How to Potty Train a Puppy

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD and Amy Flowers, DVM on November 20, 2023
14 min read

The secret to house training your puppy?Consistency, patience, and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is rewarding desired behaviors to encourage their repetition. For dogs, this may mean telling them they are a good dog or giving them a treat. It could also be having a play session or going for a nice walk. The goal is to instill good habits and build a loving bond with your pet.

You can set your puppy up for success by making a house training plan before they come home for the first time. Experts recommend a few different methods for house training: indoor potty training with paper training, a litter box, or crate training. While all these methods can work well, they require specific supplies and a regular schedule. Crate training is a very popular method that works well for many dogs, but it may not work for every dog or situation.

How long it takes to house train your puppy depends on their size, age, ability to learn, and how consistently you train. Some puppies will get the idea in just a few weeks. Generally, with consistent and patient training, it can take about 4-6 months to a year for your puppy to be fully house trained. Some dogs, especially smaller ones and those with a history of being caged, may take longer. But with consistent practice, patience, and lots of positive reinforcement, most puppies will learn this important life skill.

Begin house training as soon as you bring your puppy home. However, they may not become consistent until they're between 12 and 16 weeks old. This is the point at which they've developed enough control of their bladder and bowel movements to learn to hold it.

If your puppy is older than 12 weeks when you bring them home and they have been doing their business in a cage (and possibly eating their waste), house training may take longer. You will have to reshape your dog’s behavior with encouragement and reward.

Indoor potty training and paper training

Sometimes, taking your puppy outside may not be the most practical option. Really young puppies may need to go out dozens of times a day, which can be challenging if you have a hard time getting around. Or, maybe you live in an apartment building and it's a long trek down the elevator to your pup's potty spot. In these cases, indoor potty training may be a helpful option. You can do this by paper training with ready-made pads that absorb moisture and smells (potty pads) or newspaper. Or you can try a doggie litter box.

If you plan on having your puppy do their business both inside and outside, start by teaching them in just one place first. Make sure they get the hang of going to that spot before you introduce them to the other place. If you introduce both at the same time, your dog might get confused, which may make accidents more likely. One thing to keep in mind is that puppies form preferences for the surfaces they do their business on, so dogs who learn to go on paper may prefer that even as an adult.

To paper train, keep your puppy in a space with room for sleep and play, as well as a separate potty area that is easy to clean. In their potty area, line the floor with pet pee pads you can buy at the store or several layers of newspaper. Supervise them when they are in this area so you can redirect them if they try to go to the wrong spot. Gently pick them up and put them where they're supposed to go. And when they use the right spot, praise and reward them—a lot.

What's a puppy litter tray?

If you're indoor potty training, litter boxes may be an easier-to-clean option than paper training. Pet supply stores sell litter trays and litter types specifically for dogs, but you can also use cat litter supplies. Or you can make your own sod box by lining a kid's plastic pool with sod. Whatever you choose, make sure the litter is safe. Puppies often explore the world by chewing on things. Some dogs will eat clay cat litter, which can cause a blockage in their digestive system, especially if they eat a lot of it. Try a different litter if this is a problem.

Here are a few tips for using a doggie litter box:

  • Choose a litter tray with shallow sides. Make sure your puppy can easily step in and out. If not, you can cut a small doorway to make it easier for very small dogs.
  • Put the litter box in a low-traffic area of your house. Most dogs prefer privacy when they do their business.
  • Keep it in the same spot. Moving the box may cause accidents. (So, make sure you like where you put it and the floor is easy to clean.)

Crate training

A crate can be a helpful tool when house training your puppy or older dog, at least in the short term. Dogs are den animals that will seek out a cave as a safe space, so when you crate train, you're working with your dog's natural instincts. Also, dogs are very clean animals and, if they can help it, they'll avoid doing their business where they eat and sleep. 

Crate training can take days or weeks, depending on your dog's age, personality, and past experiences. As with all other forms of training, take it slow and proceed in small steps. For a full guide, ask your veterinarian or check out trusted sources such as the Humane Society. 

Here are a few tips to keep crate training safe and humane when you're using it to help with house training.

Pick the right sized crate. It should be large enough for your puppy or dog to stand, turn around, and lie down in but not big enough for them to use a corner for a potty. Crates come in many different types and sizes. If your dog is still growing, you may need to get them a larger-sized crate as they get older. Look for an adjustable crate or talk to your local animal shelter. Some rent out crates, which will let you trade up for the right size until your puppy stops growing. If you need help choosing a size, talk to your vet.

