Housetraining Your New Dog or Puppy

Housetraining is high on most people’s list of things to teach their new dog or puppy, and luckily, it’s also something that is generally not too difficult for dogs to learn. As with any behavior you want to teach your dog, it is important to praise your dog for doing the right thing, and prevent the wrong thing as much as possible. You should follow the same steps for housetraining whether you are dealing with a puppy, or an adult dog that is not yet housetrained. In the case of a newly adopted dog from a shelter or rescue, it is a good idea to treat your new dog as if he is not housetrained for at least a few weeks, until he proves himself trustworthy in your home. Dogs do not generalize well, and your new dog may need reminders that your house, like his foster parents’ house, is not an appropriate place to potty. This can also be a good idea if you move to a new house, as the same rule applies and the new house may seem like an acceptable bathroom to your dog.

One of the most important things when housetraining is to know when your dog is likely to need to potty. Examples of such times include first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, after eating, after drinking, after naps, after play time, and often after a long walk if he did not go during the walk, as well as any time your dog is giving signals that he needs to go out. Potty signals can include pacing, whining, staring at you, circling, sniffing, and wandering off to another area of the house, along with going to the door once he starts to understand housetraining. You can also help yourself and your dog by establishing a schedule for him. Remember to take into account your dog’s age and size as these factors help determine how long your dog can “hold it”.

First let’s talk about what happens when all goes according to plan. When you know or suspect your dog might need to potty, take him outside to a designated potty spot. Dogs are easily distracted and can forget what they are supposed to be doing, so the best potty spot is one away from distractions such as the street. Dogs also have a natural instinct to keep their living areas clean, so don’t be surprised if your dog prefers a spot at the back of your yard over an area near the door. During housetraining, you must go out with your dog every time to make sure he potties before coming back in. It might also help to have your dog on leash so he cannot wander all over your yard. Stand in the potty spot and wait. Avoid talking or interacting with your dog, especially in the early stages of housetraining. Hopefully, your dog will get the idea and potty. As he finishes, praise him and tell him what a good dog he is. You may also give him a small food treat as a reward. If after 2-3 minutes, your dog has not pottied, take him back inside, wait 10-15 minutes and then try again. Avoid waiting longer than 3 minutes for your dog to potty, unless you don’t mind standing outside in the cold or rain waiting for your dog to go. You want him to get the idea that going outside to the potty spot means he should do his thing immediately. After your dog has pottied, you can let him off leash to play if your yard is fenced, or play with him on leash if it is not. Play time becomes an added reward for pottying outside.

If your dog doesn’t potty within three minutes, take him back inside for 10-15 minutes, and then try taking him out again. During his time inside, put your dog in his crate if he is used to one, or keep him on leash and attach his leash to you so he cannot wander off. This is very important to prevent accidents inside. As your dog gets better at housetraining, he can have more freedom, but don’t rush it in the beginning. Supervision is extremely important for developing good potty habits. Your dog should only have freedom inside if you know he doesn’t need to potty because he has just done so. If you are unsure, keep him close to you, or in his crate.

Once you learn your dog’s potty routine, you can start to add a cue that will let your dog know what you want him to do, such as “go potty”, “hurry up”, or “find a spot”. Simply say your cue phrase as your dog starts to potty and then praise him when he finishes and in a few weeks, you should be able to give the cue and have your dog pick a spot and go. This can be very helpful if you take your pet on a trip with you, or in inclement weather when you don’t want to spend all day waiting for him to go.

Prevention is as important when housetraining, as when dealing with any other behavior you are trying to change. Ideally, your dog will never have the chance to make potty mistakes inside because he will always be supervised, but accidents do happen. If you catch your dog in the act, calmly tell him “oops” or “aah, aah” and take him outside immediately. If he finishes pottying outside, give him lots of praise. If you discover an accident after it has happened, clean it up and move on (and remind yourself to supervise him better). Punishing your dog after the fact will only confuse him, and rubbing your dog’s nose in his mess is just plain gross! Besides, it’s not his fault; he just doesn’t know the rules yet. Punishment can also lead to a dog who is afraid to potty in front of you, even outside. When cleaning up accidents, it is important to use a good enzymatic cleaner that gets out all of the odor, even what you can’t smell, but your dog can.  Nature's Miracle and Simple Solution are two popular enzymatic cleaners. If any odor remains, your dog will be more likely to use that spot again. Remember, if your dog has an accident, it means he had too much freedom, too soon. Go back to more supervision and progress more slowly. Taking the time at the beginning to do it right will save you lots of time and frustration in the end.

One final note about accidents - if your well-housetrained dog suddenly starts having accidents in the house, it may be a sign of a medical issue. Take your dog to your vet if his housetraining suddenly slips for no apparent reason.

Important Points to Remember

  • Take your dog outside as soon as you know or suspect he needs to potty
  • Go outside with your dog and praise him when he potties outside
  • Give your dog 2-3 minutes to potty. If he doesn’t go in that time, try again in 15 minutes
  • Supervise or crate your dog if he has not pottied recently to prevent mistakes
  • Clean up mistakes with an enzymatic cleaner
  • Don’t punish your dog for potty mistakes

For more great information on housetraining, check out the following books, available from  

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