty sure he can hold it. During the day, he can go hours without pooping! I can’t watch him every minute. He seems to avoid pooping in his playpen. He doesn’t like it when I leave the room. Is he angry with me? If so, need help. Thanks!

    • Sorry to hear that you’re having trouble, Margaret. Remember, your puppy is still quite young, so it may take some time for the accidents to cease completely. Have you spoken to your vet about this issue? They may have some good advice, and they may be able to recommend a dog trainer in your area who can give you helpful tips about separation anxiety in puppies. They may also recommend a pet-safe cleaning product that can get rid of any lingering smells associated with the accidents so the puppy won’t be tempted to go in his crate again. We wish you good luck!

  6. Hello! I have a 15 week old American bull dog pit mix, he does good while he is out of the cage, but the moment we put him in the cage and we go out to work (for 8 hrs) , we come home and he has poop all over his body because he has laid in it. what should I do to avoid this situation? is a crate better than the cage? I know 8 hours is long but for him to just poop in a small area would be ideal please help with this

    • Hi Samaria, thanks for your comment. That must be frustrating. But remember, a puppy can typically control his bladder for one hour for every month of age, so he may just have trouble holding it in the cage for 8 hours given his age. Perhaps a larger crate or maybe confining him to one room could prevent him from sitting in the mess? As he grows, he should be able to hold it longer, but for now, it may be helpful to arrange for someone to let him out for a quick trip outside, say during lunchtime. Hope this is helpful, and good luck!

  7. I have a 7 month old American Bully Pit. We are following the schedule… Breakfast at a certain time, potty every 2-3 hours, crate in between, and dinner at a certain time. He has recently started going in his crate over night which has never been a problem. He will also urinate anywhere in the house regardless of him going to potty outside. I have no idea what to do and it is driving me crazy. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Summer, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you are doing all the right things, so we believe you are on the right track! Remember, a puppy can typically control his bladder for one hour for every month of age, so he may just have trouble holding it in the crate all night, and may need an earlier morning wake up or one last trip outside to help him avoid overnight accidents in the next few months. As for going inside, does he have a particular area of house he likes to mark? Perhaps closing off that area with baby gates or DogWatch Indoor Boundaries could help, or doing another thorough cleaning of the area to remove any lingering scents he may be picking up. If he is having accidents throughout the house despite your strict schedule of outdoor potty breaks, you may want to contact your veterinarian to get their suggestions and rule out any potential medical issues. Hope this is helpful, and good luck with your new puppy!

  8. We will not be getting our puppy until he is 10 weeks old. Will that be a problem to start house training him then? It seems that most people get their puppies at 7-8 weeks.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dawn, and congrats on the new puppy! No, we believe that a dog can be trained at any age! One of our office dogs was adopted at 10 months, and was not yet housebroken. Just use the same principles you would use for an 8 week old puppy, and be consistent. Your new puppy should pick it up just like his slightly younger puppy friends.

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