How to Potty Train Your Dog

Our expert answers your questions on getting your pup to do their business

By Robyn Wolf - A Certified PetSmart Trainer

So, you’ve brought a new four-legged friend home! Food? Check. Water Bowl? Check. Treats? Double check – after all, who doesn’t like treats? Now it’s time to train for what happens after all that eating and drinking. Your dog seems to have Sit perfected, and Shake is their new favourite thing in the world – they’ve even learned Drop It! Now, if only we could get this whole Potty thing to click.

We understand, potty training can be a major stressor and understandably so. You brought a dog into your life in hopes of lifting your spirits and are justifiably frustrated when Fido chooses to lift his leg instead. There are many factors that influence potty training, but the ones we must stress above all else are patience and consistency. All habits are formed through repetition and practice, and potty training is no different. As long as you are patient and consistent and willing to take the time to help your new friend understand what you want, potty training is possible! First, let’s decide on a few things:

Where Should I Train My Dog to Go Potty: Inside or Outside?

While many people think they have to buy potty pads as soon as they bring home a puppy or a new dog, you should decide what your long-term potty habit goals are and work toward achieving them right from the start. If you eventually want your dog to go to the bathroom outside, it may confuse them to get used to peeing on a pad inside only to have the option taken away later. If you decide you would rather your dog use potty pads in the long run, you may want to try a few different brands (some will have a higher volume or more concentrated area of attractant pheromones to encourage your pup to pee) and ensure the pads are replaced often and set in a designated place, so your dog knows where to go.

Where Should My Dog Go Potty Outside?

Upon first consideration, most of us don’t think twice about potty locations beyond “anywhere outside” but deciding on a more specific location often helps you on your way to a potty-training breakthrough. Dogs are creatures of habit, just like people – we all have our regular restaurants with our usual orders and watch reruns of a favourite TV show from a comfortable couch spot we are oddly possessive of. Routines are familiar and comfortable and, more importantly, predictable – all good things to have during potty training! Pick one place in the yard as your pup’s “spot” to help them form a routine both of you can adhere to.

How Long Should It Take to Potty Train My Dog?

This is a question that has likely been asked since the dawn of domestication of our four-legged companions. Though most pet parents don’t struggle with potty training for more than a few weeks, the answer, to this day, remains the same – there is no concrete, magical time limit you reach and cross like a finish line, especially with the diversity of dogs today. Every dog, regardless of age, breed or personality is just as unique as you and I and cannot be expected to be held to a standard that is not their own. While this may be a daunting reality, fear not! Just as there are no time limits for how long it may take to potty train, there is also no reason potty training can’t be a rather quick and painless process. At the end of the day, there are several factors that determine when your potty woes are behind you and you can breathe a little easier.

First and foremost, human consistency is the biggest factor in potty training. Remember, we are teaching a dog how to behave in a human household – as the human in the relationship, it is our job to set our pups up for as much success as possible. This means keeping to schedules, giving our pup plenty of opportunities to make the correct choice and paying close attention so there aren’t accidental setbacks.

Secondly, age is a rather non-negotiable factor when potty training. The younger a dog is, the fewer waking hours he is able to hold his bladder. A general rule of thumb is that your puppy can hold his bladder for about as many hours as they are months in age (e.g., a two-month-old puppy can hold their bladder about two hours).

Finally, it is important to note what may be a frustrating roadblock on your path to success – accidents. While accidents are surely going to happen, each time your pup eliminates inside it has the potential to reinforce the habit we are trying so hard to negate. They may begin to develop attachments to their “forbidden” potty spot and form their own routine outside of our training. This is why vigilance is key, especially in the beginning stages of potty training. Potty training happens when we, as humans, can help our dogs understand that going potty outside is far more rewarding than going potty inside.

What Supplies Do I Need to Potty Train My Dog?

