How to Potty Train a Dog

how to potty train a puppy

How to Potty Train a Dog

Many aspiring dog owners, especially those seeking a pure breed, opt for a puppy. After all, what’s better than raising a dog from a young pup – it’ll spend virtually its entire life with you. It’s debatable whether or not the interspecies relationship is strongest this way (I tend to think not), but it’s definitely special to start with an adorable puppy, especially for kids.

house training a dog

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however, as puppies bring a host of challenges, most notably the lack of housetraining. Prepare to spend a good chunk of time (probably a few months) teaching your newest family member that the hardwood floors and pristine carpet aren’t master bathrooms. A variety of battle gear is available, from crates to pee pads to discouraging scents, but to potty train a dog it ultimately takes patience and consistency to win the war.

Potty Training Older Dogs

Can I avoid the hassle with an older pup or adult dog?

There’s no clear answer to this one – it just depends on the dog. If someone already finished the grunt work and an older pup is housetrained, transitioning to your home will be much easier. Expect an accident or two as the dog adjusts to a major life change. Just being older isn’t a guarantee, however, and remember, the bigger the dog, the bigger the mess.

Mature males, particularly those who aren’t neutered, have a strong instinct to mark, meaning they’ll pee on walls, furniture and $400 Nike Airs to leave a territorial scent. Unless you intend to breed, neuter (or spay) your pet. It drastically reduces the urge to mark and prevents some health and behavioral problems (like spontaneously humping your mother-in-law’s leg).

If you adopt an adult shelter dog, you might not know how housebroken it is. Some have been abused or neglected, even roaming the streets for a good portion of their life. Many will have some accidents at first but typically learn quickly to only go outside. Some just might not have a clue and you could be starting from scratch. Whatever the case, puppy or adult, just about any four-legged friend can be housetrained (barring medical issues – talk to your vet if suspect a problem).

House training a puppy

I adopted a six-week-old puppy. Where do I start?

First, let’s set a few ground rules. Never punish your puppy for having an accident. Positive reinforcement is the only way to properly housetrain any dog, whether puppy or adult. Also, consistency is your most important tool. You need to have patience and manage your expectations. You might be a Harvard professor who moonlights as a rocket scientist with natural talent as a neurosurgeon, but you can’t housetrain a puppy overnight.

At six weeks, your focus should be more on transitioning your baby furball to its new life and less on housetraining. In fact, most trainers don’t recommend serious training before 12 weeks. That doesn’t mean you can’t lay some groundwork, though. Frequent trips outside followed by praise and treats can begin immediately. The reality is, they can’t really control themselves yet, so don’t expect miracles. Accidents WILL happen, even if you take your baby outside every hour on the hour.

crate training a dog

Crate Training

This method is popular, proven effective, and the “gold standard” of housetraining, but it can also be tough for the new parent. It involves confining your new pup to a crate that it naturally won’t want to soil. Prepare for a lot of whining and barking as your pup wants to be with its family, but resist giving in. Of course, that doesn’t mean the new pup lands in jail as soon as it arrives – free roaming is just restricted when full supervision isn’t possible, including overnight. He or she will eventually learn the ropes and earn a Get Out of Jail Free card.

The crate should be just large enough to stand, lie down and turn around in, but if it’s larger like a glorified dog house, one corner will simply become a latrine, defeating the purpose. Dogs are instinctively den animals and are perfectly fine in enclosed spaces. It can even help with anxiety and provide a sense of security.

The goal is to teach puppies to “hold it” and then only relieve themselves outside. Allowing them to roam free from day one will almost definitely prolong the process (and guarantee more accidents), but even then, patience and consistency should eventually be rewarded.

