Housebreaking Tips for Puppies and Older Dogs

Housebreaking or paper-training can be one of the most difficult parts of training your dog. Even when done properly, housebreaking can be frustrating and time-consuming. It is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, so your housebreaking program needs to be based on several factors, including your dog's age and temperament, your schedule and the layout of your house.

In this article, I will outline basic rules for housebreaking and answer some of the most common housebreaking and paper-training questions that are asked by my clients. Some of the questions may apply to your situation, others may not, but the answers to these questions should help you to understand the housebreaking process and get you started housebreaking your dog or puppy today.


Housebreaking and Paper-Training Rules

Rule #1: Supervise your dog's free time in the house

If your puppy or dog is not housebroken, he should not have unsupervised time in your house. It takes only seconds for your dog to have an accident, so, in the early stages of your housebreaking program, your dog must be directly supervised the entire time he is in the house.

Rule #2: Confine your puppy or dog when you can't supervise him

When you are unable to supervise him, he must be confined to an area where he won't have accidents (a crate/kennel or a small room). By doing this, you accomplish two things... you condition your dog not to use the inside of your house as a bathroom, and you make sure that you will catch your dog if he starts to have an accident, allowing you to stop him and get him outside to go in the right place. As your dog earns your trust by not having accidents in his confinement area, slowly increase the amount of space you give him by adding on a room at a time.

Rule #3: Keep your puppy or dog on a schedule

Be sure to keep your dog on a reasonable feeding and potty schedule. Let him out to potty after eating, playing or waking up. Don't give your dog big meals right before leaving the house for an extended period of time or right before going to bed. Be sure that your dog has plenty of chances to go potty in the right place... taking him out twice a day won't do it.

Rule #4: Praise your puppy or dog when he gets it right

In the early phases of housebreaking, don't just open the door, send your dog outside and hope he does something while he's out there. You should go out with your dog so you know whether he's gone or not... and don't forget to make a fuss over your dog when he does the right thing outside. Verbal praise, petting and play are great rewards that will convince your dog that pottying outside is definitely the way to go.

Most dogs can be housebroken by following these basic rules, but sometimes housebreaking can be a little tricky and will require a customized housebreaking program.


Housebreaking Questions and Answers

(Click link to see answer.)

When I was a kid, my parents hit our dog with a rolled up newspaper and rubbed his nose in his accidents to housebreak him. Should I be doing that?

How can I correct my dog for having accidents in the house if I can never catch him?

Should I give my dog a treat for going potty outside?

I just got a new puppy. Should I paper-train him?

My puppy can go all night without needing a potty trip, so he should be able to go 8-10 hours during the day without needing a potty trip, right?

My 4-month old puppy is still waking up twice overnight to go out to potty. Will I ever get a good night's sleep?

Everyone says dogs won't have accidents in their crates, but mine does. What's up with that?

My dog has accidents in one spot in my house. What can I do?

My dog is mostly housebroken, but when I come home or when I correct her she pees on the floor. Why does she do this?

My 9-year old dog has always been housebroken, so why has she started peeing in the house?

I don't live in Los Angeles. How can I find a trainer in my area to help with my housebreaking?


When I was a kid, my parents hit our dog with a rolled up newspaper and rubbed his nose in his accidents to housebreak him. Should I be doing that?
In a word, NO! The old "rub his nose in it" technique is no fun for the dog or the owner. There are more effective techniques that will get you the house training results you want without using those old-school punishments.

In fact, correction is a very small part of the house training programs I encourage my clients to use. The most important elements of house breaking are scheduling, confinement and vigilance on the part of the owner. When owners follow my housebreaking rules, they can get a reliably housebroken dog with little or no correction.

How can I correct my dog for having accidents in the house if I can never catch him?
You can't. That's why you need to make sure you catch him by supervising, by spying, by any means necessary. If your dog is having accidents and you're not catching him, you're not supervising him closely enough. This is a big problem for two reasons- first, you can't effectively correct your dog after the fact, and second, having accidents in the house will end up being a good experience for him.

Dogs associate correction with what they're doing at the moment, so dragging your dog over to a pile or puddle you've found is unfair and will confuse your dog. When housebreaking your dog, you should only correct him when you catch him in the act.

