House Training Troubleshooting


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Starting December 2023

House training, or teaching your puppy where you would like him or her to eliminate, is one of the most important skills a puppy can learn. Learning this skill can have a huge impact on the puppy’s quality of life. If a puppy is unable to consistently eliminate outside (or in a specific location) it becomes difficult for owners to want to keep the puppy or keep the puppy inside the house. Re-homing a puppy, surrendering the puppy to an animal shelter/rescue, or making the puppy become an outside dog all have negative aspects for a dog to have a good quality of life. Exclusively outside dogs have a host of issues that can arise anything from loneliness to injury from a predator or elements. Some dogs do quite well outside, such as hunting dogs that are actually being trained and used for hunting, but the average pet dog tends not to be well suited for outdoor only living.

For most dog owners proper house training looks like this: the dog giving a subtle, but noticeable, sign he or she needs to go outside –> owner lets the dog outside –> the dog eliminates promptly –> everybody comes back inside. For many puppy owners, house training looks a bit more frantic and frustrating. Let’s take a look at some ideas that might make house training a bit more successful and a bit less frustrating.

Stick to the Plan

Before you even acquire a puppy, your family should sit down together to determine a schedule for your puppy. Who is going to do which chores and who is responsible for the puppy and when. Puppies need a routine. The more inflexible of a routine, the better. By feeding your puppy at specific times, allowing water intake at certain times, and predictably taking the puppy outside will help “regulate” your puppy’s bowels and bladder. This predictability will help your puppy be successful in the long run.

Puppies generally need to be taken outside about 10-15 minutes after the following activities:

  • Waking up from sleep/nap
  • Being in an excited state
  • Playing with humans or other animals in the house
  • After guests arrive
  • Consuming a meal
  • Training session using food or play as rewards

Accountability is also important. The higher the number of people in the family, the more difficult it can be to ensure everybody in the family is “sticking to the plan.” This is why I suggest assigning family members specific times to be responsible for the puppy. A family with two parents and one child, could split this responsibility up any number of ways. A parent could be responsible for morning and evening outings, while the child could be responsible for “after school” but before dinner care for the puppy. In my house, the rule was “if you got the puppy out of her crate, you are 100% responsible for anything that happens while the puppy is out.” This means if the puppy had an accident while you were watching her, you are responsible for cleaning up the mess. If you are unable to watch the puppy like a hawk, then you were to put the puppy back in her crate or ex-pen. If you were verbally handing off care it had to be explicit, such as, “I’m no longer going to be able to watch the puppy. Do you want me to put her in her crate or are you okay keeping an eye on her?” Something like “I’m heading out, the puppy is all yours” is not good enough, in my opinion.

Location, Location, Location

This is in reference to where the puppy will potty. Some people have a nice Puppy Potty Area in in their yard. It might be separated from the rest of the yard, or even have a boundary and different substrate. Some people may have a preference for the puppy to only potty in one corner of the yard without any type of physical or visual boundary, or just go anywhere outside. Other people find it acceptable to use Pee Pads or Newspaper and teach their puppies to potty in their house. Personal preference is an individual choice for where your puppy learns to “go potty.” However, I do believe it is VERY important for you to establish where you want your puppy go to potty before your puppy even comes home. You also need to do everything in your power to ensure your puppy is going potty where you want them to go.

A fairly recent, common scenario I have run into over the past few years, is people allowing their puppy (especially small breeds) to go potty inside the house. The owners typically have newspaper, pee pads, or something similar where the puppy does a great job going to. However, this is teaching your puppy that it is okay to eliminate in the house. If you want your puppy to only eliminate outside then it is imperative that your puppy only be rewarded for going potty outside and not given an opportunity to potty inside the house. According to behaviorists (McCurnin’s Clinical Textbook for Veterinary Technicians, 9th Edition) puppies develop a desire for which substrate to eliminate on around 12 weeks old. This means, if your puppy is more frequently eliminating inside the house on pee pads (or the like) after 12 weeks old, it will become increasingly more difficult to teach your puppy to eliminate in grass, gravel/sand, or outside in general.

The issue I have run into are people who get “Holiday Puppies” and it’s cold outside. How can we possibly let this poor little puppy freeze outside while going potty?!? I promise you, it will be MUCH easier in the long run if you suck it up and teach your puppy where you really want him or her to eliminate because it will be more difficult to be successful when the puppy is 5-6+ months old when the weather is more favorable. The messes also get bigger as the puppy gets bigger.

Reasonable Expectations

Another hiccup in most house training adventures is not having reasonable expectations for the puppy. As a general rule, puppies can hold their bladder for 1 hour for every month old they are, and bowels for 2 hours for every month old. However, this goes out the window after playtime, waking up from a nap, and everything mentioned above. This also means your puppy is unlikely to be able to sleep through the night at first. Yes, you may have to wake up and take your puppy outside in the wee, cold hours of the night. You may also need to set a timer to ensure you’re giving your puppy enough opportunity to be correct. Depending on what I’m doing or how distracted I am, I will set a timer for 45 minutes instead of 60 minutes just to ensure I am giving a puppy an opportunity before it becomes an emergency.

