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Housetraining for Adult Dogs

When bringing home a new dog, you should assume they are not housetrained (aka: “potty-trained”) for the first few weeks after arrival. Although many adult dogs may have been housetrained in their previous homes, they’ll likely still need a refresher as you establish a new routine in their new environment. Housetraining takes time, patience, commitment, and a lot of consistency. 

Throughout your journey in housetraining, it is important not to focus on where your dog shouldn’t eliminate, but to instead encourage and reinforce where you do want them to go. Be sure to establish a routine, supervise them, confine them when necessary, expect accidents, and make plans when you will be away for a longer period of time. 

Establishing a Routine

Your dog will benefit from a predictable, consistent routine. This should include confinement time, potty breaks, mealtimes, playtime, training time, walks, and all other activities that are part of your dog’s daily life. You should take your dog out for bathroom breaks at similar times every day. 

While initially establishing your routine, keys times to take them outside include:

  • When you wake up
  • 10-20 minutes after meals
  • When the dog wakes up from a long nap
  • 10-20 minutes after you notice them having a long drink of water 
  • 10-20 minutes into a play session in the home (exercise can stimulate the bladder and bowels)
  • Generally, every few hours 

Once your dog is fully housetrained, you can likely reduce bathroom breaks to just when you wake up, when you get home from work, and before you go to bed. Mealtimes should also happen at the same time every day, because this will make elimination more regular. During the housetraining period, you should always stay with your dog on potty breaks, either on a leash or in a fenced-in yard. This is important because you want to reward them for successfully eliminating outside! By straying with them during potty breaks, you can deliver an immediate reward (praise, a treat, a toy, etc.) rather than waiting until they come back inside the house, which could inadvertently teach them that coming back inside is what they get rewarded for instead of going potty. An immediate reward after your dog has finished their business teaches them that eliminating outdoors is rewarding and encourages them to repeat that behavior in the future.

Supervision

If you find that you are noticing accidents, you may have to supervise them more closely. You can do this by using baby gates to keep your dog in the same room as you and restricting access to the rest of the home, or you can tether your dog to you with a six-foot leash. These options allow you to watch your dog closely and you can watch for signs that they need to eliminate. When your dog begins to show these signals (pacing, circling, and sniffing), you can applaud the signaling and rush them outside right away. This will encourage your dog to become more demonstrative and communicate when they feel the urge to go. 

Confinement

Preventing your dog from eliminating in the wrong place is the most important part of house training. When you are unable to supervise your dog, they should be confined to an area small enough that they won’t want to eliminate there. Since most of us are not able to keep an eye on our dogs at every second, having a safe and comfortable confinement area is key to housetraining. Appropriate confinement areas include crates or rooms that are gated off to be small enough for them to comfortably stand, lie down, and turn around in. The confinement area should be this small because most dogs naturally avoid soiling in their sleeping areas. This will prevent unwanted accidents and help increase bowel and bladder control. As your dog continues to be successful by going to the bathroom outdoors, you can slowly increase the size of their confinement area when they’re unsupervised. Please remember that no matter where your dog is in their housetraining journey, they should be let outside immediately after being released from confinement.

Expect Accidents

Mistakes happen! At some point, most dogs will have an accident in your home. Especially during times of change (like after adoption, moving to a new house, hosting a gathering, a new baby, etc.), you and your dog both need to learn the new schedule and routine that works best for each of you. Accidents are a normal part of the adjustment period, so expect this to happen and prepare yourself for when it does. 

What to do if your dog has an accident in the home:

  • If you catch your dog while they’re actively eliminating in the house, do something to interrupt them. You can do this by making a noise, but be careful not to scare them. After making the noise, immediately take them outside and reward them when they finish eliminating there.
  • Do not punish your dog for soiling in the house. If you find a soiled area in the home, it is too late to correct their behavior. Any type of punishment – including scolding your dog, or even worse, taking them to the spot and rubbing their face in it – will only make them afraid of you. If they associate this fear with going to the bathroom, they may start only eliminating when you’re not looking, and rarely where you want them to. Dogs don’t understand what they are being retroactively punished for and this will do more harm than good.
  • Clean the mess thoroughly. This is very important because dogs are attracted to areas that smell like urine or feces and are highly motivated to continue eliminating in those spots. When cleaning up the mess in your home, be sure to use enzymatic cleaners specifically made for pet urine. Standard household cleaners will destroy stains and odors detectable to humans, but your dog may still be able to smell them. 

Alternate Plans 

Since you are assuming that your dog has imperfect housetraining skills or no skills at all, you should make alternate plans to get them out if you will be away for long periods of time. If you are going to be away for a longer period of time, you can arrange to have a friend, family member, a neighbor, or a professional pet-sitter/dog-walker to take them out on bathroom breaks.

Additional Notes about Housetraining

  • It may be useful to teach your dog a cue for eliminating behavior (ex. “go potty,” “do your business,” etc). Whatever you choose to say, only state it once right before they begin to eliminate, don’t say it over and over. Once they are completely done eliminating, give them a big reward – just be sure you aren’t praising or giving them the treat while they’re still actively going, as this can distract them from completing their business and create confusion.
  • If you want your dog to eliminate in a fenced yard while off-leash, but also want them comfortable to go during walks while they’re on leash, you will have to practice these routines both with and without a leash.
  • During the housetraining process, focus on going potty first when going outside. After your dog has eliminated, you can then engage in play or games.
  • It is important that your dog gets acclimated to eliminating in a variety of outdoor places and not solely in your yard. This is especially crucial if you want to take your dog on outings, if they’ll travel with you on vacation, or even for mandatory trips like vet appointments.
  • Some people may choose to use “puppy pads” (absorbent, disposable, potty-training sheets)  to kickstart the housetraining process. If so, you’ll start by using them indoors and gradually moving them closer and closer to the door over time before eventually place them outdoors to teach your dog this is where they should go. Puppy pads can also be helpful for people who live in apartments or condos that have a patio. If this is the case, you can also choose to use fake grass or build a “litter box” with sod to make life more convenient. 
  • Dogs can develop a preference for eliminating on certain surfaces or materials (ex. grass, straw, stones, etc.) which can be helpful for creating a defined “bathroom” space in your yard, but it can also limit their adaptability to new environments. You should try to expose your dog to different surfaces as a part of housetraining. 
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