Behavior - Housetraining Puppies


Most dogs aren’t capable of adequate bowel and bladder control for full housetraining until around 4 months of age or older. 


  •  Leave a puppy without access to a potty area during the day no longer than the number of hours equaling the puppy’s age in months plus one. An 8-week puppy shouldn’t be left without a chance to potty for more than 3 hours. 
  • Don’t leave a dog of any age longer than 8 hours without access to a place to potty. 
  • When you’re at home and awake, give your puppy a potty opportunity once per hour, even if your puppy is able to hold it all night or 3 to 8 hours during the day. 
  • Before you leave the house for work, take the puppy out to potty at least twice. Take the dog out promptly when you return, even if you were gone a fairly short time. Also take the dog out before and after every time you’re going to take the dog with you on a trip away from home. 
  • Associate a word or phrase with elimination in order to have a cue to give when you’re away from home or in some other situation where you need to tell the dog this time and place is acceptable for elimination. Use words such as “go potty” or “hurry up” or “better go now.”
  • Take your puppy out to potty any time the dog “asks,” with body language indicating the need.  The dog dancing or bouncing, staring at you, resting the chin on your knee or pushing a nose at your hand can all be good signals. To encourage a dog to use a particular signal, just be sure to respond positively to that signal, in this case by taking the dog outside. Some people like a bell at the door, too.
  •  If you think your dog has developed a habit of asking to go out more often than needed, you can try extending the time just a little. 


Crate Training

Misused, a crate becomes a nasty cramped jail cell. Used properly, crate time can help your puppy learn it’s safe to be alone for reasonable periods of time, and that confinement is nothing to fear. It can also keep your puppy from carrying out undesired behaviors and making those habits stronger when you absolutely cannot supervise your puppy. 

But when you can supervise your puppy, the puppy needs to be out of the crate and under your watchful eyes. A crate should be used as little as possible.


If your puppy is having accidents in the crate, there are three likely reasons. 


  1.  You’re asking the puppy to hold it longer than the puppy’s body can do. You’ll have to change the schedule. 
  2. Your puppy isn’t well. Take the puppy to the veterinarian immediately at any signs of illness, including diarrhea. 
  3. Somebody made the first error before the puppy came to you. Expect this problem with pet shop puppies, shelter puppies, and any other puppy that has been living completely in a cage. The puppy has been too closely confined with his or her own waste, and has suffered damage to the instinct of keeping the bed clean. 

Anytime your puppy is soiling the crate, get the puppy out of the crate for awhile and use a different confinement method. Two good options are a portable exercise pen or a small room with a baby-gate across the door.  Do NOT use a closed door to confine a puppy. That leads to more noise, as well as to some puppies developing habits such as scratching up the closed door or digging up the flooring at the base of the door. 

Have water available at all times. Do NOT limit water during housetraining. 

At one end of the enclosure, put the dog’s water and toys. If you can provide bedding without the dog eating it or eliminating on it, put the bedding there, too. And if you feed in the confinement enclosure, feed at the same end.

Put papers on the entire floor of the enclosure until the pup starts concentrating on eliminating at one end. It will probably be opposite of the water, toys, etc., but if not, move all the stuff to the end away from the elimination, and paper the end the pup is using to potty. If you want to use potty pads or a litter box, put it there. 

Eventually you may be able to use a crate again. You might test it about 2 weeks after the pup stops all elimination in the confinement area. If the pup eliminates in the crate again, discontinue its use for another long period before another trial. 

Always use a confinement area other than a crate if there is any doubt about the length of time you’re leaving your dog without a chance to get out to potty. 

If for some reason you’re not training your puppy to eliminate outdoors, confinement to a small area with the litter box or whatever you are going to use is gradually extended to larger areas. Realize that it’s not the dog’s fault if there are occasional indoor accidents. Do not punish! In the event of accidents, reduce the size of the confinement area again. 

Basics and Tips

Decide where you want your puppy to eliminate at your home. 

