If the past year has had an upside at all, it might be this: It’s been a good time to be a dog. Amid the heartbreak and loneliness of quarantines and closures, many people welcomed new dogs into their homes. Dubbed “pandemic puppies,” these lucky dogs actually spanned a wide range of ages, breeds, and pedigrees — from young pups to senior dogs, in-demand doodle hybrids (whose placements jumped 50% over previous years in the US) to fosters and shelter dogs all across North America.
Whatever the cause, dog-lovers generally agree that moving dogs from shelters to loving homes is great news. However, now that some pandemic-era lockdowns are being lifted, both established and first-time pet parents find themselves facing a new dilemma. After all this extended together-time, how can we prepare dogs for our return to jobs, classes, and social lives outside the home? Specifically, what can we do to prevent potty problems — among pandemic puppies and longtime family pets, alike?
For the answer, we turned to Curtis Kelley, founder of Pet Parent Allies in Philadelphia. Kelley is a licensed Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA®) who uses positive training methods to help his clients and their four-legged pals succeed. Here, Kelley shares advice on house training techniques, whether you’re a first-time dog parent or a seasoned pro in need of a refresher.
The secret: Dog training is really people training
According to Kelley, creating a well-trained dog is about creating a well-trained human. It’s not just the dogs learning new tricks; people have to learn to adjust schedules and environments, create new habits, and offer positive reinforcement to ensure they set their dogs up to succeed.
Owner consistency is a good thing to keep in mind when you’re working on (or reinforcing) potty training with your dog. Sure, you need them to do their part, but it’s your job to create a schedule for potty time. And sticking to it is key.
“Dogs, like humans, thrive on a reliable routine,” Kelley says. While it’s safe to say that many routines changed over the past year to accommodate COVID restrictions, there are plenty of things pet parents can do to ease the transition (and maintain good potty habits) in a post-pandemic world.
How to potty train a puppy
If you’re working on housetraining a younger dog, there’s good news and bad news:
On one hand, your puppy is a blank slate. With the right technique (more on that below) and consistent follow-through, potty training can go much faster with a puppy than it might with an older dog who is more set in their ways. Kelley says that he’s seen some dog owners train a pup in about two weeks.
On the other hand, puppies need to potty a lot more frequently than older dogs so house training may feel like a full-time job at first. Tiny pups may only be able to hold their bladder for about an hour. During playtime, your puppy might have to go every 20 to 30 minutes. You should take them outside about 15 to 30 minutes after eating or drinking, as well.
That might not feel like much of a schedule, but you’re doing important work to help your pup associate outside with going to the bathroom. As your dog grows, you can start working on establishing a more consistent, predictable schedule.
Kelley recommends keeping a journal to help. In it, record when you let your pup outside, when they go to the bathroom outside, and when they have an accident in the house. Over time, those notes will help you spot trends and create a successful potty schedule for your growing dog.
How to potty train an adult dog
Adult dogs are not immune to accidents...especially if they’re new to your home. Kelley says previously housebroken dogs may regress after spending time in a shelter, where potty and feeding schedules may be irregular. So if you adopt an adult dog, you may have to do some potty training.
Even dogs who are long-time, accident-free members of your household can slip up from time to time. Staying home alone more often as family members return to work or school could trigger more frequent accidents due to stress or schedule changes.
Since older dogs don’t have to go as frequently as puppies, Kelley suggests focusing on behavioral changes instead of the biological need to go to the bathroom. For example, incorporate a walk along a “pee route” into your potty schedule. Walking the same route and marking the same spots will encourage your dog to get in the habit of doing their business on the road instead of in your home.
Kelley also warns that some adult dog “accidents” could actually be symptoms of an underlying health problem. Certain conditions, such as urinary tract infections, will cause dogs to lose control over their bladder.
One sign that an accident could be something more serious is when dogs release a constant low dribble of urine. “You’ll see a lot of little pees, which show the bladder isn’t working,” says Kelley. Another sign of a possible UTI is the presence of blood or discoloration in the urine. If you notice these warning signs, consult your veterinarian immediately for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
Potty Training 101: Tips to house train your dog
Whether you’re starting from scratch or your pooch just needs a refresher, here are some universal techniques Kelley recommends to help dogs of every age and stage avoid potty accidents in your home.
