Housetraining Your Puppy or Dog

Three common mistakes can undermine your puppy or dog’s housetraining. Here’s how to avoid or fix them.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #11

Today I’ll discuss three traps you may fall into when housetraining a puppy or new dog. I’ll explain how to avoid them -- or, if you’ve already fallen in, how to climb out.

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Housetraining Mistake #1: Overestimating Capacity

One common mistake, especially when housetraining a puppy, is to overestimate carrying capacity. Maybe this mistake arises because puppies are often able to sleep through the night from a surprisingly young age. If he can hold it for eight hours at night, you ask yourself sadly as you clean up, why can’t he hold it for four hours during the day? The answer is that overnight there’s less input -- therefore less outgo. In addition, the body produces urine and feces more slowly during sleep.

For daytime, an old rule of thumb is that a puppy well along in his housetraining can, if necessary, hold it for a number of hours equal to his age in months, plus 1. But some reliable sources disagree; the San Francisco SPCA’s housetraining tip sheet gives a maximum of 3 hours for a 4-month-old pup. So err on the side of caution -- better to have frequent potty breaks and no accidents. The muscles that enable us and our dogs to hold in urine and stool grow stronger gradually, like any other muscle. The puppy must also be empty, tired, and sleepy before you start the clock. Crate him to encourage him to hang on a bit if he does feel the urge. Finally, don’t make a habit of asking your puppy for that “maximum hold.” Five hours is about as long as an adult dog should routinely have to wait.

How Many Toilet Breaks Are Enough for Dogs?

If you’re just starting to housetrain, or if you need to make up lost ground, expect to take your puppy out often. Once every waking hour is typical for a complete newbie. For every week of success, you can generally add another half hour. When the pup is empty, give him a few minutes of freedom in the room with you; then put him in his crate or pen, or tether him, till his next toilet break. He’ll try to avoid soiling his resting place and in the process will develop the muscles that enable him to control elimination.

Even when you think your pup is empty, watch closely for signs that he needs to go: restlessness, circling, and sniffing the ground are three biggies. Puppies also eliminate about 15 minutes after they eat or drink and as soon as they wake up. Active play and chewing stimulate elimination, so keep a sharp eye on a pup who’s doing either.

Housetraining Mistake # 2: Walking Your Trainee

A second common way to mess up housetraining your puppy or dog is to walk her when she needs to pee or poop. And walk her, and walk her, and then turn right around and go home as soon as she delivers. The lesson is, “My little outing ends the minute I pee and poop, so I’m hanging on as long as I can.” Pretty soon “as long as I can” means “until my person gives up and takes me home.” Behold the puppy who goes on lockdown during walks but drops a bomb in the living room two seconds after the front door closes.

It’s easy to avoid teaching this lesson and, as usual, a bit more work to undo it. Either way, the trick is to make your puppy’s walk a reward for eliminating. Bring the puppy on leash to your chosen elimination spot and just stand there. Do nothing, say nothing. Give the puppy 2 or 3 minutes to eliminate. If she does, praise her warmly and take her for a walk. If she doesn’t, just bring her back inside without comment, and crate her or keep her on leash next to you. Ten to 15 minutes later, bring her outside and try again. Sooner or later she’ll pee and/or poop and earn her walk reward. Result: she learns to evacuate her bladder and bowels as soon as she’s outside, because that’s how she gets walks. By the way, prompt elimination is a convenient habit for rainy days.

Housetraining Mistake #3: Punishing Mistakes

The third housetraining pitfall is to punish mistakes. First of all, forget punishing any behavior that happened more than 2 seconds ago. It’s history. Your dog won’t get the point. But let’s say you scold your puppy because you’ve caught him in the act of peeing on the rug. No way is he going to understand that your objections involve the textile. Ikea? What is this “Ikea”? He’s just going to figure that you get weird and scary when he pees or poops in front of you. That is a recipe for unpleasant surprises behind the Crate & Barrel.

Many trainers suggest a clap or other sharp noise to interrupt a puppy who’s just getting ready to go. The idea is that then you bring her outside to finish up, and reward her when she does. I’m not wild about this tactic. For a sensitive pup, interruption may bump right up against startlement and fear. It’s not always so easy to gauge what’s loud and sharp enough to interrupt but not loud and sharp enough to scare. And, anyway, housetraining goes faster if you keep mistakes to a minimum. Grit your teeth, drag yourself out of bed, don’t tell yourself it’s just a few minutes till the commercial break, and watch that pup! I think I see him sniffing the ground and circling now!

When you get back from the fire hydrant, e-mail dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, or visit me on Facebook – just search on The Dog Trainer. My phone number is 206-600-5661. Your feedback and questions help me prepare future episodes. Thanks for listening!

Puppy and Two Labrador Puppies images from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).