The Joys of Housebreaking

Probably the number one thing that everyone spends time researching when they get a new puppy is housebreaking.

I read a ton of different articles in order to get a complete picture, so I thought I’d try to include it all here in one place for future puppy owners, so that they don’t have to search multiple websites.

Best way to get started with housebreaking

I really really recommend the crate method. This was what we did, and you can read more about the benefits of crate training in the link I included, but here is a rundown of how to use it for housebreaking:

When you get a new young puppy (8ish weeks), they will NOT be housebroken. It’s not physically possible. Even if they do have some sense of “Going outside is better,” (which they likely won’t!) they don’t have the bladder control to reliably hold it.

Lying in the grass.

Betsy lying in the grass in our front yard after finally arriving home from the breeder.

So you need to use a strict strict schedule, and rule number one is: If you can’t watch them, they absolutely MUST be in their crate. Most puppies won’t soil their own sleeping area, so make sure you have a properly sized crate (properly sized meaning it’s big enough for them to stand up and turn around in, but no larger).

Rule number two of housebreaking is:

  • Potty break after every nap
  • Potty break after every meal
  • Potty break after drinking water
  • Potty break every 15 minutes when playing

Rule number three (this is not so much a rule as a way to make rule number two easier to manage)

  • Feed your puppy its food and water while it’s in its crate
  • This can buy you a few minutes after it finishes before you take it outside for a potty break
  • When your puppy is super young, it’s easier to schedule its water instead of allowing it to free-drink, so that you know whether the puppy is empty or full. Note: This means you have to be very careful about making sure your puppy gets enough water throughout the day!

Rule number four?

  • If they have an accident as young puppies, it’s not their fault, it’s YOUR fault.
Betsy at 6 months old, playing with Ben at the beach.

Betsy at 6 months old, playing with Ben at the beach.

Young puppies sleep a lot, so when you’re not playing with them, they should be happy to just nap in their crate. Here’s an example schedule of a day with a 8 week old puppy:

  • 6am Wake up, take puppy outside for first potty break. (I carried Betsy at first, because if I allowed her to walk, she’d always stop and pee on the floor before we got there)
  • 6:15am Puppy Playtime
  • 7am Food and water in crate
  • 7:15am Potty break
  • 7:30am Naptime
  • 8:30am Wakeup, potty break
  • 8:45am Puppy Playtime
  • 9:20am Water in crate
  • 9:30am Potty Break
  • 9:45am Naptime
  • 10:45am Wake up, potty break
  • 11am Puppy Playtime
  • 11:45am Food and water in crate
  • Noon Potty break
  • 12:15pm Naptime
  • 1:15pm Wake up, potty break
  • 1:30pm Puppy Playtime
  • 2:15pm Water in crate
  • 2:30pm Potty break
  • 2:45pm Naptime
  • 3:45pm Wake up, potty break
  • 4:00pm Puppy playtime
  • 4:45pm Food and water in crate
  • 5pm Potty break
  • 5:15pm Naptime
  • 6:15pm Wake up, potty break
  • 6:30pm Puppy playtime
  • 7:30pm Water in crate
  • 7:45pm Potty break
  • 8pm Puppy Playtime
  • 8:30pm Potty break
  • 8:45pm Puppy playtime
  • 9:15pm Potty break
  • 9:30pm Bedtime

Whew! Was that absolutely insane? Young puppies are insane. I felt like a zombie for our first few weeks. Obviously use your best judgement with your schedule; it’s somewhat flexible- it’s just to give you a basic idea of how a day can look.

Naptime.

Little Betsy enjoying a tummy-up nap.

Most importantly, puppies need millions of potty breaks, and will reliably go immediately after eating, playing, or sleeping.

What to do if you catch a puppy going in the house?

  • Interrupt them with a quick hand clap and then lift them up and carry them out to the grass, praising them once they go outside.

What to do if they go in the appropriate location?

  • Praise like crazy! We did not use treats, but in retrospect, I think it would have helped as well.

As they get older they will be able to hold it for longer and you can slowly loosen up. I was really worried about how I would know when the time is right, but it really is just common sense. You’ll know.

What to do if you take them outside and they don’t go and instead start to play or lie down

Back in the crate, wait five minutes, back outside to try again. Rinse and repeat until they go potty. It’ll happen, don’t worry.

Cleaning stains

Make sure you use an enzymatic cleaner (and maybe some baking soda?) to eliminate any smells from accidents. Dogs will go where it smells like a bathroom, so you don’t want your house to smell like a bathroom!

DO NOT use Ammonia based cleaners, as they smell similar to urine.

Puppies that start to only go in a certain part of the house

Probably smells like a bathroom there! Clean clean clean, and start to spend more time in that part of the house, so that the puppy views it as a part of the ‘den’ that it doesn’t want to soil. One way to avoid having a puppy that pees in little-used rooms is to use baby gates & slowly expand the puppy’s territory. We didn’t do this because we were too cheap to pay for baby gates 😉

At what age should they stop having accidents?

It varies! Don’t beat yourself up. Betsy gradually eased up. First she’d have two-three accidents a week, then one accident a week, then one every three weeks, and so on. A lot of the stuff I read online were articles like “Potty train your puppy in just one week!” And then I’d feel like a failure because we’d had Betsy for two MONTHS and she still wasn’t 100% reliable.