Don't use the crate as a way to punish them. A dog's crate should feel like their safe space. When you're home to supervise them, leave the door open so they can go in and out freely. Dogs who feel comfortable and safe in their crate may even go inside when they need some quiet time. Respect their space and teach kids and guests to leave them alone when they're in their crates.

Don't leave them crated for longer than 3-4 hours at a time. Puppies and older dogs who aren't house trained can't hold their pee and poop for longer than 3-4 hours. Also, your puppy or dog should not spend most of their time in the crate. Dogs who are crated all night and all day don't get enough exercise or human interaction to be healthy. They may get depressed or anxious and act out because they feel frustrated.

If you're going to be out for longer than 4 hours, have a trusted friend or neighbor stop by to get them some water, take them out to potty, and get a little exercise. Or you can hire a professional dog walker or pet sitter to check in on them and take them out for their break. If your dog has been in the crate for a few hours, they need to go to their potty spot as soon as you let them out of their crate. This will help keep them from having an accident in the house.

Stop crating them during the day when they reliably go outside to pee and poop. Before giving them full access to the house while you're away, try leaving them in one room of the house, like your kitchen or bathroom. After about 6-12 weeks of being accident-free in this room, you can give them free access to the rest of the house.

A schedule is the key to success when house training. On a schedule, your dog can learn that there are specific times to eat, play, and go potty. Generally, puppies can hold their pee 1 hour for every month of age until they're about a year old. So, if your puppy is 3 months old, they can hold their pee for about 3 hours. Of course, all puppies are different. Part of keeping a schedule is to learn your puppy's habits and adjust as needed.

Here are some tips for getting your puppy on a schedule:

Feed them at regular times. Puppies need to eat about four times a day, depending on their age. Their digestive systems are immature, so they can't handle eating a lot of food all at once. You'll increase the chance of your puppy needing to go potty at the same times every day if they eat at the same times every day. That'll make house training easier.

Take up their water dish about 2.5 hours before their bedtime. Most puppies can sleep for about 7 hours before they have to pee. You'll lower the chance that your puppy needs to pee in the middle of the night if they haven't hit the water dish right before bed.

Take them outside often during the day. At the least, experts recommend taking them out:

  • As soon as they wake up
  • During and after a play session
  • Any time they eat or drink
  • After a nap
  • After they've been in their crate
  • Last thing before bed

In general, when they're not in their crate, you can expect to take puppies out every 2 hours or so during the day. If you work outside the house and can't get home to let them out, see if you can bring your dog to work with you, ask a neighbor to let them out, or hire a dog walker.

Pick a spot outside for them to do their business. When you take your dog outside, always take them on their leash to that spot first. When you first start training, use a word or phrase, like “Go potty” or “Hurry up” as they start to go to cue them that it's the right time and place to go. They'll eventually associate your words with their actions. Immediately after they've gone, praise them and give them a treat, or reward them by taking them for their walk or having some playtime. This way, they'll learn what you expect of them. But make sure they're done before you reward them. Just like kids, puppies have short attention spans. If you reward them before they're finished, they may forget to finish until they're back inside. 

If your puppy wakes you up at night to go potty, take them out as quickly and quietly as you can. If you make a big deal, they may think it's time to play and may not go back to sleep. 

Instead, try this:

  • Turn on the lights only when you need to get them out the door
  • Don't talk or play with them
  • Take them on a leash to their potty spot
  • Return them to their bed as soon as they've done their business

Experts recommend keeping your puppy in a defined space, whether that means in a crate, in a room, or on a leash close to you. As your puppy learns that they need to go outside to do their business, you can slowly give them more freedom to roam about your house.

When you start to house train, follow these steps:

  • Keep your puppy on a regular feeding schedule and remove any food between meals.
  • Take your puppy out to their potty spot first thing in the morning and then once every 30 minutes to an hour until they're able to consistently hold it a bit longer. Also, always take them outside after meals or when they wake from a nap. Make sure they go out last thing at night and before they're left alone.
  • Take your puppy to the same spot each time to do their business. Their scent will prompt them to go.
  • Even if you have a fenced yard, stay with them outside so you can praise them as soon as they do their business, at least until they're fully house trained.
  • When your puppy goes outside, reward them with praise or by giving them a treat. A walk around the neighborhood is also a nice reward. But talk to your vet first because if you have a lot of dogs in your neighborhood, it may not be safe if they come across another dog that doesn't have all their shots.
  • If your puppy does have an accident in the house, don't yell at or punish them. It may make them afraid of you or not want to go potty with you there.

It typically takes 4-6 months for a puppy to be fully house trained, but some puppies may take up to a year. Size can be a factor. For instance, smaller breeds have smaller bladders and higher metabolisms and require more frequent trips outside. Your puppy's previous living conditions matter, too. You may find that you need to help your puppy break old habits in order to establish more desirable ones.

