Taking the “Oops!” Out of Housebreaking

Taking the "Oops!" Out of Housebreaking

Carmen, a 16-week-old Havanese, has pee pads in each room of the house, and she faithfully uses them. Once, when a pee pad was picked up but not replaced, the puppy cried out and ran into the adjoining room to use the pee pad there. When it comes to housebreaking, is Carmen unlike a typical puppy? She is a toy breed, after all, and aren't they supposed to be more difficult to train? No. At 4 months of age, Carmen offers an example of what a puppy owner can expect if he or she practices good housebreaking methods: establishing a substrate preference, rewarding successful behavior, using containment, supervising and developing a routine.

Substrate Preference - What is This?

To decide the location in which your puppy will learn to relieve himself, you first must determine the pup's "substrate preference" - the surface on which he prefers to eliminate. "You want to create a situation, called a conditioned response, in which it feels right to urinate on the grass, pine straw or whatever substrate you have chosen," explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist Barbara L. Sherman, Ph.D.,
D.V.M., clinical associate professor in the department of clinical sciences at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, N.C. At 8 weeks of age, puppies can begin establishing a substrate preference. The substrate you choose will depend on your end goal, says Mira Leibstein, a certified dog trainer; owner of Click

Lab puppy at Sierra Valley Labs looking for his potty substrate during housebreaking training
Red is a spunky male loves chasing and playing with his littermates

-n-Train in Oceanside, N.Y.; and author of "Training Your Chihuahua" For example, Carmen, the Havanese puppy, was taught to seek out and relieve herself on a pee pad. "An increasing number of small dog owners in urban areas or areas where weather can be really bad in the winter create indoor potty stations," Leibstein says. Indoor potty stations can consist of pee pads, litter boxes or even indoor "grass" setups.
An indoor potty station works for a toy-breed dog, but what if you have a Labrador Retriever or German Shepherd Dog whom you want to eliminate outside? "If you want to do housebreaking outside, you need to work toward that goal," Leibstein says. Outdoor stations can include grass or mulch in the back yard, on the patio or on a wooden deck.

Reward the Successes

To teach a dog to develop a substrate preference, the owner must create and reward success.When your puppy needs to relieve himself, take him directly to the desired substrate (i.e., pee pad, doggie litter box, grassy area, pine straw mulch area, etc.). "Remain an impartial observer," Sherman says, and allow your puppy to relieve himself in the appropriate place. Then reward the dog's success with gentle praise, a small treat, some playtime or a walk.
Sherman notes that if used as a reward, walks should occur after potty time rather than during initial housebreaking efforts; otherwise, it might become more difficult for the pup to establish a substrate preference. "Using a walk as a reward teaches a puppy to learn to eliminate immediately when taken outside," Sherman says, adding that this "hurry-up" strategy becomes "very useful during inclement weather or when there is insufficient time for a walk."

IF you've just finished a hearty play session,
sure to take your puppy to his potty station
or the correct surface, and reward
the behavior that you want.

To successfully establish a substrate preference, you also must prevent your puppy from
relieving himself in inappropriate areas, Sherman says. Anytime a dog urinates or defecates on the wrong surface, he learns to thinkthat surface is an acceptable potty spot. Then he begins to establish a substrate preference for the family rug or a patio, for example, instead of (or in addition to) a pee pad or the back yard. To create the greatest possible opportunity for success and to prevent accidents, try a two-pronged training approach using containment and supervision.


"As soon as a puppy can toddle, he naturally seeks to keep the area where he sleeps clean," says Cathy Hubert-Markos, a professional dog trainer and owner of Boxers von Bachbett in La Crosse, Wis. "Puppies as young as 3 weeks of age will go to an area of the whelping box to relieve themselves. Crate training takes into account the natural fastidiousness of dogs." The general recommendation is to make the crate an inviting place. "I like the crate to be the most comfortable place for the puppy,"
Sherman says. It should become a place where the puppy wants to sleep and relax. Also, it should be just large enough for the dog to stand up, turn around and lie down completely sprawled out on his side. Place your puppy in the crate when it's nap time, when you can't directly supervise him and
while you reinforce housebreaking. Once your puppy spends some time in the crate, Hubert-Markos recommends taking him directly to his substrate or potty station to relieve himself. Your dog learns to "hold it" while in the crate, and when he relieves himself on the correct surface, it reinforces his substrate-preference training. Remember to praise your pup for his success.

(Learn more about crate training in "crate-training-potty-training-labrador-puppy-101" .)