The reason accidents you don't witness and correct are so damaging to your housebreaking program is that going potty in the house can be a very rewarding experience for your dog that he'll want to repeat in the future. Think about it... he's uncomfortable because his bladder or bowels are full, and he empties out on your carpet and feels relief. If going inside feels just as good as going outside, what's your dog's motivation to wait to go out? Think about it.

If your dog has an accident in the house and you don't catch him, don't correct him after the fact. Clean it up, forget about it and don't let it happen again. Your dog's house training is YOUR responsibility, so be sure to supervise him carefully so you can teach him to do the right thing.

Should I give my dog a treat for going potty outside?
Treats are a very valuable dog training tool, but I'm not a big fan of using them for housebreaking. Your dog should certainly be rewarded handsomely for doing his thing outside, but praise, petting and play are your best bets. Some people do have success using treats as part of their house training programs, but it can be risky. In many cases, the dog will be so excited and anxious to get the treat, he'll squat, squeeze out a few drops and say GIMME! Then, he'll go inside, realize he didn't finish, and have an accident in the house. You should use lots of rewards in your housebreaking program, but no treats!

I just got a new puppy. Should I paper-train him?
Contrary to popular belief, paper training should not be used as the first step in your housebreaking program except under two circumstances. Paper training should be done only if you intend to permanently paper train your dog (usually done with small dogs) or if you have a young puppy that must be left alone with no access to the outdoors for several hours a day.

There's no getting around it. When you paper train your dog, you are teaching him the opposite of what we want him to learn in his housebreaking- you're teaching him to go potty in the house. If your goal is to have a dog who goes potty only outside, paper training will not only not help you to housebreak your dog, it will slow the process considerably.

My puppy can go all night without needing a potty trip, so he should be able to go 8-10 hours during the day without needing a potty trip, right?
Wrong. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. Your puppy is able to hold it overnight because he's not eating or drinking anything and he's not physically active during those hours. During the day, puppies need frequent trips outside. Your puppy should be taken out after eating or drinking, after napping, and after playing. Very young puppies may need to go outside hourly, then the time in between potty trips can gradually increase as your puppy gets older and is more able to control his bladder and bowels.

My 4-month old puppy is still waking up twice overnight to go out to potty. Will I ever get a good night's sleep?
Most puppies are able to make it through the night without a potty trip by the time they're 3 or 4 months old. If that hasn't happened for your puppy yet, try feeding him earlier, since you don't want him going to bed with a full belly. Last food and water should be given well before bedtime. You may also find it helpful to exercise your puppy in the evening so he's definitely ready to snooze by bedtime.

Another thing that can contribute to this problem is making your dog's middle-of-the-night outings fun. Overnight potty trips should be a quick in and out, with no talking, no playing, and no food or water for puppy. Follow these rules and your puppy (and you!) should be sleeping through the night in no time.

Everyone says dogs won't have accidents in their crates, but mine does. What's up with that?
Generally speaking, dogs will avoid soiling their crates if at all possible, which is what makes crate-training such an effective housebreaking method. But there are certainly exceptions to the rule. Some dogs, such as dogs who have spent weeks in a cage at a pet store before coming home to you, have been in a small area and have had no choice but to go potty where they sleep. These dogs will have more of a tendency to have accidents in their crates. Dogs or puppies can also get in the habit of soiling their crates if they are consistently left in their crates for long periods of time and put in a position where they can't avoid having accidents in the crate.

If your dog soils his crate, you can either use a housebreaking method other than crate training or you can take steps to teach your puppy not to potty in the crate. Try this... feed your puppy in his crate so he learns to consider his crate more as a dining room than a bathroom and put him in his crate only for short periods when you know he's empty, gradually increasing your puppy's length of time in the crate as you have success.

My dog has accidents in one spot in my house. What can I do?
In some cases, you may have to do a full housebreaking program to solve this problem. However, it can often be solved easily using the following methods. Be sure to clean the area well with an odor neutralizer you buy at the pet store (not just regular household cleaner). Temporarily move your dog's food bowl to the spot where he's having accidents so he will associate the area with eating rather than with going potty. If your dog is obedience trained, practice his training in the area where he's been having accidents - having him hold a long sit or down in the area can be helpful. If it's convenient, change the layout of the room so there's a plant or piece of furniture over the spot where your dog's been having accidents. If these steps don't resolve the problem, not giving your dog access to the room where his "spot" is for a period of time may get him out of the habit of pottying there.

