puppy house training

House Training Primer

This is part of our conversations with professional dog trainer and behaviorist, Russell Hartstein. 

 Who is smarter – you or your dog?

 We humans, with our allegedly superior brain power, take a couple of years to get out of diapers and figure out how to use the toilet.  Yet we get upset with our pups when they take a couple of weeks to master the whole house training concept.  The fact of the matter is that house training issues are almost always down to human failure to correctly teach our companion animals, not to stubbornness or stupidity on the animal’s part.  One of the most common reasons a person gives up a dog and takes her to a local shelter is that the pet parent can’t figure out how to house train the pup. So, the poor pup gets put to death because her ‘protector’ and parent couldn’t figure out how to house train her. Regardless of whether you adopted your pup from a rescue or shelter, re-homed her with you from the prior pet parent, purchased her from a breeder or rescued her directly from the street, she is absolutely trainable. You do not have to just live with peeing and pooping in hour home: Follow our house training guide and you will not only resolve the issue but you will improve your relationship with your dog, lower your mutual anxiety levels and restore your positive relationship with your animal companion. So! Here is all the information you will ever need to be able to successfully house train your pup.

Take the time to do it right

When you add a new canine family member, take some time off to work with your new baby to show her the ropes, bond with her and begin to give her the structure and instruction that will form the basis for what should be a long and happy co-existence.  Your dog wants to please you so help her do that by taking the time to train her properly.  Dogs don’t want confrontation, stress or anger thrown their way so do the right thing and house train your pup from the get-go.  Just as you would take time off for a new human baby, so should you take some time off for your new canine baby.

Eliminate punitive training methods

puppyPeople don’t like to hear it, but if your dog is not pooping and peeing when and where you want her to, roll up a newspaper, look in the mirror, and hit yourself over the head and say, “Bad human!” Or go over to the pee or poop and rub your nose in it and say very sternly, “NO!” As stupid as this sounds, is as just as stupid to do to others.  All kidding aside, it is always our fault if a dog pees or poops where we don’t want them too because we have ALLOWED them to do so. In other words, it is always our fault if a dog is not house trained.  So throw away your can with rocks or coins in it, your water spray bottle and all of your other punitive devices that you heard or read about on the internet or TV and focus on positive reinforcement and set your dog up for success.

Understand How your Pup Thinks: LOSS

There are four basic concepts which explain why a dog pees or poops where and when they do and you can remember them by using the mnemonic “LOSS”:

 L = Location. Dogs are location based. They are drawn to the same location and prefer to relieve themselves in the same location day and night. If your dog is peeing on your rug, furniture, bed, couch, in your living room, bedroom or any other place, these places must be immediately off limits to your pet. Do not allow your dog access to any areas where they have house soiled or previously marked. Because we know that dogs prefer to go in the same physical, tactile and geographic location to relieve themselves, we can use this information to our advantage. If we set a puppy up to go potty where we would prefer and not where they would prefer, their tendency to go potty in the correct location that we taught them will remain just as strong as if they decided to poop or pee where they taught themselves.

= Olfactory. Dogs have very strong noses. A dog’s olfactory system is many times that of human nose. A dog prefers to eliminate in the same general smelling area as they did before. Make sure you watch the awesome, “How do dogs see with their noses?” video below:

Now that you understand the power and amazing abilities of your dog’s nose, you may look at him with a newfound respect and approach his house training with more sophistication and greater success.

S = Substrate. Urine and feces are composed of chemicals and have a chemical breakdown. Specifically, the proteins in pee and poo emit a noxious chemical concoction irresistible to canines. Your dog wants to relieve herself on top of or next to other dogs’ pee and poo. Poop and pee communicate information and social signals to dogs including, who passed and when; a dog’s age, health, social and reproductive status; if the dog has been neutered or spayed; if the dog is friendly; the dog’s gender and breed.  So, this is your pup’s way of exchanging business cards and communicating with other dogs.  Allow your dog to sniff and investigate other dogs’ rear ends – that is no more gross or weird than you shaking someone’s hand (who knows where that’s been??), exchanging business cards and greetings and getting to know one another.