I think it fully depends on the puppy – some are better at ‘getting it’ than others. Betsy was weird – as she got older, she’d ask to be let out 99% of the time, but once in awhile she’d randomly decide to pee in the hallway instead.

I’d say 90% of her accidents happened while we were actively supervising her, so we’d interrupt her and move her outside right away. You REALLY don’t want your puppy having accidents without you noticing. That’s why unsupervised puppies should ALWAYS be in their crate.

Another shot of 6 month old Betsy playing at the beach.

Another shot of 6 month old Betsy playing at the beach.

Betsy did have a few accidents (maybe 3?) that happened without us noticing (all three were while we had company over, surprise surprise) Most of these happened when she was a bit older and we thought she was mostly reliable, so we had let our guard down a little. Big mistake. I’d always beat myself up over it for an hour or two after the fact, but hey! Looking back, she was doing very very well. She wasn’t a wonder-dog who learned potty training overnight, but overall, it was a breeze.

How do you know when they’re 100% potty trained?

When you stop worrying about whether they’ll go when you’re not watching. Betsy is 6 months old now and I still worry, although her last accident was 4 weeks ago. If she manages another 4 weeks without having an accident, I think I’ll start to relax.

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Adventures in Crate Training

Betsy started crate training the moment we brought her home.

There were two main reasons we decided to crate train Betsy:

  1. Housebreaking. Everything I read prior to getting Betsy said that crates are the absolute easiest way to housebreak a dog. Based on our experience with the crate, I have to say that I agree.
  2. Landlord stipulation. Our landlord’s rule for dog ownership was that our dog was in a crate when left home alone unsupervised.

After researching crate training, I learned a few other reasons why it was a good idea:

  • Teaching dog to self-sooth. It’s important for a dog to know how to be alone, and how to comfort itself when stressed.
  • Preparing a dog for situations when a crate is required, like if she gets lost and ends up at the pound for a few hours.
  • Gives the dog a safe spot to retreat to if needed. (example: Betsy recently voluntarily used her crate when we had a friendly dog over and she needed a five minute break from playtime.)
  • Is a safe way to transport your dog when in the car.
  • Keeps your puppy out of trouble at bedtime, so that you can sleep without worrying about her getting into something naughty!

We found crate training Betsy to be ridiculously easy. We were very lucky. She took to her crate pretty much right away, and although she protested a little, it only took a day or two for her to completely adjust to being in her crate. She never complains, and always scoots in there happily at bedtime. (and if there’s a treat involved, her default behaviour is to run to her crate, in hopes that we’ll give her a treat if she goes in there.)

Betsy's Current Crate

Betsy chillaxing in her crate with a bully stick.

Betsy has had two different kinds of crates, the solid plastic kind and the kind that is all bars that the dog can see out of. She definitely prefers the solid plastic kind. A total cave dweller! When we first got her, she had to go in her crate fairly often for potty training purposes, but now that she’s a bit older, she only goes in there at bedtime, when left alone, or if she’s being hyperactive and getting into mischief every 30 seconds and I need a moment of sanity.

Our potty training experience

The nice thing about the crate means that as long as the puppy is in there, no accidents! So you don’t have to worry about her having an accident overnight, or when you’re not paying attention. Because whenever you can’t supervise your new puppy, she is in her crate and not off in a corner pooping!

It also teaches the puppy that holding her bladder is a possibility, a concept that not all (if any?) puppies are born with.

Betsy was awesome with her crate. We’ve never had a crate accident, although we’ve known people who have struggled with this. When we first got her, she’d make funny noises of discomfort in the middle of the night when she really had to go, and I’d get up, carry her outside (never let your new puppy walk outside or they’ll totally pee on the floor before you get there!), and let her do her business. We did 2-3 bathroom breaks in the middle of the night at first, then just 1, and, only recently (at 5 months old), we’ve gone down to zero. Yay!

Betsy posing in her brand new adult-sized crate.

Betsy posing in her brand new adult-sized crate.

We haven’t had many accidents in the house at all, although I wouldn’t call Betsy 100% housebroken, and probably won’t for a few more months, just to be safe. But she definitely is fairly trustworthy at this point, and I don’t have to constantly watch her, terrified of the sudden squat.

Time-outs

Sometimes Betsy gets into this zone of being annoying. She gets tons of exercise, we do lots of training and games to tire out her mind, but every once in awhile she just… bah. Is annoying! Mostly pulling kindling out of our firewood stack and trying to chew on it, which is not allowed. Sometimes getting into the recycling so that she can chew on a piece of cardboard, which is also not allowed. If she keeps going back to annoying behaviours after a thousand redirections from me, I usually get fed up and crate her for about ten minutes. After she is let out again, she is usually magically more mellow and no longer getting into mischief. I don’t know why this is but it’s a lifesaver.

Crate tips

  • Always have something chewable in the crate! Chewing is a great way for a dog to relax itself, and it also gives the dog something to do if it wakes up and is bored waiting for you to let it out.
  • Don’t leave your dog in the crate for inhuman amounts of time. Of course!
  • Make sure your dog has had lots of exercise before expecting her to be in the crate for any amount of time.
  • Give your dog treats in the crate without locking her in, so that “Go in your crate” doesn’t always mean “I’m locking you up and leaving you alone.”
  • Play crate games with your dog (we don’t do this nearly enough but luckily Betsy is fond of her crate & it doesn’t seem to matter….)
  • Again, use the crate responsibly. Don’t be a jerk.