How to Potty Train a Puppy or Dog

Woman and Pomeranian, a dog she's working on potty training (aka house-training)

When you bring a new puppy or adult dog home, you might have to work on potty training, or house-training. That is, you’ll have to establish where it’s appropriate for your dog to pee and poop. House-training a dog can take days to weeks and will go more smoothly if you establish a predictable routine for them.

Follow these tips for how to potty train a puppy or adult dog.

Supervise your puppy or dog

For the first couple of weeks, a new dog of any age should be supervised when they have full (or even partial) run of the house. During those times when you cannot supervise your dog, it is wise to restrict their movement for the house-training phase. You can do this by using a crate or, for limited periods of time, confining the dog to a small, easy-to-clean room, such as a bathroom equipped with a child gate in the doorway.

Your dog should consider this space a safe place, so add the dog’s bed, water, and things to chew on to create a comfortable den. The dog should be fed in this space as well. To keep this space safe, make sure nothing that would cause discomfort happens here and keep children out of this area.

Set up a house-training schedule

Set up a daily schedule where you walk your dog on leash to the desired elimination spot after meals, after naps, and every couple of hours in between. To reinforce that the trip has a purpose, you should not play with the dog during trips to eliminate. Use a word or phrase (such as “do your business”) to remind the dog of their duty. As soon as the dog has peed or pooped, praise and/or treat them.

After a week or so of no accidents, you can begin allowing the dog freedom in the house after each successful trip outdoors. Supervision will still be needed, as well as praise and an occasional reward when the dog eliminates in an appropriate spot. Watch for signs the dog wants to eliminate, such as circling and sniffing corners, and take them to an appropriate spot immediately upon those signs.

Be mindful when potty training puppies

Puppies cannot hold their bladders and bowels for more than a few hours. Even the most intelligent and well-intentioned puppy has to wait until their muscles develop before they can exercise appropriate bladder and bowel control. So if you must be away for more than two or three hours and you are potty training a puppy, you will need someone to help by walking the puppy for you.

If you are training a puppy to eliminate on paper or in a litter box, the space the puppy is contained in will need to be large enough for a sleeping area away from an elimination spot. (Dogs don’t like to eliminate where they sleep.) But keep in mind that a puppy who’s trained to eliminate on paper or a litter box might have a lifelong surface preference. That is, even as an adult, the dog might eliminate on paper if it is lying around the house. Having a puppy eliminate in the house will prolong the process of teaching them to eliminate outdoors.

Deal with 'accidents' the right way

If an “accident” happens and you catch the dog in the act, stop them and escort them to the correct spot. Praise the dog if they stop eliminating when you ask them to. Be sure not to yell when you catch the dog in the act because this can cause them to discontinue eliminating in front of you, even in appropriate spots.  

If you find the results of an accident after it’s happened, again do not punish the dog. Punishment could make the dog afraid to eliminate in your presence. It’s more effective to clean up the mess and put it in the designated elimination spot, so the smell will help your dog recognize that this is where to go.

To clean up accidents, use an enzymatic cleaner. Urine contains pheromones, chemical markers that say essentially, “Go potty here.” Only enzymatic cleaners break down the pheromones, which keeps dogs from sniffing out and using the inappropriate potty area.

Finally, note that there’s a difference between a dog who “marks” their territory and a dog who isn’t house-trained and has accidents. Early neutering will reduce a dog’s inclination to mark surfaces. Moreover, if a dog who is already potty trained starts having accidents, check with your veterinarian because there might be a medical cause.