Potty Training Consistency

Potty Train a Dog with Consistency

  • Always pay attention when walking a new dog, and reward them afterward with a treat and praise. This helps reinforce the desired behavior. Also, take them to the same area whenever possible as the scent and familiarity will be motivators to go.
  • Feed your new puppy/adult on a regular schedule and remove uneaten food between meals. Always take them out right after a meal as well, especially puppies. Also, pick up the water bowl a couple of hours before bed. Puppies can often sleep around seven hours overnight, but late night trips outside are inevitable.
  • Walk them first thing every morning and right before bed and every hour in between if possible (puppies can hold it for a maximum of two hours). For many, frequent walks or visits to the backyard is the hardest and won’t always be possible, but consistency will help prevent accidents and reinforce that the great outdoors is the only place to go.
  • If you catch your dog in the act of decorating the floor with pee or poop, don’t yell or punish him, and NEVER hit your dog for having an accident. A firm “NO” and an immediate trip outside will help them catch on. Remember, patience!
  • Also, if you find an accident after the fact, don’t punish them as they can’t connect the punishment to the behavior. You’ll just be instilling fear!
  • Always clean accidents immediately. It’s important to remove the scent that can potentially attract them to the same place. (A number of products are available; we like Nature’s Miracle Stain & Odor Remover.) And wash your hands afterward. Or don’t, to each his own…


An alternative to crate confinement is tethering. Sometimes puppies will pee and poop in the crate regardless, which oftentimes gets all over them in the process. That’s a cleaning headache I don’t recommend. It’s usually the result of either a crate or confined space being too big or the dog being left alone too long. Some canines, however, can just be more difficult than others.
Attaching your new domesticated wolf to a six-foot leash (to you or something nearby) will prevent them from roaming free and allow you to keep a close eye on things. Barking, circling, squatting and restlessness are all signs that they have to go, and it’s an easier process as they’re already connected to the leash. Outside of a crate, the odds of an accident increase a bit, but tethering allows for a much quicker response and trainable action compared to free roaming.

Pee Pad Puppy Training

Pee Pads

Many new owners rely on pee pads, allowing them to go in a specified area of the house. It’s nice to have a predictable place and it’s easier to clean up, but it also sends a message that it’s okay to go in the house. With consistent training, it can serve as a convenient stop-gap and help prevent damage to floors and carpets, but don’t get complacent. My parents are an excellent example of what NOT TO DO.

Barney Adopted Dog

They have a 15-year-old toy fox terrier (Barney above) who was adopted at about six weeks, and a lack of consistency and reliance on pee pads haunts them today. Compounding this is a second adult terrier mix they adopted a couple of years ago (Simon below) who was already housetrained. Well, he learned from his older brother and now regularly goes in the house as well.

Simon dog potty training

My parents have resorted to protecting furniture with fences and multiple pads. They have even put plastic tarps in the guest bedroom to protect the majority of the carpet (Barney’s favorite in-house outhouse). 

Potty training mistakes

Despite frequent walks, a bit of stubbornness on their part, and a total lack of consistency has resulted in this comical disaster. Don’t be like my parents!

Learning Potty Training

Keys to Potty Training Success - An Expert’s Opinion

I talked with Kate Naito, professional dog trainer and award-winning author of two books, and she elaborated a bit on some best practices.

“Proper housetraining requires two things: diligent management to prevent unwanted accidents and positive reinforcement. Never, ever leave a new puppy alone in a room where an accident could happen behind your back. If an accident happens in front of you, it’s a trainable moment (whisk him to his proper potty place).”

Puppies vs. adults

“The principles are the same regardless of age. Supervise or confine, give plenty of opportunities to use the “right” potty place and reward like crazy when the dog uses the desired spot. Some dogs, such as puppy mill or hoarding rescues, may not be averse to sleeping in a puddle of urine. The owner will have to be diligent about housetraining for an extended period of time.”

Pee pads – yea or nay?

“Pee pads may be necessary, depending on your schedule. If you’re able to take your new puppy outside every two hours or so, plus after every nap, meal or play session, then you can probably skip the pads. However, that’s not realistic for everyone. I’m actually a big fan, particularly for small dogs.”

“One of my rescue dogs came to us pad-trained and it’s such a relief knowing that if I get tied up with work, she doesn’t have to hold it until I can take her out. And when she’s older, I won’t have to worry about dragging my incontinent elderly dog outside in the middle of a snowstorm.”

Now that you’re a black belt in housetraining, it’s time to find that perfect pooch. If you have specific requirements, such as a breed that’s hypoallergenic, great with kids or other animals, check out our Dog Breed Search page. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, head to our Adopt a Dog page and find that perfect companion. There are almost 200 recognized breeds (and countless shelter dogs), so finding a good match is just a click or two away.



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