There can be many ups and downs when you are potty training. Luckily, there are many tools available at your local PetSmart to help you stay on top while your pup learns to potty:

  • Attractant Sprays – Attractant sprays contain pheromones similar to what is used in potty pads to encourage your dog to investigate and eliminate near or on whatever you spray it on.
  • Deterrent Sprays – Deterrent sprays contain pheromones that discourage a dog from entering or hanging out in spaces where they are sprayed. This can be most useful for dogs that wrongfully eliminate in one area frequently and can be helpful to break behavioural habits.
  • Cleaning Supplies – It’s important to stock up on pet-specific cleaners, like Nature’s Miracle, until your dog is potty trained. These cleaning products have enzymes that break down the pheromones in a dog’s urine that often cause the dog to potty in the same area repeatedly. Ensure this product reaches all areas urine has touched for maximum efficiency—if your pup goes potty on your carpet, ensure the cleaning product penetrates all the way to the carpet padding where the urine likely reached).
  • Playpen – A playpen can be used rather than a crate to provide a safe area when you aren’t able to supervise, especially if you are using potty pads. A typical playpen set-up would include a sleeping area, a play area and a potty area (potty pad). Take care, however, if you are hoping to avoid potty pads – even a playpen may be too much freedom for some dogs during potty training as they can eliminate in one area and spend their time in another, removing any desire to hold their bladders.
  • Potty Training Crate – A properly sized crate is possibly the single most important tool for successful potty training. Replicating a canine’s natural denning environment, the crate is a safe and comfortable place for your pup to relax and snooze and so, they are likely to do everything in their power to not potty where they sleep. Crates encourage your dog to hold it and allow you to control potty schedules and prevent accidents more easily. The crate should be large enough that your dog can walk in, turn around, and lay down without scrunching up but not so big that he can go potty on one side and go to sleep on the other.
  • Waste management – Your dog’s highly developed sense of smell means you don’t need to leave poop in the yard for your pup to know their potty spot, so invest in gear that makes pick-up easier, especially poop bags which are useful—and polite—when you leave your yard for a walk.

How Do I Use a Dog Crate for Potty Training?

The concept of crate training can be confusing, even conflicting for many pet parents, especially those potty training for the first time. Rest assured, using a crate for potty training is not, in any way, a bad thing. Think of your dog’s crate like your own room – it is not your prison, but a safe, comfortable space that is all your own.

Crate training helps with potty training by satisfying your pup’s natural denning instincts. Being denning animals, the first potty training instinct your pup has is an innate urge to avoid soiling the area where they sleep or eat. Below are a few factors to keep in mind when crate training:

  • Size matters – If the crate is too small, it can be cramped and uncomfortable; too large, and your dog can go potty in one corner and sleep in another without a care. Your best bet is to select a crate large enough to accommodate your dog’s expected adult size and ensure that it comes with a divider (an extra panel that fits inside the crate to allow you to adjust the size as your dog matures, both in size and in potty training). Your dog should be able to walk in, stand, turn around and lay down comfortably without having to squeeze or hunch.
  • The crate is a good place – A crucial aspect of crate training is ensuring your dog has a good relationship with their crate. It is a good idea to feed your pup their meals in the crate, choose a cue to use send them to it (e.g., “Kennel,” “Home,” “Crate”) and follow it up with lots of praise and treats to ensure it is a good experience for your dog. It also helps to have special “crate only” toys or chews for your dog to look forward to – a special thing they only get to enjoy while in the crate. Be sure to speak with your PetSmart Trainer to help choose a crate-safe toy or chew.
  • It’s their room, not a jail cell – The crate should never be used for punishment. One of the most damaging things you can do to when it comes to the crate is to yell at your dog and then put them in the crate. While there are several uses for the crate beyond potty training, using it as a form of punishment is not one of them. Keep in mind, your dog will make their own associations between events whether it is your intent or not. Do not let that association be, “They yelled at me and then put me in the crate – the crate is a really bad place to go.”
  • It’s for more than potty training – Remember that potty training may not be the only thing your crate is good for. Crates are also a safe and effective way to curb other problem behaviours like destructive chewing or scrounging the house for less-than-edible bits and pieces.
  • We’ve got a video that can help – Check out the Crate Training video in our Puppy Training series, starring Shannon, Aaron and the adorable pug Guppy, which offers valuable pointers for dogs of every age.

How Do Dogs Tell You They Have to Go Potty?

A common problem many pet parents have actually comes after their dog is mostly potty trained. It has been weeks since their pup has had an accident indoors, but they still find themselves micromanaging their dog as they did in the beginning because they cannot figure out how to tell if their dog needs to go outside. Remember, your dog does not speak your language any more than you speak his, so we must pay closer attention to other it’s-potty-time signals:

  • Barking, whining
  • Scratching/hanging out by the door
  • Staring at or even pawing at you
  • Intent sniffing and circling (last call!)

