How to Potty Train a Puppy

labrador puppy looks out of a basket

 gorilla Images / Shutterstock

As a puppy, my dog Lulu was a frisky ball of action. I spent hours watching her go from one adventure to another. Looking back on those days, we probably should have spent less time roaming the toy aisles and more time on puppy training. A lifetime of good behavior begins during those early days. With consistency and a little patience, experts say that training a puppy may actually be easier than teaching a toddler to eat spaghetti with a fork.

But where do you begin?

Certified dog behavior consultant Chris Redenbach spends most of her days helping people and pets. She offers tips to start things off on the right paw with your puppy.

Manage the environment — and your expectations

Redenbach says that most clients seek tools to stop bad behavior. The No. 1 complaint involves poor potty training habits, followed by requests to prevent jumping or destroying household items. Puppies biting at hands, feet and clothing also rank high on the list of don’ts. But by focusing on what dogs shouldn’t do, Redenbach says people set up an adversarial relationship with their pets.

“That is not particularly enriching for anyone,” she says. “I work hard to teach people to do a combination of management and training. Without good management, it’s really not easy to raise a puppy well. Even with training — without management — you won’t be successful.”

She also notes that puppies don’t have much self-control in those early months. Expecting a 9- or 10-week-old puppy to resist chewing socks or peeing in the dining room may be unreasonable. Instead, manage expectations and potential outcomes by creating an environment that fosters success. Set a consistent feeding schedule and walk puppies frequently to reduce the risk of accidents. Redenbach recommends limiting access to water well before bedtime.

Since pups don’t like to soil their sleeping area, crate training is one of the most effective house training methods, she says. Designate a small puppy-proofed area for your pet to roam and include a pee pad when you are away. Dogs given free rein often seek out-of-the way places to defecate. Puppies consider this a way to stay clean, according to Redenbach.

“Most [people] give their puppies far too much freedom to roam the house,” she says. “Houses are very, very big places for puppies. The instinct to keep clean for a puppy has to do with keeping clean the area they are active in. Dogs that are relegated to one room tend to be more consistent about going to the bathroom in one spot.”

puppy house training, chihuahua

Study your puppy’s potty habits

Spend those first few weeks monitoring your pup’s potty habits. A dog’s age, size, diet and activity level play a big role in how frequently it will need to eat or go outside. Err on the side of caution by introducing plenty of outdoor breaks whenever possible.

“Puppies have small bladders and need a lot of water because they are growing fast and have to go out frequently,” says Redenbach, who is certified with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Since most people don't have the luxury of driving home to let the dog out every few hours, she recommends setting up an exercise pen that includes your puppy’s crate, toys and a few pee pads, which should be set in the same place each day. While crates offer a safe space for puppies to relax, Redenbach warns that they are not a cure-all. Avoid the temptation to keep puppies crated for extended periods.

“Puppies generally choose to be clean,” she says. “But if the puppy is left too long, it cannot hold it and it’s being taught to go and be in mess.”

Many pups that have come from indoor puppy mills, pet shops and shelters never have the chance to go anywhere other than their activity area, Redenbach says. As a result, those natural instincts for cleanliness get disrupted. Dogs purchased from pet stores require more help and patience.

Do your homework

Not sure how often to give your Chihuahua a potty break? Worried that your beagle mix is pooping too much? When in doubt, consult an expert. Breed-specific rescue groups and your puppy’s veterinarian can provide guidance on specific potty training and feeding schedules. Some puppies need to be fed as many as three times a day because they simply cannot digest large meals. And remember that treats affect a dog’s diet, too. You’ll find the right schedule for your situation, but Redenbach says that most puppies need to go out at least six times per day.

“People often expect dogs to do things people themselves cannot do,” she says. “A lot of people expect dogs to tell them when they need to go out. Some dogs automatically pick up on that and other dogs never do.”

Redenbach notes that many dog owners use the bell method to train pups. Ringing the bell before exiting for a potty break teaches the pup to touch bells with their paw or nose. One client successfully taught her 14-week-old pup this method in less than a week.

puppy training, bath

Begin training as soon as you bring the puppy home

Be clear about house rules such as access to the couch or the softest spot on the bed. Redenbach also recommends teaching puppies basic commands such as how to come when called. Make it a fun exercise by enticing pets with a treat or toy and avoid calling them for punishment.

“Never call a dog to do anything the puppy doesn’t like, [such as] bath time or being put in a crate if it doesn’t want to be locked up,” she says. “Go get them. Just approach casually so you don’t teach them to run from you. Be gentle. Don’t break trust with the pup.”

While it helps to teach lifesaving commands such as “Stay,” or “Sit,” Redenbach says they also benefit from mentally challenging interactive toys and playing games with rules. Invest in toys with different textures and sizes that are appropriate for your pet.

Finally, a good reason to visit the toy aisle with your puppy!