= Spatial. This is perhaps the most important component of house training and refers to the pet parent’s management of your dog’s space, both outside and inside.  When you control your dog’s space and environment, you also control their preferred olfactory location, their preferred substrate location and, if you control the spatial component of where you dog is allowed to eliminate you obviously control the location component as well. In fact, all of LOSS may be controlled through spatial management (discussed in more detail below). Essentially, you must control the areas your dog has access to in your home and the management of that space to successfully managing your dog’s pee or poop cycle and set them up for success. Once your pup is fully house trained, the spacial management aspects can be considerably relaxed.  Just remember that every time you allow your dog to pee or poop in the house or in the wrong location you set them back several steps in the drive toward perfect house training.

The LOSS principles provide a road map of where and why your dog wants to urinate or defecate. No, your dog is not stubborn, stupid, being spiteful, vindictive, obstinate, or intransigent. Your dog is being, well, a dog, and exhibiting species-specific behavior.  Getting mad at your dog for peeing or pooing in the ‘wrong’ location is as silly as getting mad at your dog for breathing.

What Goes In Must Come Out

Potty Training a Puppy DogDogs are like clockwork.  Your pup’s age will tell you how long she can hold in urine and feces. Generally, the younger the dog, the shorter the ability to hold it. As your dog gets older and increases her ability to hold it, you may adjust your times and schedules accordingly. Initially just observe your pup to learn what her natural cycle is and what their preferred timing is to poop and pee after they eat and drink. This requires observation and awareness which is one of the many reasons for you to take some time off and stay home with your new pup.  This will also allow you to take her outside to the designated pooping and peeing spots as frequently as necessary for her to learn where and when you want her to eliminate.  While your best tool to house train your pup is spatial management, managing all aspects of LOSS will make it easier for your dog to build great ‘bathroom’ habits and avoid doing her business inside the house.

Medical Issues Come First

First and foremost your dog should receive a clean bill of health from your veterinarian to rule out any medical incontinence issues. If your adult dog suddenly starts peeing in the house, medical issues are likely the cause. Many medical issues can cause or contribute to your dog’s elimination needs. These include:

  • sick-boxerYour dog’s age
  • Medications your dog is on
  • Other resident animals in the house and/or outdoor animals
  • Allergies
  • Food reaction/change/contamination
  • Fever/common cold
  • General illness
  • Arthritis – Pain when squatting to urinate or defecate
  • Diabetes
  • Ectopic Ureter (Abnormally formed urinary system)
  • Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Bladder infection or bladder stones
  • Kidney disease/failure/tumor
  • Liver disease
  • Adrenal gland disease
  • Cushing’s syndrome
  • Addison’s disease
  • Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (dementia)

Once you’ve eliminated any medical issues which might cause incontinence for your pup, start with the following steps and resources:

Tools of the Trade: Calling all control freaks and micromanagers. You know who you are! Your time has come, you have waited your entire life for his moment and here it is, so don’t screw it up! This is where you get to practice your control/management of your dog. By that I mean the following. Say hello to your new best friends and practices:

  • Enzymatic Spray: “Accidents” will happen during the training process so best to be prepared. Since you now know that your dog’s powerful nose can smell the chemical protein breakdown in pee and poo well after you clean it with your regular daily household cleaner, you’ll need to use an enzymatic cleaner in order to really get rid of the lingering smells and stains.  Enzymatic cleaning solutions break down the enzymes that draw dogs to the same location (substrate) again and again. This will help stop the cycle of peeing or pooping where your pup or another dog went to the bathroom in the past.
  • Empty all garbage containers: Take any cleaning materials you have used to clean up poop or pee, such as paper towels, towels and newspapers to the outdoor garbage. You don’t want those smells lingering inside and making your home smell like a dog park and inviting place to eliminate again.
  • Baby Gates: These enable you to change the arrangement of your house in a hurry by blocking off certain rooms and giving you the ability to watch your dog without having to close your doors.
  • Hire a dog walker:  A dog walker or dog runner won’t help you with the house training but for working breed dogs, dogs with a lot of energy and any dog who has to stay at home for more than a couple of hours while you are at work, dog walkers are vital. They can provide much needed stimulation, enrichment, exercise and bathroom relief from your pup who is “holding it in” while you are at work. It is inhumane and negligent to leave your pup in a crate all day while you are at work.  Your pup needs stimulation, enrichment, exercise, love, care and the ability to relieve herself on a regular basis.
  • Strict supervision: Vigilance is required during house training. There is no getting around this. Dogs are very time intensive, especially during house training. If you don’t have the time to train your pup properly, perhaps a dog is not currently a good idea for you.
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom: Do not get lazy or wait too long in between ‘bathroom’ trips. The more frequently you take your pup outside for a potty break, the more likely she will go in your preferred location. In other words, the more time you spend outdoors with your dog the more likely this is she will do her business out there and establish her favorite – and appropriate – locations.
  • puppy pen outdoorsDog/Puppy Pens: If you can, use a dog pen to control and manage your dog’s space in your house. Put the dog crate in one of the four corners of the puppy pen or make it part of the pen perimeter by attaching the pen ends to each side of the opening of the dog crate. Leave the dog crate door open with an additional dog bed inside the crate. When you are completely controlling your dog’s peeing and pooping schedule, you will have your pup inside the crate with the crate door closed. At all other times, when your dog has already appropriately eliminated and you are watching her, you may leave the dog crate door open and allow her to roam around her doggie den (inside of the closed pen).  Place another bed outside of her crate in the other corner of the pen so that she has another place to hang out if she wants to be out of the crate.
  • Earn space: Start with a puppy pen area and have your dog earn more space, room by room, over the course of several months. Err on the side of caution and safety and do not assume that your dog “knows where to go now” because she’s had no accidents for a few weeks. If you suddenly provide her with access to the whole house and she has an ‘accident’ that will set the clock back on her house training. Patience is a virtue here and the goal is to eventually be able to allow your pup free range of the whole house.
  • Wee wee pads: You may want to cover the floor area of the pen with wee wee pads, newspaper or a washable tarp if you are not going to be able to be as vigilant as necessary.  You may also use sod to mimic a grass environment which is ultimately where you want to train your pup to eliminate. If you have enough time and able to go outside with your pup frequently during the day, you may skip the sod and wee wee pads.
  • Dog/Puppy Crates: Dogs are den animals and generally prefer cozy, smaller spaces, so long as the space is size-appropriate for your pup.  She should be able to stand up and turn comfortably in the space. You do not, however, want a crate where the puppy or dog may relieve themselves on one side of the crate and then nap on the other side. This defeats the purpose of the crate.  Also remember that the crate doesn’t have to be a standard plastic one. You can create a nice, cozy ‘Zen’ area for your pup out of re-purposed furniture, sturdy boxes or any other material.  Standard commercial crates are also useful for safely transporting your dog, when staying at a hotel, going to the vet, travelling in the car on vacation, or going on a boat, plane or train. A dog crate offers a safe place for your dog if she is recuperating from an injury, surgery or illness or if you have visitors who are afraid of dogs or vice versa. If you have contractors or construction workers coming and going, a dog crate will keep your dog safe from any chemicals and materials lying around and provide a safe, relaxing environment away from the construction noise and traffic. During emergencies, hurricanes and other natural disasters, your dog will feel safe, comfortable and relaxed in her doggie den. Caveat: If your dog has had a bad experience with her crate, or exhibits anxiety, fear, panting, pacing, drooling, yawning, barking, scratching at the crat etc. stop using the crate and call a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant to work with you on desensitization and counterconditioning.

Dogs innately do not like to defecate or urinate where they sleep and will therefore generally hold it in while they are in their crate. However, don’t abuse this by leaving your pup in the crate so long that she suffers and/or is forced to eliminate in the crate.  This will cause her stress and anxiety and could cause a bad reaction to continued use of the crate.  Your dog should have the opportunity to relieve herself a minimum of 4 times a day. Keep in mind that a puppy must go out every 1 – 2 hours, including when they first wake up, before bed time, after they eat, after they drink and after they play. It is also cruel to confine a juvenile, adolescent or adult dog to a crate for many hours.

