Puppy Housebreaking Guidelines

The Best Approach  

There are three approaches to housebreaking. Only one of them is a good choice for urban puppies.

  1. In the first approach, a puppy is only ever allowed to pee outside, no wee-wee pads. While this may be achievable for the owner whose puppy has uninterrupted access to the outside, it is a lot harder for most people who live in an urban environment. Puppies need to pee and poop frequently and as soon as the urge hits. There simply is not enough time to get outside. X
  2. In the second approach, only wee-wee pads are used and a puppy is never taught to pee and poop outside. We think the pitfalls of this approach are self-evident, but just in case, here are a few: reliance on wee-wee pads often leads to fewer walks for the doggy who desperately needs them, you’ll have a stinky apartment, and you will produce a lifetime of landfill waste. X
  3. In the third approach, which is the one we advocate, puppies are taught to use both wee-wee pads in the house and to go outside. The pads are gradually reduced in number then entirely removed by the time the puppy has learned the concept and is physically developed enough to pee and poop with less frequency at regular intervals.

The Big Picture- 

In summary, housetraining looks like this: You will place wee-wee pads in strategic locations around your house. Every time you see your puppy start to poop or pee, you will place her on the nearest wee-wee pad. At the same time, she will get regular walks and be praised for peeing and pooping outside. Gradually, as she learns where to pee, you will remove the less frequently used wee-wee pads until there is only one left. She will eventually only want to go outside, and when this happens you will get rid of the last wee-wee pad, and your puppy is housetrained.  

Sounds easy, right? Well, it isn’t rocket science, but housetraining does depend on dedication and vigilance, and the devil is often in the details. So here they are: 

Preparing the Gear and the Space – 

Pen. When you bring home your puppy at around 8 weeks old, you will need to have a space prepared for her where she will stay when she is not being supervised. We recommend having a pen with enough space for a wee-wee pad,  a couple of chewing toys, food and water bowls, and a dog bed or an open crate in which the puppy can sleep. The size of the space will depend on the size of your puppy, but should roughly be 5 feet by 5 feet at a minimum. Make sure your pen is not on or near any carpet and that the floor is easily cleanable (like tile). It is also important to remove any wires or cables from the vicinity of the pen. The wee-wee pad should be at the opposite side of the pen from bed and food. For the first few weeks or months, this is where your puppy will be at night when everyone is sleeping, when she is alone during the day, and if someone is home but cannot be supervising.  

Crate. We don’t use crates for housetraining. Crates are popular for housetraining because they are the greatest natural inhibitor of accidents: it goes against a puppy’s instinct to pee or poop where she sleeps. This might sound very useful, but for puppies, we think it is a bad choice. Puppies need to pee a lot. It is normal and natural. If your puppy is crated for a long period of time you will either force her to pee on her bed or force her to be uncomfortable while she holds it. Housetraining isn’t about preventing your puppy from peeing, it is about teaching her where the proper place to pee is, and we think that crating a puppy is setting her up for failure, not for success. A small pen will achieve the same goal of limiting the floor space for an accident, while still providing your puppy with a clean place to sleep and continuous access to a permissible place to pee. Having an open crate inside the pen with a bed inside is fine, and is a good way to get your dog used to a crate which you may have to use in the future for travel. 

Wee-wee pads. You will have wee-wee pads strategically placed around your home, and the number of pads should correspond to the size of the space to which your puppy will have supervised access. Strategically placed means that it is always easy for your puppy to get to one when she has to go, and if she is having an accident, there is always one close by to place her on. Keep the location of the pads consistent so that as your puppy learns to use them, she will also know where they are.  

Cleaning supplies. Be sure to have odor eliminating cleaning supplies on hand. Throughout the housetraining process, it is important to clean accidents immediately and thoroughly. If your pup smells pee on the floor it will remind her that maybe it was a good spot to pee, and she will do it again, quickly forming a habit. We strongly recommend temporarily removing all carpets from areas to which your puppy has access. They are much harder to properly clean.

Supervising and vigilance. Supervising your puppy means watching her with 100% vigilance. As soon as she starts to poop or pee, not a minute or even a few seconds later, you will be picking her up and placing her on the nearest wee-wee pad. You will not be reading a book, watching television, or sending emails. Why? Because this is an absolutely critical time when your puppy is learning the rules of her new home, and if she is allowed to pee on the floor (i.e., nobody stopped her from doing it), it will become a habit that is very hard to break. Do you have to supervise her all of the time? Of course not, that is why you have set up a comfortable space for her to sleep, eat, drink, pee, and poop when you cannot be watching her with vigilance.  

Food and Water. As soon as possible, you will get your puppy on an eating schedule. Puppies need to eat at least 3 times per day, and water should always be available. Young puppies have tiny bladders and need to pee frequently, but you should start to see pooping patterns almost immediately. Make sure you are walking your puppy outside at the times she usually needs to poop; for most puppies this is after eating. Eventually, you will also see patterns for peeing because your puppy will drink more water at specific times – with meals and after exercising.   

Schedule. In the beginning weeks, your puppy should not be left alone for more than a couple of hours at a time. As she gets older this period can extend to 3-4 hours. 

Stage 1: 

In the beginning, assume your puppy doesn’t know anything about where to poop and pee. Assume that she is going to have accidents. In this first stage, you will be gently introducing her to the concept of where to pee and poop in two ways:

1) by placing her on the wee-wee pad as soon as you see her start to pee or poop, and

2) by rewarding her when she goes on her own to the proper place to pee or poop.  