Leave your puppy in the crate only for as long as he can "hold it." This length of time depends on the puppy's schedule, age and activity level in the crate. "Before 8 weeks of age, puppies do not have great control," explains Brenda]. Stevens,
D.V.M., clinical assistant professor at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, N.C. No one formula for how long a puppy can hold it works for everyone. The old rule that puppies can hold it for as many hours as months they are old (e.g., a 3-month-old can go three hours between potty sessions) should not be used. Some 2-month-old puppies can hold it for two hours, whereas other puppies the same age might need to relieve themselves once every hour-and-a-half. Additionally, a puppy's activity level while in the crate will affect his ability to hold elimination. "If a puppy is upset, that increases his heart rate, which increases the pup's blood flow,
which increases the circulation of blood through the kidneys, thus increasing the amount of urine produced," Sherman says. If your dog does not settle into his crate and feels stressed, he likely will need to relieve himself sooner than a restful puppy might.
Don't expect your puppy to make it through the night without a potty break for a while; it might take some time before you can get a full night's sleep. "By the time most dogs hit about 6 months or so, they should be able to go through the night [without having to relieve themselves]," Stevens says. 

Your puppy's ability to hold it during the night
depends on the same factors that influence how long he
can hold it during the day: the schedule you've developed,
your dog's age and his activity level in the crate.

Your puppy's ability to hold it during the night depends on the same factors that influence how long he can hold it during the day: the schedule you've developed, your dog's age and his activity level while in the crate. If your pup isn't relaxed and sleeping for the majority of those eight hours, it's likely he won't be able to hold it throughout the entire night.


Housebreaking success requires constant supervision whenever your puppy isn't confined. Your goal is to prevent accidents from happening by recognizing when your puppy needs to relieve himself. Signals include turning quickly, circling, sniffing or running behind objects (such as the couch or chair or under a desk). Dogs move quickly, so you don't have much time. Gently scoop up your pup, and take him to the correct location.
Remain aware of your puppy's activity level, too. When your dog exerts himself, his heart rate goes up and he produces more urine. If you've just finished a hearty play session, make sure to take your puppy to his potty station or the correct surface, and reward the behavior that you want.
To owners training their puppies to relieve themselves on grass, pine mulch or another substrate outside, Hubert-Markos says, "Go out with the puppy, and make sure he actually relieves himself." This ensures two things: You are there to praise your dog for the appropriate behavior, and your dog relieves himself. Otherwise, your pup might run inside and relieve himself on the floor 15 seconds later.

Developing a Routine

Routine, consistency and knowing your puppy's bowel-movement schedule are keys to housebreaking. "For most dogs, feeding stimulates the system; they will defecate within a half-hour or so," Stevens says. Use this knowledge to develop a routine that works around your dog's biological schedules.
For most puppies, this involves going to the chosen substrate or potty station immediately upon waking in the morning. Then it's playtime, followed by mealtime and a l5-minute lockdown or confinement period in a crate or pen or using 100-percent supervision while on leash. "This is when a young puppy learns to hold it," Leibstein explains.
Afterward, remove the puppy from confinement, and immediately take him to the potty station. ''After your puppy relieves himself, he has the freedom to play, explore and take a leashed walk," Leibstein says. The same routine follows each feeding period which, for young puppies, should occur three times a day, with additional periods of rest and relief When setting up a routine for your puppy, remember that puppies don't know when it's the weekend, Hubert-Markos says. "If your schedule includes taking out your puppy at 5:30 a.m. on the weekdays, then you need to follow this routine on weekends, too."
In the beginning, it helps to keep a record of your pup's food, water, exercise and relief times. You should notice patterns forming (for example, your puppy might defecate two or three times just after waking and eating); these can help you tweak your dog's overall routine and provide a schedule that gives him the greatest opportunity to succeed. (***********************************************)
Every puppy will have "oops" moments. Don't feel disheartened, though. "A lot of people get discouraged and give up after working half-heartedly for only a week or two to develop a good routine," Leibstein says. "This is the wrong time to give up!"

Cleaning Accidents
Accidents do happen. Make sure you clean up thoroughly, and do not use ammonia-based products, these smell like urine to your puppy and might induce her to go in the same spot in the future. To make sure you get the smell up use a Nature's Miracle product on our Recommended Products Page.

With a reasonable schedule, close supervision and consistent management of your puppy's routine, you can set up your dog for success.
"It's all about creating success, rewarding success and preventing elimination in the wrong places," Sherman says. The more positive experiences your dog has, the quicker he will become reliable in your home.

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