My dog is mostly housebroken, but when I come home or when I correct her she pees on the floor. Why does she do this?
If your dog "sprinkles" when she's corrected or when she's greeting someone or if she rolls over on her back and urinates, it is not a housebreaking problem. This submissive/excited urination is your dog's way of showing submission, along with a lack of muscle control. Submissive urination is especially common in puppies and in certain dog breeds (yes, Cocker Spaniels, I'm talking to you!) This can be a tricky thing to fix, since it's an involuntary behavior on your dog's part. Ignore your dog when she submissively urinates and teach her an alternate greeting behavior, such as sitting or going to her bed. Trying to soothe your dog will reinforce this behavior, correcting it will make it worse, so be careful how you react to your dog when she does this.

Greeting your dog very calmly and encouraging others to do the same is a good first step to fixing this problem. You should also make sure that any corrections you use with your dog are appropriate for her temperament and be sure you're fair with your corrections, always balancing them out with lots of rewards for doing the right thing. Build your dog's confidence through obedience training and avoid creating situations that cause "sprinkles" and this problem should improve quickly.

My 9-year old dog has always been housebroken, so why has she started peeing in the house?
Anytime an older dog develops a behavior problem, especially a housebreaking problem, the first thing I recommend is a trip to the veterinarian. A physical problem is often the source of changes in behavior that occur late in life, so a health problem should be ruled out before taking any steps to address the problem behaviorally.

Another thing to consider... does your dog need to go through a doggie door or go up and down stairs to get to her potty area? These things can cause discomfort for older dogs, and your dog may be pottying inside to avoid making the uncomfortable trip outside. This can often be helped by lowering your dog door or by adding a ramp for your dog to use so she doesn't have to tackle the stairs to go in and out. Your vet can offer solutions to help with any discomfort your creaky, old dog might be having, so this is another good thing to bring up at your veterinary consultation.

I don't live in Los Angeles. How can I find a trainer in my area to help with my housebreaking?
If you need housebreaking help but don't live in the LA area, I recommend getting a referral to a local dog trainer from your veterinarian or groomer... they usually know the scoop on the best trainers in town. I also recommend checking out TheHousebreakingBible.com, my free site where you can find all the info you need to set up your dog's housebreaking program on your own.

New Improved Dog!

Rocco and his new baby sister Sophie

"About a year ago, my girlfriend and I decided to get a dog. Though we made sure to read a few books before adopting, nothing prepared us for the real-life experience of dealing with a dog that had behavioral issues. We rescued "Rocco," a 6-month-old lab/terrier mix from a SoCal-based shelter, because he seemed like a sweet dog (despite the fact that one of the workers at the shelter told us that, because Rocco had a certain look about him, he feared the dog might "turn on us"--true story).

Upon bringing him home, we quickly discovered a different side to Rocco. He growled at us, he bit when we tried playing with him and we really didn't know what to do. I'm about 5'11",weigh 250 lbs and am at the gym about 4 days a week, but have to admit that I was a little afraid of this small animal who was snarling at me in my living room.

Fortunately, a coworker recommended Rebecca, saying that she had done an amazing job of helping him with his dogs. After just a few invaluable training sessions at our home, Rebecca helped us to turn Rocco into a different dog. She corrected his aggressive behavior and her keen insight and knowledge gave us the ability to maintain his calm demeanor and correct him with confidence when he misbehaved. In addition, she's always been available via email or phone whenever we had a question (housebreaking issues, Rocco's diet, general health concerns, etc).

Twelve months later, Rocco is a happy and beautifully behaved dog. He never growls at us or tries to bite us--ever. Wherever we take him, people comment about what a good dog he is. We owe that to Rebecca. And a year after those initial sessions, we still have her come to the house for training - not to correct any behavioral issues, but to help teach Rocco fun new tricks. He's turned out to be pretty amazing. And so is Rebecca."

—MMoses, Sherman Oaks, CA

Puppy Sleep Training ebook cover

Want to be sure you're doing everything you can to help your puppy have a peaceful night? Buy Rebecca's e-book, Puppy Sleep Training - The Exhausted Puppy Owner's Nighttime Survival Guide! Puppy Sleep Training is available on Amazon.com for immediate download. No Kindle required... you can view it on your computer, tablet or smart phone by downloading the free Kindle reading app HERE!