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How to potty train a puppy: A vet's guide

how to potty train a puppy
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Working out how to potty train a puppy can be a trying experience. A new puppy is a joy to have in your home, but they can  be a lot of work, too! If this is your first puppy – or if it has been a while since your last puppy experience – you may be surprised to find what a chore potty training can be. Despite having prepared thoroughly with a puppy checklist, many pet owners struggle with potty training, but rushing through this important part of your puppy’s development can have lifelong consequences.  Done properly, potty training is a great opportunity to bond with your puppy and establish good habits early in life. Follow these tips to set your puppy up for potty training success.

Establish a consistent potty training routine

The key to potty training your puppy quickly is to be clear and consistent with your training. You can easily minimize accidents in the house by taking your puppy outside at the times when he is most likely to urinate or defecate. These times include first thing in the morning, after a nap, after a playing with puppy toys, after a drink of water, and after meals. By sticking to this routine, your puppy will have ample opportunity to potty in an appropriate place. Your puppy will also learn when to expect a trip outside, making it easier for them to learn to 'hold it' until you take them out. The more consistent all members of the family are with this routine, the faster your puppy will learn.

Remember, young puppies cannot hold their urine as long as an adult dog can. It’s important to get your puppy outside before they have a chance to relieve themselves in the house. For 8-week-old puppies, this means going outside every 2 hours. If you are unable to take your puppy outside this frequently, leave them in a confined area with an appropriate potty surface, such as a puppy pad or fake grass. As your puppy gets older, you can increase the interval time between trips to the yard. A good rule of thumb is to expect your puppy to 'hold it' no more than one hour for every month of age. For example, a three-month-old puppy can go outside every three hours, a four-month-old puppy can go outside every four hours, and so on. Remember that even as adults, some dogs can hold their urine longer than others, so tailor your expectations according to your dog’s individual needs.

A common complaint from puppy owners is that their puppy will spend plenty of time playing outside, and then will urinate as soon as they get back in the house. To prevent this, make sure you’re not allowing your puppy to get distracted while they're outside. When you bring your puppy out, keep them on a leash, and stand quietly until they relieve himself. If they still have not done so after five minutes, bring them inside and put them back in their crate or exercise pen for 15 minutes, then try again. Repeat this cycle until they finally relieve themselves outside. As soon as your puppy has finally relieved themselves, praise and reward them. Now it’s time to play or for a puppy treat! This process can be time consuming at first, but from it your puppy will learn that going to the bathroom is the priority when they go outside.

how to potty train a puppy

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Supervise your puppy closely during potty training

Accidents are more likely to happen when your puppy is left unsupervised. Always keep your puppy under your direct supervision throughout the potty training process. Keeping them on a leash while indoors will ensure that they do not wander away to urinate in the house. If you are unable to supervise your puppy directly, they should be kept in a contained area like a crate or exercise pen. This area should include an appropriate potty surface, such as a puppy pad or fake grass.  

When your puppy is indoors, watch closely for any signs that they need to relieve themselves. Sniffing the floor, circling, posturing, and wandering off alone are all signs that your puppy is about to urinate or defecate. If you see your puppy doing this in the house, interrupt their behavior by quickly and gently picking them up and rushing them outside. Never yell or startle your puppy, as this may frighten them. Once outside, place your puppy on the ground, and reward them as soon as they finish relieving themselves.

Reward good behavior and never use punishment

This is the cardinal rule of potty training – or any training, for that matter. Punishing your puppy will only teach them to be afraid of you and anxious about relieving themselves in your presence. Some dogs who are punished during potty training will learn to sneak off to an empty bedroom or other quiet area of the house to do their business. That’s because punishment does not teach the puppy where they can go, only that they're in trouble if you see them. If your puppy has an accident in the house, just clean it up calmly and quietly. Hitting, yelling, or rubbing the puppy’s nose in his mess are never appropriate training techniques, and should be avoided.   

Instead of using punishment, help your puppy learn the correct behavior by consistently rewarding him for relieving himself outside. Small treats or bits of meat are great training rewards. For dogs that are not food-motivated, offering a favorite toy or plenty of petting may serve as a desirable reward. Timing is the key here: reward too soon, and you may distract your puppy from relieving themselves; reward too late, and they may not associate the act with the reward. Ideally, you should toss a treat to them right as they finish urinating, before they get distracted by all the sights and sounds outside.

Remember, accidents happen!

Remember that no one is perfect.  If your puppy has an accident in the house, use this opportunity to re-evaluate your training program and correct any mistakes.  Did you miss any cues that he needed to go out?  Was he left unsupervised?  Fine-tuning your training program to your puppy’s individual needs will strengthen your bond and set your puppy up for success.  

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Since obtaining her doctorate in veterinary medicine, Dr. Racine has worked exclusively in small animal general practice. Her work has been featured in blog posts, articles, newsletters, journals, and even video scripts.