How to Potty Train a Puppy in 9 Easy Steps

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Instructions by a Thumbtack professional

Learn how to potty train a puppy in 9 easy steps

Potty training a puppy is a full-time gig. John Vinton, founder of A Better Dog Trainer in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been training dogs for 12 years. He says there is never a time he’s not working with puppies and that potty training a puppy is one of the most common — and most difficult — issues new dog-owners come to him with.

Start potty training your pup as soon as you get it, Vinton says. But keep in mind that puppies shouldn’t leave their moms any younger than eight weeks old. Your first 30 days together should be focused on potty training and preventing separation anxiety. Also, don’t expose your unvaccinated puppy to unsafe places. If you have a new pup or are thinking about adding one to your family, follow Vinton’s tips for potty training.

Shopping List

Dog crate, dog bedding, pee pads, child gate, collar, leash, treats

STEP 1: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Gather equipment

These potty training tools will help you get started with potty training right away when your pup comes home:

  • A hard- or soft-sided crate that is a good size for your dog. Don’t get a huge crate for a small dog and vice-versa.
  • Cozy bedding for the crate
  • Pee pads (optional)
  • A child gate or similar tool to use to contain the dog in one room
  • A properly fitting collar and leash

STEP 2: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Prep the environment

Before bringing your puppy home, it’s important to prep the environment. To shape behavior from day one, Vinton recommends creating structured boundaries to educate your new dog about how to behave in different locations.

  • A specific location for your puppy’s crate
  • A specific restricted or supervised area where they will be most of the time (often a room with tile floors).
  • An outdoor location that the dog will use as a bathroom — keep in mind that you’ll want your puppy to exit and enter the same door each time to use its outdoor bathroom.
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STEP 3: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Use a dog crate

In potty training, a crate helps teach the puppy how to hold in its urine. A puppy will naturally not want to pee in its cozy den. Eventually puppies learn how to control their bladders and communicate when they need to go.

To facilitate crate training, never use the crate as punishment or in a way that the puppy will associate a negative experience with it. How long a puppy can stay in a crate is roughly equal to how many months old it is. However, no puppy should be left in its crate for more than three or four hours, even it it is older than four months old.

You want to create a positive experience with the crate by setting the tone immediately. Your dog should be able to stand up, turn around, and lie down comfortably in the crate. But don’t get a crate that is too big. You want to keep it cozy. The cozier the crate size, the less likely the dog will go to the bathroom in the crate.

STEP 4: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Teach the puppy to use the supervised space

Your puppy can only be in its crate for short spells. Most of the time, it will be in the designated supervised, or restricted, space. Here, you can keep your eye on the dog and watch for signs that it needs to use the bathroom.

When you notice that your dog has to pee or poop, carry or walk the dog to the designated outdoor "bathroom" spot. Be sure to use the same door and same path outside each time. If your dog starts to go to the bathroom in the supervised space, don’t scare the dog or yell — a loud clap can be used to give it pause. Immediately take the dog outside to the pee spot and let it finish.

To redirect your dog, you have to catch it in the act or within five seconds of the act. Once outside, praise the dog after it goes, but not while it’s going. If you praise them mid-act, they might get distracted, stop and end up finishing on your carpet.

Spread out pee pads in the restricted area if you have to leave your new puppy alone for any length of time — such as during your work day.

STEP 5: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Get on a schedule

In the first weeks, take your dog out to pee every 45–60 minutes. They have tiny bladders! Don’t wait for them to have to pee. In addition to the 45–60 minute rule, take your puppy out anytime it gets up from a nap and after every play session. It’s also important to take them out about 10 minutes after eating or drinking — and then again one hour later.

In the evening, take them out two or three times before they settle down for the night, and then one last time immediately before they go to bed. If your dog is less than four months old, you should plan to get up to take it out in the middle of the night about five hours after it goes to sleep. You may need to adjust this timing if your puppy has an accident. And you can extend the timing as your puppy grows and learns to hold it longer. After about four months of age, your puppy should be physically capable of making it through the night.

Look for signals that your dog is ready to go out: sniffing, circling, whining, changing of body posture, walking to the door.

STEP 6: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Create a routine for going outside

Your new puppy should have a designated bathroom space outdoors. Each time you take the pup out to use the bathroom, guide it back to the same spot. If you have a big yard, consider leashing the puppy to prevent a wild puppy from cavorting around the lawn when it’s business time.

As soon as your dog wakes up in the morning, carry or walk it out to that outdoor spot. Within three weeks, the dog will recognize the spot. Eventually it will lead you to the designated spot, which is a great sign of progress.

Don’t take the dog out and leave it alone. Always accompany your puppy to the designated spot until the behavior is learned. You don’t want the dog to associate being outside with being left alone. Feel free to give your puppy a treat on occasion after it uses the outdoor bathroom to reinforce it as a positive experience.

STEP 7: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Address accidents

Accidents are going to happen. It’s a puppy fact of life. If your puppy makes a mess, there’s nothing left to do but clean it up. Vinton advises against punishing or spanking your puppy because it will instill fear. Try to take your emotions out of the process. You may be mad that your dog peed all over your chair, but you have to be patient, Vinton says. Don’t associate any negative experiences with using the bathroom, or you’ll end up with a dog who has ongoing potty training issues.

STEP 8: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Sync feeding with potty training

Food and water, obviously, is directly related to your dog’s need to go out. Cut off water about two or three hours before your puppy’s bedtime. Keep a three-times-a-day feeding schedule and wean your puppy down to two meals a day at about five or six months. Always feed your dog at the same times each day to get them on a regular schedule, which will help tremendously with potty training.

STEP 9: Learn how to potty train a puppy

Ease off of potty training

Eventually your dog will know to communicate with you when it has to go outside. Potty training can take anywhere from several weeks to two years, depending on the dog — as well as the person doing the training.

A dog trainer can help you avoid pitfalls, help get your pup on a schedule, and give you and your family tips for how to best potty train your specific dog. Get professional help if you stop seeing progress, if the accidents aren’t decreasing or if they’re getting more frequent.

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