“Here’s the good news: Housetraining is a simple, step-by-step process. All you need to do is insure that your puppy is in one of three situations at all times during housetraining. He should be either outside with you, inside with your constant supervision, or confined in a small, puppy-proofed space such as a crate, small room or gated area.” – Patricia McConnell & Karen London, Way to Go! How to Housetrain a Dog of Any Age
Whether you’re working with a young puppy or an older rescue dog, you’ll follow these same steps in order to housetrain your dog. Best of luck!
Important: If your dog is continuously having problems with eliminating in inappropriate places despite your dedicated and consistent efforts to housetrain her, or if your dog was housetrained but recently started to urinate and defecate in unwanted areas, you always want to rule out medical issues.
When You’re at Home:
- Constant supervision is key. When you are home, you need to be watching your dog at all times. You can even tether your dog to your waist or to a piece of furniture in the same room you’re in. Basically, you always need to be aware of your dog, because you do not want to miss an opportunity to take her outdoors and reward her for eliminating in the appropriate place.
- Take frequent bathroom breaks. Try to take your dog out at least once every hour. You can pick a specific bathroom spot outside and always go to that same place. Quietly wait with her for several minutes. The idea is that this trip outside is to pee or poop, not to play or get very distracted by anything. You want her to be able to focus on eliminating if she needs to.
“Avoid staring at your dog while you’re waiting and when he starts sniffing the ground in preparation to potty. Staring will make some dogs less likely to get down to business because it looks like you want to interact. If he stares at you because he smells the treats in your pocket, cross your arms and look away. He’ll give up on you soon enough and start sniffing the grass.” – McConnell & London
- Reward immediately after your dog eliminates. If you see your puppy about to eliminate outdoors (when she squats down), you can introduce a cue (such as “Go potty” or another word that you are comfortable saying in public) and as she is finishing, you can click (or use a marker word such as “Yes!”) and reward her with a high quality treat (think bits of hot dog) and lots of praise.
I would advise using food for the fastest results, but if your dog is toy-motivated, you can definitely engage in play as well. Think about what your dog finds most rewarding and use it! After your dog pees or poops, you can also spend some additional time outside with her. That way she won’t learn that she’ll immediately be taken back indoors after eliminating [instead of being able to continue enjoying the outdoors].
- Stay on a schedule. If you always feed your puppy at the same times, you’ll have a better idea of when she needs to go out.
“What goes into a puppy on a schedule comes out of a puppy on a schedule. Depending on their age, puppies usually need to be fed three or four times a day. Feeding your puppy at the same times each day will make it more likely that he’ll eliminate at consistent times as well, and that makes housetraining easier for both of you.” – Humane Society of the United States
- Take your dog outside after certain events. It’s a good idea to take her outside after she eats/drinks, after waking up, before bed, and after any period of activity such as playing or training. Some signs that she might need to go out are: whining, restless behavior, circling, sniffing around, and scratching at the door.
- Remove water at night. You can take away her water dish a couple of hours before bedtime.
“Pick up your puppy’s water dish about two and a half hours before bedtime to reduce the likelihood that she’ll need to potty during the night. Most puppies can sleep for approximately seven hours without having to eliminate.
If your puppy does wake you up in the night, don’t make a big deal of it; otherwise, he will think it is time to play and won’t want to go back to sleep. Turn on as few lights as possible, don’t talk to or play with your puppy, take him out to do his business and return him to his bed.” – Humane Society of the United States
When You’re Not at Home:
“Whenever you can’t watch your pup, he needs to be in a small space like a crate or a small, puppy-proofed area. There are two advantages to this. First, dogs will try their best not to soil their sleeping area, so your puppy is less likely to soil in a little, den-like place than any other area of your house. Second, his crate or puppy room prevents the bad habit of going potty anywhere else in the house, and housetraining is all about developing good habits and preventing bad ones.” – Patricia McConnell & Karen London
- Limit your dog’s access. Until your dog is fully housetrained, you want to avoid giving her much access indoors. Every time that she is able to pee indoors, the behavior of peeing indoors is reinforced (and emptying the bladder brings a great feeling of relief, so that is also very rewarding).
A crate can be a very useful tool to help keep your dog contained. Getting your dog used to a crate can also help prepare her for future vet visits and transportation (whether in a car, in case of emergency, or even airplane travels).
An alternative to crating is confining your dog to a small room (by closing doors and/or putting up a baby gate) or using an exercise pen. That way you can leave your dog in a larger area with bedding, toys, and possibly water. Your dog will have more space to move around, and like dog trainer Emily Larlham, I agree that “The more choices a dog has during the day, the less hyperactive and frantic the dog will be when you return home.”
“Generally speaking, a puppy can control his bladder one hour for every month of age. So if your puppy is two months old, he can hold it for about two hours. Don’t go longer than this between bathroom breaks, or he’s guaranteed to have an accident. If you work outside the home, this means you’ll have to hire a dog walker to give your puppy his bathroom breaks.”