  •  An outdoor fenced area that doesn’t expose your puppy to other people’s dogs is ideal. If you have this, you can housetrain your puppy straight to the outdoors – with perhaps some indoor paper use in a confinement area if you have to leave the pup too long during your work day or the puppy can’t make it through the night. 

  • If you don’t have a yard, you may be able to rig up a box of grass sod or other arrangement on a patio. This creates a clear concept of the indoors as the “den area,” and the outdoors as the appropriate place to eliminate. 

  • If you don’t have safe outdoor facilities to use prior to full vaccination, you may have to wait to switch to outdoor housetraining until after 16 weeks, or whatever time your veterinarian give the go-ahead. It’s important that your puppy have SOME experience eliminating on grass as early in life as possible. Try to find some safe grass for a few outings.


NEVER punish your puppy over housetraining. It doesn’t work, and it creates more serious problems than housetraining accidents. These include making the dog defensive about other things, making the dog hide from you to eliminate, causing the dog to lose trust in you, and even creating an aggressive personality. 

When you first arrive home with your puppy, take the puppy to the place you have chosen for elimination. If that’s a certain small part of your yard, have that area marked off with some sort of clear physical boundaries. A decorative fence, landscape timbers, or flowerbed edging will do.

Each time you walk outdoors with your puppy, say “Let’s go outside!” You can also ask your puppy “Do you want to go outside?” Associate the word “outside” with going out the door. The “go potty” phrase is NOT for this. “Go potty” means that it’s okay for the puppy to eliminate right here, right now. Don’t confuse the two cues. You don’t want the puppy to think you mean to potty inside on the floor when you say “outside.”

In the right place, say the “go potty” phrase, and wait for the puppy to eliminate. Praise softly, and try to reward in a way your puppy would like.  Rewards can include praise, petting, treats, a game, more time to play outside, going back inside immediately, or going for a walk. Be careful with the timing of your reward to make sure the puppy has completely finished eliminating. Some puppies need to do it twice before they’re really done. 

If you “catch the dog in the act” of having an accident, the rule about no punishment still holds! Hustle the puppy outside quickly, with no more than a “no – outside” spoken in a normal, calm tone of voice. Once out there, say your “go potty” cue and wait. If the dog does it, that’s a huge success, and you want to give great praise and reward. If you weren’t fast enough, still be upbeat with the dog outside. 

Housetraining doesn’t automatically transfer to someone else’s house, so keep your dog on leash, in a crate, or in a portable exercise pen when visiting. 

Pick up feces frequently, preferably every day. 

For best results in housetraining as well as most every other aspect of successfully raising a puppy, raise one before acquiring another. 


Not knowing the right products to use for cleaning presents a major obstacle to housetraining. With the wrong products, owners may not be able to smell the odor, but dogs can. The scent is a signpost to the dog’s instincts that this is the bathroom. 

Once the spot has begun to dry, the only reliable product to use is a bacterial enzyme odor eliminator product. The product must penetrate as deeply as the urine did. You may need to apply it more than once. You may need to keep it active awhile by covering it with warm, moist towels. In severe cases, you may need a professional cleaning service. 

When you see an accident happen or find it immediately after it has happened, you can use undiluted clear vinegar instead of the more expensive enzyme product as it actually aids in training. 

Apply the vinegar (or enzyme product) without commenting to the dog. Vinegar gives a scent message to the dog that discourages the dog from using that spot again soon. 

Remember, NO punishment. Just put the vinegar on the spot – liberally – and let it dry. It doesn’t matter whether the dog sees you do it or not. These same methods work on other surfaces too, including beds. 

Do NOT use ammonia for cleaning around a puppy or dog. It smells like urine, and can lure the dog to eliminate there.


Housetraining is an important part of learning to live together with your dog, so give it your very best. Your dog will meet you at least halfway – dogs always do.



  1. Morgan,Rhea V. (2010) Small Animal Practice Client Handouts, Saunders, 2010. Print

  2.,  Client education resources.