Puppy owners also tend to think their puppy will give them a noticeable sign they need to go outside. This is rarely the case! Eventually, you and your puppy will develop your own language and communication system, but puppies typically have VERY subtle signs of needing to go outside, especially if they are outside of their crate. When confined to a crate or ex-pen whining, screaming, and crying is typically a great sign your puppy needs a potty break. Generally, if a puppy is playing and they suddenly just STOP out of nowhere, that means he or she needs to go outside and he or she needs to go NOW!!!! If your puppy is napping and he or she suddenly wakes up and starts zooming around the house, while cute, this is a sign he or she needs to go outside. “Sneaking” off is another sign that your puppy may need to go outside too. If your puppy disappears, you need to find him or her and head for outside.

When in doubt, let ’em out!!!

There is never going to be a time where you give your puppy too many opportunities to go potty. The more opportunity he or she has to go outside the less likely he or she will have an accident inside.

Accidents Happen, It’s Your Fault

Yep, accidents will happen! It happens to all of us, even myself. Anytime your puppy has an accident, it is your fault. DO NOT get upset or punish your puppy for having an accident in the house. Spanking your puppy, rubbing his or her nose in it, or anything else that could be deemed unpleasant by your puppy will not make your puppy not have accidents in the house. In fact, it is more likely to have the opposite effect. Let’s break this one down:

  • You missed a very subtle sign your puppy needs to go outside
  • Puppy has accident
  • You yell at puppy, rub his/her nose in it, or somehow make a big, unpleasant ordeal about it
  • Puppy now associates the presences of urine or stool and a human with unpleasantness (this is a negative Conditioned Emotional Response)
  • Sometimes this can be single event learning, sometimes this takes several unpleasant experiences to set in
  • You yell at puppy while putting him or her in his or her crate/ ex pen (more unpleasantness)
  • Or you take the puppy outside to “finish”
  • Clean up the mess

Once your puppy has a negative CER with urine/stool and a human’s presences, how do you think he or she will respond in the future? What we often see are puppies that will “hide” it. They will sneak off into a different room, or a small area where a human typically cannot see the puppy have an accident. Instead of teaching the puppy that having an accident in the house is wrong, you have actually taught your puppy that eliminating in the presence of humans is scary. This means it will be even harder to get your puppy to eliminate outside in your presence.

What is a better way this scenario should play out?

  • You missed a very subtle sign your puppy needs to go outside
  • Puppy has accident
  • You say “Ah, shucks….I messed that one up”
  • In a VERY neutral manner, pick your puppy up (if he or she is small enough) or lure your puppy into his/her crate
  • It’s typically easier to clean up puppy accidents without the help of said puppy
  • Clean up the mess
  • Wait 15-20 minutes after the mess is cleaned up and your puppy has been quiet in the crate or ex-pen
  • Take puppy outside for an opportunity to be correct
  • Reward Puppy for pottying outside

When we discuss this in my STAR Puppy Class, I am often asked why I put the puppy in a crate after an accident, rather than taking the puppy outside after an accident. At some point I need to clean up the accident, right? My puppy is FAR less likely to need to go potty again after just having an accident. If I immediately take my puppy outside after an accident, I could accidently teach my puppy that having an accident in the house will cue me to let her outside (I have essentially “rewarded” my dog having an accident). This is NOT what I want to teach. Crates are boring, so if my puppy learns that he or she will have to spend some time in a crate after an accident, my puppy is less likely to do that behavior again. If my puppy goes outside directly after having an accident and is then placed in a crate so I can clean up the accident, I’ve just made going outside not as fun. The “not as fun” part needs to happen directly after the thing I do not want to happen.

What if she doesn’t go?

Another common problem to run into during house training. Sometimes your puppy just does not want to or does not need to go, or sometimes he or she is too busy chasing leaves or butterflies. I like to give a certain amount of time (less than 5 minutes is ideal for me) for my dogs to go potty. I travel and compete in dog sports with my dogs, I need them to go potty in a reasonable time frame. If my puppy does not go potty when given the opportunity, he or she goes back into a crate for 15-20 minutes (set a timer if you need too). I will then give another opportunity to go potty. If my puppy goes potty, he or she gets to stay out and interact with the family or having a training session, or play. If my puppy does not go, he or she goes back into his or her crate for 15-20 minutes. I will do this all day long if I need to. This type of routine generally only lasts a few days. Puppies are little sponges, they are quick learners and will figure out the pattern fairly quickly. It is REALLY important that everybody does the exact same thing and has the exact same expectations. It is also important that a food or play reward always follow going potty outside and your puppy is not immediately put straight into a crate after going potty outside.


When it comes down to it, the key to successfully house training your puppy is consistency, realistic expectations, and accountability. If your family can hit those three points, your puppy will be house trained in no time with minimum frustrations! Do not be in a rush to let your dog have freedoms within the house, until he or she had earned those freedoms. One of those freedoms is being able to properly control his or her bladder and bowels (another point towards earning freedom in the house, is by being responsible with his or her teeth, here’s a blog on that).

Some other considerations:

  • Dog training is not a linear process. Sometimes puppies will regress in training. Accept that accidents happen to even the most diligent of dog owners and continue on with your progress.
  • If your puppy has completely regressed and is having more accidents than being successful, it is time for a visit to your veterinarian. I have had a number of clients in the past few years, who have become very frustrated with their puppy regressing, and it turns out the puppy had a raging Urinary Tract Infection.

Have you had Puppy House Training battles? How did you over come them? Let us know in the comments!!!

Photo by Valentin Balan on Unsplash

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