House training may be an easier process for older dogs than it is for puppies. That's because older dogs can hold their pee and poop for longer than puppies do, although it may be harder for older dogs that have lived outside for most of their lives. Also, some dogs that you adopt from shelters may have been house trained in a home they were in before the shelter.

Aside from this, the process of house training an older dog is generally the same as it is for a puppy. Here are a few reminders that may make house training your older dog easier.

Get your older dog on a regular schedule. Feed them at regular times and pick up the dish 10-15 minutes after putting it down, even if it still has food in it. This will help get their digestive system on a regular schedule so you can anticipate when they'll need to go.

Put your dog on a leash and go outside with them when it's time to go potty, even if you have a fenced-in yard. This way, you have a chance to praise and reward them right away when they go in their potty spot. It's a good idea to take your dog out first thing in the morning, after breakfast, a few times throughout the day, after dinner, and right before bed.

If your dog doesn't do their business, bring them back inside and put them in their crate or a room behind a baby gate, or keep them leashed and close to you. Over the next 10 minutes or so, watch for signs that your dog needs to go. When you see any, take them where you want them to go. Keep doing this until they do their business.

If you catch your dog having an accident, say something to get their attention, but don't yell or make a noise loud enough to scare them. Then, take them right outside to their potty spot to finish.

Your dog may have a hard time adjusting to doing their business on a new surface. For instance, if your dog has been in a shelter for a while, they may only have done their business on concrete. Try inviting a friend and their dog over to help your dog get the idea. Most dogs will go in a spot where other dogs have gone and left their scent.

It bears repeating: If your dog has an accident inside, don't punish them or react in any way. They won't understand what they're being punished for and may think that you're scary and can't be trusted. Instead, calmly clean the spot well with an enzyme cleaner. This will lift any odors so your dog doesn't think that's where they're supposed to go all the time.

Some signs that your puppy or dog needs to go outside include:

  • Barking
  • Scratching at the door
  • Squatting
  • Restlessness or pacing
  • Sniffing
  • Circling

When you see any of these signs, take them out to their potty spot right away. Then, praise and reward them immediately after they use the correct spot.

Consider bell training as a way for your pup to communicate their need to go out (so you don't miss the cues). Hang a bell on your door handle and ring it as you take your pup out to go potty. In time, your dog will learn to ring it themselves to let you know they need to go out. Whenever they do, praise and reward them and take them out to their potty spot right away.

Setbacks are common when house training, but as long as you keep taking your puppy out at the first sign they need to go and offering them rewards, they’ll learn.

Accidents are common with puppies up to a year old. The reasons for accidents range from incomplete house training to a change in the puppy’s environment.

When your puppy does have an accident, keep on training.

If you have been house training consistently for a couple of months and your dog is still having trouble, they may have a physical problem that needs to be looked at. Take them in for a full veterinary workup. If the vet says your dog is healthy, your next step may be to see a trainer or dog behaviorist who has experience with house training.

It's common for puppies to have accidents in the house occasionally, but training regression happens when a pup you thought was house trained starts having accidents inside again.

It may happen for a few reasons:

  • You're waiting too long to take them out for potty breaks
  • You're not paying attention to the signs that they need to go
  • They're having emotional problems, such as stress and anxiety from a change in their environment
  • They may be sick to their stomach, have an infection, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), or, if they are older, canine cognitive decline (doggie dementia)

If your vet says your puppy is okay, but they seem to have forgotten their house training, put them back on their regular schedule and supervise them while they're inside. Build your dog's confidence by playing with them and giving them a chance to work off stress and anxiety. This should help them get back on track with their house training.

Keep the following dos and don'ts in mind while house training your puppy:

  • When you first start training, keep an eye on your dog at all times. You need to be able to see if they are making signs that they need to go potty so you can take them out right away.
  • Don't punish your puppy for having an accident. If your dog has had an accident in the house, it's already too late (this time) to correct their behavior.
  • If you catch your puppy in the act, get their attention without scaring them so they know they have done something you don't like. You can clap or make another kind of noise. Then, take them outside by calling them or taking them gently by the collar. When they are finished going in the right spot, praise and reward them.
  • If you found the evidence but didn’t see the act, don’t react angrily by yelling or rubbing their nose in it. Puppies and dogs aren’t intellectually capable of connecting your anger with their accident.
  • Staying outside longer with your puppy may help curb accidents. They may need extra time to explore and stretch their legs before they feel the urge to go.
  • Clean up accidents with an enzyme cleaner rather than an ammonia-based cleaner to minimize odors that might attract the puppy back to the same spot.