House training problemsControlled hydration:  Water management is an important part of the house training process. Until your pup is fully house trained do not provide free access to water 24/7. While this may seem like blaspheme to some, no harm will come to your pup so long as you provide her with water every couple of hours (depending on her activity level, health, age, environment etc.). Provide water at all times after your dog is house trained and do NOT deprive your pup of water when she is thirsty, sick, dehydrated, on medication, after exercise, after meals or exposed to direct sun or heat.  However, during house training, assuming your dog is healthy, provide all the fresh, clean, cool water your dog can slurp down about every 2 hours. After that, pick the water bowl up and start the timer on your watch.  Put the bowl back down every 2 hours.  Before bed, it’s last call! Pick your dog’s water bowl up an hour before you go to bed and remember to immediately give your pup all she wants to drink as soon as you wake up.

The goal is for your puppy to become reliable enough to roam free around your house, not to stay in a crate for life or for you to have to monitor her water intake.

So, what exactly is it you are supposed to be doing??

new puppy pen setup

Once you have your proper set-up (see image) and are following the hydration schedule, it’s a simple process of taking your pup outside on a regular basis, waiting for her to do her business, rewarding her and celebrating, taking her back inside to her crate/pen and then repeating the process. As your pup slowly earns more space by waiting to go outside to do her business, you will be able to give her more freedom in your house, be able to be less vigilant and eventually get rid of the pen set up.


  • A puppy should be picked up out of the crate and held on the way to go piddle outdoors or she may piddle in the elevator, stairwell or anywhere on the way to go outdoors. Simply pick her up out of the crate and hold her, walk out to the spot where you want her to pee and poo, and place her down on the grass or wherever you wish your puppy to relieve herself. As a smart pet parent, you will always be prepared to reward you pup with a delicious treat (not her usual kibble) and a celebratory ‘party’ after they pee and/or poo.
  • When you take your dog outside to pee or poop, just stand there and do not pay attention, pet, look at, talk to, play with, or show her any toys or treats until she does her business. This means she should be in a relatively boring environment to do her business and then the celebration begins. If she has to go it should take under 5 minutes. If she does not go potty, simply take her back inside to her closed crate and start the clock again and wait another 30 minutes or so and repeat the process.
  • If you don’t sound silly praising your pup with your over-the-top, high-pitched voice when she pees and poops where and when you want her to (the celebratory party), you aren’t doing it correctly.
  • Do not punish your pup if she has an accident – just realize that you clearly did not take her outside often enough and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Common House Training Pitfalls

Too much space:  Increasing space and decreasing vigilance is the bane of a great house training plan. The adage, “my house is your house” will set you and your dog up for failure. My home is your home will come down the road, after your puppy is house trained. Start small and let her earn space slowly and steadily. Providing more space and increase the space provided to your dog slowly. Too much, too soon will cause accidents. Remember, habits (good and bad) take a while to form and stick. Dogs are time intensive but generally not space intensive. Invest a few months of inconvenience and vigilance for years of happy and joyous pee and poop-free home – it’s a great ROI.

Lazy to reward good behavior: Unfortunately we are generally quick to punish and scold bad behavior but often forget or take for granted our dog’s good behavior because we just “expect” our dogs to understand us and to behave like little fur baby angels. You can never over-reward peeing and pooing quickly and on cue. Regardless of your dog’s age, it is always OK to reward good behavior, including peeing outside, with praise, a treat or a turn off-leash.  Also, once your pup does her business, don’t rush her back inside – continue walking for a bit more.  Otherwise she’ll start to associate peeing with the end of walk time and will start to hold it longer and longer just to prolong the walk.  If you treat generously, frequently and consistently, your dog will start to pee and poo like Flash Gordon and you both will be happier and healthier for it.

Dogs in grass


About Russell: Russell is an entrepreneur and a financier who traded in his Wall Street life for furry paws, wagging tails and licks. He engages in his passion for dog training, ethology, cognitive ethology and pet care and finds an abundance of satisfaction and fulfillment helping families and their animal companions. Russell is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC, Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), is a member of the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG), the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals (AABP),  and was awarded a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and STAR Puppy Evaluator by the American Kennel Club (AKC).


©Onpets, LLC 2016.  All rights reserved.

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