How to Housebreak a Puppy: The Basics

Housebreaking a puppy is not the easiest thing in the world. It takes time, patience and perseverance; it’s not something that happens overnight. No matter how diligent you are, accidents will happen, arm yourself with some good cleaning products, the best housebreaking aids available and some knowledge about puppies, and how their bodies work.

A puppy doesn’t have control over muscles of elimination before 4 months of age and all puppies vary in the developmental time of these muscles.  Smaller dogs have smaller bladders and will need to urinate more frequently.

Dogs are naturally hardwired not to eliminate in their “den.” Taking a cue from this natural instinct, a great way to housebreak a puppy is by crate training.

Photo By r0ssie / Flickr

Crate Training Shopping List:

  1. A metal collapsible crate that she can grow into, not too big that it doesn’t feel den like, but big enough for the grown dog to stand up, turn around and stretch in.
  2. Dog toys and chews so the crate is inviting.
  3. A cozy dog bed or blanket. I like these waterproof blankets because they can be used anywhere and washed and reused.

How to Prepare the Crate:

         1.   Put the crate in a central location, you don’t want the crate to seem isolating or like punishment. Ideally, you want your puppy to accept the crate as a safe and cozy place to hang out. Put food and water bowls in there. Your puppy should eat and drink in the crate as well.

         2.   If possible, move the crate near your bed at night for the first couple weeks. This may help ease any separation anxiety the puppy is feeling and will also wake you up to take her out if she whines or acts restless, indicating she needs to go.

First Steps:

Dogs are naturally territorial and will mark their territory with urine. Once a dog has marked off an area she will always be drawn back to those particular spots to mark again. This is called scent posting.  In the beginning, a puppy sees your whole home as her territory and will not discern that the whole house is in fact, a “den.”
  1. The first time you bring your puppy home, carry her to the spot you want her to pee in and set her down. On a leash, lead her around your backyard or whatever area it is you’d like her to urinate in.
  2. Be sure to have treats and praise at the ready any and every time she pees outside.
 
TIP: From the age of 8 weeks, a puppy will sniff for another dog’s (or her own) scent to pee over. You may want to have a friend’s dog come and pee in your backyard or collect your own puppies urine (if you are able to) and deposit that in the area you want her to go.  However, sometimes a timid dog will not go near another dogs urine, every dog is different.

First Time in the Crate:

  1. The best time to put the puppy in the crate is after she’s tired from exercise and ready to sleep.
  2. Lead your puppy into the crate while giving praise and positive reinforcement.
  3. Give your puppy a kong with peanut butter or some food to enforce that the crate is a happy place to be.
  4. If your puppy whines and cries and you know she doesn’t have to go out, you must ignore it. If a puppy doesn’t get any attention (negative or positive) after 20 minutes or so they usually quiet down. Letting the puppy out of the crate when she cries will only enforce negative dog behavior and let her know that whining is what she must do to get out. I know it’s hard, but it's very important not to set negative patterns.

Signs Your Puppy Needs to Go:

A puppy’s bladder is small and her digestive system works quickly. There is a very short amount of time from feeling the need to go and actually doing it. Remember that until 4 months of age, puppies don’t have control over when they eliminate.
  • If your puppy barks or whines at you, starts sniffing the ground in little circles, panting or raising her tail while doing any of these things, it’s time to take her out and quickly.

How Long Can a Puppy Wait:

  • Before a puppy reaches 12 weeks old, he will need to go every 1 to 2 hours.
  • A loose rule of thumb is that a puppy can “hold it” for the amount of hours that corresponds to his age in months, plus one. So a 3 month-old puppy can hold it for 4 hours. 4 hours is the maximum and he may feel the need to go out more frequently than that.
  • Smaller breed dogs have smaller bladders and will need to go out more frequently regardless of age.

Gating Off Sections of the House:

During the housebreaking period, it’s important that you always have eyes on your puppy. She shouldn’t roam free in the house, not until she understands that all the rooms in the house, even the ones that aren’t used that much and are dark and quiet, are her den.

You may want to get a gate or two and gate off rooms in the house. This gives her more freedom than being in the crate but doesn’t set her up to fail by allowing her places to get into trouble unsupervised. A gate is a very handy housebreaking aid and useful in raising a dog in general.

Another alternative to using gates is called "The Buddy System" and it is just as effective. Read more about using The Buddy System here.

Accidents Will Happen:

The only time you can really scold your puppy and have her make the association is if you catch her in the act. Clap your hands together and that may stop her in mid-pee, either way, scoop her up and take her outside. Once she finishes outside, give her treats and praise. Though our natural reaction would be to get upset, actually, you’ve just caught a lucky break for training. Accidents will happen and housebreaking can be a messy process.

Cleaning Up Shopping List:

  • Odor Eliminating cleaner for carpets and fabrics. These products work by breaking down the waste with enzymes and neutralizing the smell, this way, a dog won’t re-mark the spot.
  • Lots and lots of paper towels.

Cleaning Up:

  1. Clean up any messes immediately. Once urine has soaked through to the carpet pad it’s very difficult to clean. Soak up urine with paper towels and then saturate the area with enzymatic cleaner. Let it sit for an hour, then soak that up with paper towels. Later, you can sprinkle it with baking soda and vacuum it up for good measure.
  2. If you have tile or hardwood, these messes won’t be a big deal, just wipe up and clean and dry the area thoroughly.
  3. For old messes: enzymatic cleaners can work to break down old stains with a few treatments. Locate the old stains using a black light (works on carpet, wood and walls) and retreat those areas.
* No puppy or dog is going to respond the same way to these techniques, the important thing is to keep trying, as I said before, housebreaking is a lot of work and not everyone is up to the task. You can bypass this altogether by adopting an older dog  that is already housetrained. I adopted my dog as a 6 month-old, still a puppy but fully housebroken.

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