At this first stage of learning, it is very important to note that you will not be communicating displeasure to your puppy for peeing or pooping on the floor. She doesn’t know the rules yet. She will learn them, but it is your job at this point to be calm, patient, and vigilant. When she starts to go on the floor, immediately lift her up and place her on a wee-wee pad. Do this quickly and calmly. (The goal here is to be as un-intrusive as possible so that she is not startled. We don’t want puppy to feel uncomfortable peeing in front of you –  it may make her inclined to hide when she pees). After you have calmly picked her up and moved her, she may finish on the wee-wee pad. This is wonderful, but it is not the time to offer praise.   

You will offer praise and treats when you see your puppy pee or poop in the proper place on her own (i.e., you have not placed her on the wee-wee pad). Whether she voluntarily walks to the wee-wee pad in the house or you are walking her outside, as soon as she is finished pooping or peeing, make your happiness obvious, tell her what a good girl she is, and give her a treat. It is important to note here that timing is critical. You cannot show excitement or offer praise while she is still peeing because she will either stop without finishing or start running to you and tinkle along the way. Be patient, but also be ready. The praise must come as soon as she is finished if she is to know what she is being praised for. It may seem obvious, but this also means that if you find pee on a wee-wee pad, but you didn’t see her do it (even if it has only been a few minutes!), it is too late to reward her. Wait until the next time.  

Stage 2: 

The next stage of housetraining is to begin eliminating wee-wee pads with the goal of getting down to just one. This process begins as soon as your puppy demonstrates that she is learning the concept of where to pee and poop. In as little as a few days or up to a few weeks, your puppy will start going to the wee-wee pad on her own, most of the time. She will also be holding it a little longer, and you may begin to see patterns of timing develop. Begin removing wee-wee pads, one at a time, and be strategic in your choice. If there is one pad she never uses, toss it. Leave those that she uses the most frequently. If you remove a wee-wee pad and she starts having a lot of accidents, you may have moved too quickly. Put it back then try again in a few days or whenever she is ready. 

Throughout all of this time your puppy will be getting lots of walks outside as well. This is incredibly important for all sorts of reasons, but with respect to housetraining, walks allow your puppy’s natural instinct to pee outside to develop. All dogs like relieving themselves outside, and eventually your puppy will prefer it as well. It is also critical that your walks start happening on a regular schedule, and that they are timed in coordination with when your puppy usually needs to pee and poop. Gradually, patterns will form. 

At this point, your puppy knows she should go on a wee-wee pad or outside, and while you are still rewarding her with praise and treats for going in the proper place, this is the time that you can begin associating accidents with something unpleasant. She understands the concept (we know this because she gets it right at least 85% of the time), so it is now appropriate to make her slightly uncomfortable when she pees on the floor.  Instead of gently picking her up and moving her to the pad when she starts peeing, you will lift her in a way that is a little bit uncomfortable (but not painful), for example, by applying a gentle pressure under her arms where you hold her and tilting her slightly to one side as you carry her to the wee-wee pad. You will not express displeasure at this point, because you run the risk that your puppy thinks the act of peeing displeases you, not understanding that the problem is merely where she pees. By simply picking her up and moving her in a way that is a little bit unpleasant, she will begin to prefer peeing on the wee-wee pad every time. If she finishes peeing on the pad after you have moved her, do not offer praise (remember, praise is only for when she voluntarily walks to the pad and poops or pees outside).  

Stage 3: 

You are almost there! Your puppy could be anywhere from about three to five months at this point. You have one wee-wee pad left in your house, probably by the front door, but most of the time your puppy is peeing and pooping outside. You have also established a feeding and walking schedule for your pup that is aligned with her need for peeing and pooping. She will be eating three times a day and have a minimum of 4 long walks per day. At some point, your puppy will almost entirely stop using the wee-wee pad because she prefers to go outside. When this happens, get rid of the wee-wee pad and, congratulations, you have a housetrained puppy!  

Setbacks and problems 

Sometimes puppies seem to be learning the rules, but after removing one or more wee-wee pads they have more accidents. If this happens, it may mean that you moved a little bit too fast, and you will have to take one step back. You will reintroduce a wee-wee pad where your puppy is having accidents, make sure that your puppy is in her pen when unsupervised, and remember to supervise her with the same high level of vigilance when she is free in the house as when you started the process.  

Also be sure your pup is getting enough outdoor exercise. We often see dogs regress or have accidents when they aren’t. Remember how key this is to the training and overall well-being of your pup. 

If your fully trained puppy starts having accidents, it could also be a sign of something more serious like physical illness. Urinary tract infections are a common culprit, but there are many, many types of physical problems, illnesses, foods, even medications that can make your dog have to urinate with more frequency, can make her less able to hold it, or that can cause diarrhea. Never hesitate to schedule a visit to your veterinarian if you notice a sudden change. In some cases, a simple change in diet can be the fix, in other cases it is more serious.  

If your puppy is chewing up the wee-wee pads, there are a few ways to fix the problem. First, this should never be happening when she is out of the pen – remember, if she is out of the pen she is supervised, and you will treat chewing the wee-wee pad like any other inappropriate chewing. However, if she is chewing up the pads in her pen when unsupervised the first step to take is make sure there is something better in the pen that she is actually allowed to chew on, like some toys. If this doesn’t deter her, the next option is to fix the pad to the floor. There are trays made specifically for this purpose which can be quite effective.  

The Takeaway:

Be vigilant about placing your puppy on wee wee pads when she pees inside, help your puppy develop her natural instinct to pee outside, and work on establishing patterns for eating, drinking, and going for walks. Once your puppy knows how to use wee wee-pads and go outside, you are well on your way to getting rid of the pen altogether. However, she must be able to safely have free reign in your home without supervision, and this means knowing all the house rules. Stay tuned for our upcoming articles on puppy chewing and training!