– Humane Society of the United States
When Accidents Happen:
- Whenever possible, interrupt accidents. If you catch your puppy eliminating indoors, you can interrupt her by clapping softly (not to scare her, just to get her attention) and saying something like “Outside!” as you pick her up and carry her outdoors as quickly as possible. (If you’re housetraining a large dog [or one that is very uncomfortable with being picked up], you can just clip her leash on and walk her outside.) Since she was interrupted, it may take her several minutes before she is ready to finish going in the appropriate place. She might need some time to settle down/walk around and sniff a bit.
- Don’t punish your dog verbally or physically. She may interpret the punishments as indications that she shouldn’t eliminate in front of you. With animal training, always focus on ignoring/redirecting unwanted behavior & on teaching and rewarding the desired behavior. Intimidation is not a necessary component of effective dog training. Do your best to keep calm and carry on.
- Make it clear which places are inappropriate for elimination. If your dog tends to have accidents in the same places, you want to make it clear that these areas are part of her den and not appropriate places to eliminate. You can spend more time around those areas training and playing. You can also put her bowls or bed in the spot(s) where she usually goes.
- Use an enzymatic cleaner to clean up accidents. Two options in the U.S. are Nature’s Miracle and XO, but I am not sure what is available here in Costa Rica. (If you can’t find any enzymatic cleaners, you might try out these natural homemade cleaners to remove pet stains and odors.) Typical household cleaners are not able to properly cover the scent/may contain ammonia, which is confusing to the dog because ammonia is also found in their urine, so it can smell like a good place to pee.
- Clean up accidents calmly and quietly. If you are kneeling on the floor, do not engage with your dog in any way/don’t allow her to steal the paper towels (basically, don’t give her the chance to create the possible association of peeing = you getting down on the floor to play with her/give her attention).
- “Let it be, let it be.” I know that it may be very frustrating, but if you come home to find that your dog has eliminated in the house, it is too late to do anything. Dogs live in the present much more than we do, and they make associations with events that occur right after each other. They are not good at thinking back to earlier events or figuring out what specifically it was that made you angry. If a dog “looks guilty,” it actually has to do with her offering appeasement signals because she knows you’re upset (from your tone of voice and body language), not because she knows why you’re angry or what she did.
House training is obviously not the most fun part of having a dog, but the more you supervise her and reward correct behavior, the faster you’ll move towards your dog understanding what it is that she should do [in order to earn some tasty treats]. Keeping a schedule may help to keep track of your puppy’s progress, any unusual events, and who is taking her in and out. Here is a great “Housetraining Chart” from the blog Very Fetching.
Check out these helpful resources:
- “How to Housetrain Your Dog or Puppy” – Humane Society of the United States
- “House Training Your Puppy or Rescue Dog” – Dog trainer Emily Larlham (“Kikopup”)
- “What’s the best way to housetrain my puppy?” – Dog trainer Pat Miller. I love that she wrote, “If you must spank someone with a rolled up newspaper, hit yourself in the head three times while repeating, ‘I will watch the dog more closely; I will watch the dog more closely; I will watch the dog more closely.'”
- “Way to Go! How to Housetrain a Dog of Any Age” is a booklet by animal behaviorists and dog trainers Patricia McConnell and Karen London. You can look over the first few pages here.
On Crate Training:
“Lots of people have great luck with crates, because many dogs feel comfortable sleeping in small, enclosed den-like places. We like to put the crate in the bedroom, where your pup will be calmed by your presence at night…
To teach your pup to be comfortable in his crate (we’ll use ‘crate’ from now on to describe your puppy’s sleeping place), toss treats into it so that your dog learns to love going inside to get them. If your pup is hesitant about going inside, put the treats on the lip of the crate and gradually toss the treats farther and farther toward the back. Don’t shut the door, just let him run in and out as he pleases. Do this three to five times in a row so that your dog associates going into the crate with a fun game, rather than the beginning of being trapped. Repeat this exercise every couple of hours during the day. Once your dog happily charges into the crate, begin to shut the door for just a second after he enters it. After a few more sessions of that, toss in a treat, shut the door, then feed your dog through the gate.
The next step is to leave him in the crate with a stuffed Kong® to keep him busy. Once he’s involved with licking out the food, walk away, only to return in about 30 seconds (before he has had a chance to lick up all the food), open the door, and encourage him to come out. With repetition, he will learn to love being left in his crate and he will be happy to be in there for a long enough time to finish what he’s doing.
Other ways to help your pup feel comfortable in his sleeping place are to line it with a towel that you or his littermates slept on, a T-Shirt that smells like you, or something else soft and fuzzy to make it cozy. These soft cloth objects help many puppies to cope with being left alone at night, but some puppies will just chew them up, so this may not work for every dog.”
– Patricia McConnell & Karen London
Gia’s notes: You can freeze the stuffed Kong if you need it to last longer.
If your dog is whining inside of the crate and you want to let her out, wait for even a moment of silence before doing so. If you acknowledge your dog while she is whining inside of the crate, you are reinforcing the behavior and increasing the likelihood that she will do so more often in the future.