Know your dog’s limits
While it’s up to you to set a potty schedule, make sure it’s one that’s realistic for your pet. Start by giving your dog frequent opportunities to go to the bathroom outside so you can learn their natural schedule, then work up from there to increase the duration between breaks gradually.
As a general rule, puppies can hold their bladder for a duration roughly equal to one hour for every month since their birth. So a three-month-old puppy shouldn’t be expected to hold their bladder for longer than two-and-a-half to three hours. Adult dogs may be able to go longer, but many things can affect that, from stress to health issues, so it’s best not to assume.
Learn to recognize your pet’s “potty dance”
“Most dogs have a signature potty dance,” Kelley says. These are the cues that the dog is ready to go...right now. Some dogs will sniff and circle intently in a small area, others might crouch, squat, or try to hold it in like a small child. Puppies might get extra wiggly when it’s time to go. Pay close attention to your dog’s behavior and before long, they’ll have you trained to act as soon as you spot the spot first sign of their potty dance.
Stay positive and consistent
Potty training can be frustrating work, but it’s not fair (or effective) to take your frustrations out on your dog. You’ll get the results you want much faster with positive reinforcement.
Use treats and praise to reward your dog for going to the bathroom where they should. But timing is everything, so be sure to reserve all your excitement and tasty treats for after they’ve finished doing their business. If you offer rewards and praise when your dog is just starting to go to the bathroom outside, they might stop mid-act to join in on the excitement.
If you catch your dog in the act of going to the bathroom inside the house, simply interrupt them and lead them outside. Don’t scare or punish them, Kelley urges. You want to startle them just enough to interrupt them to take them outside.
If you’re too late, well...it happens. Accidents are a part of the potty training process. As long as the frequency is going down, you’re succeeding. Just be sure to use an enzyme-based cleaning product, such as Nature’s Miracle, to remove any lingering scents from the scene of the accident. Residual odors can trigger your dog to return to that spot and repeat the behavior.
Consider crate training
Crate training isn’t for every dog, especially if you have a pet who’s accustomed to having free reign. But crates can help you establish a “safe space” for your dog, as well as a structured routine that can reinforce your potty training efforts.
When crate training your dog, always bring them outside as soon as you let them out of their crate. Also, let them outside before it’s time to go back into the crate. That will reinforce that potty time is for outside, not inside their crate.
It’s important to use a crate that’s the right size for your pet. You need one that’s just large enough to allow your dog to stand up, turn around, and lay down comfortably. It shouldn’t be large enough to allow your dog to go to the bathroom on one side of the crate and then sleep on the other.
If you start crate training when your dog is a small puppy, look for a crate with adjustable dividers, so you can expand their crate space to fit them as they grow.
Beware of pee pads
Pee pads might seem like a great solution for in-home potty accidents…especially if you don’t have time to train your dog before returning to work outside the home. But using pee pads can confuse dogs by teaching them that it’s OK to go to the bathroom inside.
Kelley recommends skipping the pee pads to create clear, unmistakable boundaries for your dog: Outside is for going potty; inside is not. Two exceptions to this rule may include dog owners who live in high-rise buildings where it’s difficult to take the dog outside, or people with very small dogs who don’t mind the dog going to the bathroom inside.
Persistence pays off...just not right away
Change takes time. Whether you’re potty training a young pup or an older dog, a new member of the household, or a seasoned family pet, success may take longer than you anticipated. It’s always a good idea to give your dog as much time as possible to form good potty habits before leaving them for extended periods.
If your dog’s not fully trained before it’s time to head back to work or school, be sure to put some measures in place to retain the progress you’ve made. Consider hiring a dog walker who can help maintain a consistent potty schedule, or invest in a pen to limit messy accidents to an easy-to-clean area of your home.
Wherever you are on your potty training journey, be patient — with your dog and yourself. This is a big shift, but both dogs and people are resilient. Remain consistent, reward good behaviors, and don’t forget that training is a two-way street. If your dog suffers a setback, look for opportunities to adapt your actions or environment to help your pet succeed.
Jen McGivney is a freelance writer in Charlotte, NC, with bylines in Southern Living, SUCCESS Magazine, and more. Her pet-centric stories have covered animal rescue, pet therapy, and dog-friendly travel. Jen's proudest writing achievement has been perfecting the art of typing with one hand while rubbing a dog's belly with the other -- an accomplishment she credits to Charley and Phoebe, her adorable-but-needy rescue dogs.