Your dog’s signals may be more subtle, however. Many of us remember childhood dogs that barked loudly and scratched vigorously at the door for our attention. These signals are becoming much rarer now, however, as humans have more distractions taking up our time and attention as well as more demands on “polite” behaviours for our dogs. A dog that barks is instantly shushed so we can hear the TV or our phone call. A dog that scratches is quickly discouraged to prevent damage to our doors. Luckily, there is an answer for that in the increasingly common practice of teaching your dog to ring a bell to go outside.

How Can I Teach My Dog to Ring a Potty Bell to Go Outside?

As mentioned earlier, some dogs and pet parents struggle when it comes to communication during Potty Training. Many dogs don’t scratch at the door or bark since both behaviours are often discouraged right away in an effort to prevent other problem behaviours like destructiveness or excessive barking. By teaching your pup to ring potty bells as a way to ask to go outside, you are giving your dog a consistent and easy way to tell you what they need.

There are many forms of bell training with the practice continuing to gain popularity, ranging from the original sash of sleigh bells hanging from the doorknob to targets installed next to the door to the quaint doggie version of a butler’s bell. Despite the variety of options available to you, much of the base training remains the same: You need to help your dog understand the concept and cause-and-effect of this new device.

A few things you can do to ensure success are:

  • When first training with the bell, it is separate from potty training. The goal of potty training is that your dog tries to hold their bladder and bowels until they are outside. The goal of bell training is to give your dog a polite way to tell you they would like to go outside. The two are separate tasks in the beginning that begin to work together down the road.
  • Decide on one door, ideally the door your dog goes out to go potty and position the bell there. Your dog needs consistency, so you’ll need to make a decision and stick to it.
  • You must first make it part of your routine before it becomes a part of your pup’s routine. When you decide it is time for a potty break, lead your dog to the bell and encourage him to interact with it before taking him outside.
  • The more your dog is responsible for, the better. While many pet parents start by ringing the bell themselves and then taking the dog out, most find more success when the dog is given the chance to interact with the bell first. If your dog is given the opportunity to learn that his action caused a reward or a consequence, it is much easier for him to make the connection in his mind. Sometimes this can be as simple as pointing to the bells and your dog may give the new object an experimental nudge or as involved as placing a tiny bit of peanut butter or treat on the bells to encourage your dog to touch it. Either way, the key is to immediately reward any interaction with the bell, even if it barely made a sound, with lots of praise and immediate access to outside. You can fine-tune the behaviour once your dog understands the bell is worth interacting with.

How Can I Train My Dog to Use a Doggie Door?

A doggie door is a potentially convenient potty aid that many pet parents choose to install in their homes, especially if they are gone for long periods of time or are unable to take their dog out as often as they’d like. Some dogs take to doggie doors right away; others are more unsure, even scared of it. Keep in mind, to your dog it is the equivalent of asking you to walk through a wall—there is a certain level of trust and coaxing that needs to happen.

The process of training your dog to use a doggie door is relatively simple, requiring mostly the patience to break it down into as many small steps as your dog needs to be comfortable. After you install the door, you will help your dog to investigate it by holding the flap open for them and tossing treats through the hole. If your dog is reluctant, it can help to have a second family member outside calling the dog or luring them through with a treat rather than tossing it. Eventually, you will decrease the help you give the dog, such as, putting the treat through the flap but letting your dog put his head through himself (requiring him to push the flap on his own) or calling him back in from the backyard and only rewarding him once he has successfully gone through the door. In the end, the key to training to use a doggie door is to be patient and keep your dog comfortable; avoid pushing him beyond his comfort zone, which could cause him to reject the concept entirely.

An important safety note about doggie doors: Using it means your dog can have unscheduled and unsupervised time outside, which could provide an opportunity for your dog to encounter an animal, eat something they shouldn’t or even escape your yard. No matter how well-trained your dog may be, there should always be a certain level of caution to keep in your mind when you provide access to a doggie door.

How Do I Get My Dog on a Potty Routine?

