How to Potty Train a Small Dog or Puppy in a Big Home

Trying to potty train a small dog in a big home? You need these tips.

Sarah Hodgson, Writing for
5-minute read

When parents set out to potty train their toddlers, they check out a few books, read some articles, and come up with a plan. They learn their kid’s signs, repeat some mantras, and never stray far from the bathroom.

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No matter your dog’s size, the same five rules apply when toilet training:

1.      Choose a surface: Whether your goal potty area is grass, pavement, paper, or mulch, be consistent with your “toilet” spot.

2.      Create a schedule: Encourage everyone to stick to it. Remember that puppies need to go out more often than dogs, but each will potty after sleep, play, and meals. 

3.      Stick to a routine: Develop a path to a private papered area or pre-selected potty zone outside.  Hang bells by any doors and tap them on your way through it.

4.      Mantras: Come up with a couple of mantras you repeat as you move toward the potty zone.  I say, “Outside,” to steer my group in that direction, “Potty time” as we run to their area, then “Get Busy” to prompt their pees and poops.

5.      Withhold Attention: Wait to greet or cuddle your dog or puppy until after he’s gone potty, focusing on the mantras as you quickly move to the potty area.

But if you love a little dog, and your home is, say, bigger than a studio apartment, you have an added challenge, which can leave your potty training efforts in the toilet. Little dog, big space, it’s a whole new subject. But I can help.

First, let’s clarify your goal, something I encourage my clients to do before we speak or meet in person.  Recently one wrote “My goal is to encourage Scout (a 6-month-old  Yorkshire Terrier)  to run to the papers or outside whenever he needs to potty.” 

Now think about it from Scout’s perspective.  His Mommy wants him to leave the security of his cozy 2,500-square foot home, leave his family, toys, and blankies, and run into the downstairs bathroom or to the back door whenever he feels the urge to go.  If Scout could talk, I envision him saying “Or I could make a quick stop in the guest room or behind the sofa when no one is looking.” It not only gets the job done, he doesn’t have to bother anyone, go outside, or loose more than a few seconds of his day.

If small dogs could talk, I imagine they’d have even more objections!  I refer to these as the 3 C’s:

Chaos: If the goal is to get your little dog to go outside to potty, try to keep the chaos to a minimum.  Dogs, like people, prefer to potty in private. A chaotic scene does not inspire quick elimination habits. Find a spot away from open skies, foot traffic, and loud noises (think dog’s barking and street sounds).

Cold: Many little dogs have a tough time regulating their temperature when it’s cold.  When I help clients to potty train their dogs in the off season, I set a large mulch or grass box in a heated mudroom, hallway, or garage. Once they’ve got the surface down, we transfer outside when the temperature rises.

Consideration: Many little dogs generally don’t like to rock the boat. This is especially true if they’ve been punished for accidents. A lot of people think punishing works because their dog or pup looks guilty. Well, that guilty look is just fear. And it doesn’t work; why else would you be reading this article? Often a little dog will make it easy on everyone and potty in a remote corner of the house. Think back: was there a time your puppy nipped, barked, or jumped at you repeatedly? Don’t ignore it—that’s the doggy equivalent of a toddler’s crotch grasping or body squirm. Our dog will nip, jump, and bark at you to tell you he’s gotta go!

Here are my top seven rules if you’re goal is potty training a little dog in a big home!

1)      Choose a surface. Pick it now, no matter the season.  If you want/need to start inside on paper, don’t over think it.  When you transfer outside, you’ll use the paper your puppy targeted in the early stages. Whether you’re envisioning mulch, grass, or pavement, bring your dog to an area like this every time.

2)      Lose Your Temper. Promise me one thing: don’t lose your temper. I know it’s frustrating!  My Boozle, a puppy mill rescue, initially tinkled any time anyone raised their voice. If you want to get the job done and done quickly, ignore his errors and reward the times he goes in the right place!

3)      Find their Passion. What does your dog prize most?  Food? If so, what kind of food?  A toy—what toy?  A bone… well, you get the picture. Some dogs (like the above mentioned puppy-mill rescue) will do back flips for praise said in just the right tone.  Discover what your dog loves and give it to him after each successful potty run. For the first month, withhold that “thing” until after pottying.  Play or let him chew on it for 10 minutes, then set it aside for the next potty period.

4)      Time the feeding. Food is really important to dogs. Even if your baby is a persnickety eater, he needs to eat to survive. Plan all meals directly after a potty run.  Since nothing says you need to feed your dog in one place for the rest of his life feed him in different areas of your home. Is he having accidents in the living room, or behind the couch?  Great—clean it up, then feed him there. Having accidents on your bed or in the upstairs guestroom?  Feed him there for a week!

5)      Lesson Time. I have yet to meet a dog who doesn’t love his lessons!  Bone up on the basics and practice in each room you share—especially in his accident zones.

6)      Arrange the Free Zones: Until your dog or puppy gets the routine, limit full home freedom. Create a gated free space room with beds and toys nearby the potty area and encourage your puppy or dog to go to the bells or papers on schedule.

7)      Bone up on supervision.  The hardest part of the housetraining a little one is the supervision. Often full house freedom is granted too soon!  Think your puppy or dog has got it? Give this system a full month and even then only grant the rooms you’re in one at a time. Continue to seclude your dog or puppy in a crate or gated area when you leave, walk him through the house with you on leash so he learns to stay with you versus stray, and make a consistent scene over taking him “Outside” or to the “Papers” to “Get Busy.” 

Do you have a small dog?  Please share your tale—and any other tips you’ve read and find helpful—in the comments below or on my Facebook page. 

Until next week where I discuss tips for surviving the upcoming Independence Day celebration, it’s Sarah saying goodbye with a woof and a wag!

For more tips from Sarah Hodgson, check out Modern Dog Parenting, available for preorder on AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBound, and Booksamillion.


Having trouble communicating with your dog or puppy? Sarah Hodgson, aka the Happy Dog Mom, is here to help. She's written multiple best-selling books on dog training, and her next book, Modern Dog Parenting, will be out Fall 2016. You can reach her at sarah@whendogstalk.com or visit her website whendogstalk.com.