A fun and helpful fact about your new canine companion is that he has a much shorter digestive tract than you, which means “what goes in must come out” is often a rather speedy process for most dogs. To help ensure success, stick to these helpful timing tips and training tricks:

  • Try to feed at the same times each day to help predict how long your dog goes between eating and going potty.
  • Most dogs need to potty right after a meal, so be sure you are available to give them a chance to potty after they eat.
  • Try to find the pattern in your dog’s potty habits. Because of their shorter digestive tract, you may find that your dog has a fairly predictable schedule. Rather than the “take them out as often as possible and cross your fingers” approach, find your dog’s “pattern” and follow it.
  • Take note of when your dog drinks water. What goes in must come out, so be sure to offer a potty break after a trip to the water bowl.
  • Bring your dog to the same spot every time. Remember, consistent routines are incredibly helpful. Keep them on their leash and try not to let them walk around exploring too much as they may get easily distracted by new smells as they discover them and forget about their “business.”

How Do I Fit Potty Training into My Schedule?

Sometimes the reality of life is that our schedules may not be lining up well—if at all—with our dog’s potty schedule. If possible, ensure your schedule is as flexible and accommodating as possible until your dog can get the basics of potty training down or until you have a clearer understanding of how long they are capable of holding it. While it is our job as the pet parent to set our pups up for success as well as we can through training, there are some things we simply cannot prevent or change. However, that does not mean that all is lost!

  • Invest in a dog walker – Even if it is only during potty training, ensuring your pup has the opportunity to relieve themselves when you are way for a longer period than they can handle is crucial to continued good habits.
  • Scheduling food/water – If what goes in must come out, then try having a stricter schedule of when anything goes in and alter meal/water consumption times to fit your schedules. If you go to bed at 9PM, don’t let your dog drink an entire bowl of water at 8:45PM without giving them the opportunity to potty before bedtime. And if you leave the house at 10AM, don’t feed your dog at 9:30AM when there won’t be enough time to potty before you go.

How Should I Handle Accidents During Potty Training?

It’s okay if your pup has an accident, it’s bound to happen. Be sure to treat the area with proper cleaning products. And consider went wrong and how you learn from it:

  • Was it a scheduling issue?
  • Did I ignore signs that my pup needed to go?
  • Did I give a lot of treats that we didn’t take into account?
  • Did your pup get distracted by something instead of going potty?

It is NEVER OKAY to punish a dog for doing what comes naturally to them. Many pet parents tend to mistakenly believe that a dog’s behaviour can only be deterred by punishing it, such as, rubbing their dog’s nose in their mess when they have an accident. This is not only not true but has been proven to delay their ability to learn proper potty habits, often causing dogs to become sneaky and eliminate away from the view of their pet parents.

This happens because the dog understands you are unhappy with them eliminating but doesn’t understand that it is the location and not the action that they are in trouble for. If you happen upon an accident, the best thing you can do is simply clean the area thoroughly and keep a closer eye on them in the future. If you happen to catch your dog in the process of having an accident, you should calmly interrupt them by lightly clapping your hands or calling them to follow you to the door. Then, take them to the proper area, and give them time to “get in the mood” again. When they eventually do go potty in the right area, praise and reward heavily. The goal is not to yell at or scare your dog, but for your dog to see the difference in your reaction. “If I go potty here, you are upset – if I go potty here, I get lots of love and treats!”

How Do I handle Potty-Training Regression?

It is not unheard of for a dog to take a backward step in potty habits, even after they’ve been successfully potty trained. We call this Potty-Training Regression, and it can be brought on by stressful changes in routine, new locations or travel. Even adverse weather can cause a setback or two in your potty training. Don’t dismay if this happens – often times, a few days of extra vigilance and going back to the basics can get you back on track, but there are things you can do to help prevent these setbacks.

  • If your dog is trained to use a bell, be sure to bring it with you when you travel and do a short training session with your dog, so he knows where it is.
  • Just like us, our dogs may have to eliminate more frequently during stressful situations – there’s nothing wrong with offering an extra potty break or two.
  • If possible, when traveling, spend some time doing a quick refresher on basic potty training. This includes taking them to the same spot routinely to develop a new habit.
  • If your dog is sensitive to changes in the weather, such as, cold, biting wind, snow or excessive rain, try to formulate a game plan before the weather hits. This includes establishing a potty spot that is more protected from wind, keeping a particular area shoveled clear of snow or finding an area a bit more sheltered from the rain.

Always remember: Consistency and patience are the keys to teaching your dog any successful behaviour, especially Potty Training. Be patient, be understanding – take responsibility for setting your dog up for success, and, above all, BE POSITIVE!

And reach out to your local PetSmart Trainer for additional assistance with Potty Training, preventing unwanted behaviours and strengthening your bond with your new best friend!

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