All the Worst Puppy Problems: Housetraining Hang-Ups
Summary: Housetraining is often one of the first encounters a new dog guardian will have with the realities of animal training. It can also be one of the more stressful. This article explores and offers insights about how a behavior consultant might successfully address the most common challenges new dog guardians face during housetraining — accidents all day long, eliminating in the crate, tearing up or refusing to use puppy pads, transitioning from puppy pads to eliminating outside, and eliminating only when unobserved.
Many of my puppy clients were unprepared for how maddening it is to have a little animal peeing and pooping all over their floors. Housetraining can be one of the biggest frustrations for dog guardians, and incomplete housetraining is a frequent cause of shelter surrenders. In drawing out and discussing issues that behavior consultants may come across, I’ve focused on the housetraining of puppies less than 6 months old; however, it’s possible to apply some of these tactics to older dogs with incomplete training.
Briefly, there are three legs to housetraining puppies in a way that minimizes stress and speeds learning. First is to put the puppy on a schedule that includes potty breaks, mealtimes, and, especially for younger puppies and puppies in busier households, naptimes. Second is to reward the puppy for pottying in the desired location. Third is that the puppy is either confined in a puppy-proof area or under adult observation at all times. TL;DR is that nearly every non-medical problem you’ll encounter is caused by a lack of adherence to at least one of these tenets!
It helps to begin a puppy session on housetraining by setting expectations: explaining what the puppy is capable of at this age and pointing out that the burden is 100% on us, not even a little bit on the puppy, to manage the environment; that puppies are infants who should not be punished for doing infant things; and that bladder control can be uneven until the puppy’s at least 6 months old.
Now to address a few of the more common issues you’ll hear from clients.
Accidents all day long
Client communication is the first step here. Remember that the onus is on us, not on the puppy, to arrange the environment so that this little baby can succeed. Nearly all clients have expectations of puppies as young as 7-8 weeks that are just incompatible with their physiology. They expect the puppy to tell them when the puppy needs to potty; they expect the puppy to hold it until they get them to a desired location; they expect the puppy to need potty breaks much less frequently than is typical of baby dogs. People tend to put the burden of management on the puppy, even wanting them to ring a bell and wait at a door with a full bladder until they’re let out. First and foremost, we must reframe these expectations so the frustrations of the caretakers are reduced. Explaining that young puppies aren’t in good control of their excretions, especially urine, can reduce the urge to punish and scold. I emphasize that young puppies are literally infants — they have been on Planet Earth for a matter of weeks, and they are just learning!
A rough age/frequency-of-urination rule is 1 (+/-1) hours per month in age while awake. So a 2-month-old puppy may need to urinate every 2 to 3 hours. In addition, most puppies will need to relieve themselves soon after eating or drinking a significant amount. Some puppies may urinate with excitement (this usually disappears by 6 months of age), and exertion (rough play, running around) can trigger urination in many puppies, so pee breaks during play are important. Most puppies less than 5 to 6 months old may need to urinate after waking up, even if only from a short nap.
Urine and feces accidents in the home are a clue that the housetraining plan needs improvement. At the very least, the puppy is likely not supervised as closely as they need to be. Review the three legs of the housetraining plan and work with the client on any special concerns they have about any of these. It’s important to make a plan that works for the client, so if the puppy has an issue being crated, work out a different confinement area. If the puppy is urinating multiple times an hour, and with urgency (not looking for a spot, just urinating while standing or suddenly stopping to squat), a trip to the vet is in order, as this may be a sign of urinary tract infection. For anatomical reasons, UTIs are less likely in male dogs, but even so it’s best to have an all-clear from the vet before treating the urination as behavioral. The behavioral plan, of course, would be to work on this as a tolerance-of-bladder-tension issue (see next section) and go back to where the dog can succeed, then slowly titrate up the time, using the crate (if possible) to help the dog learn tolerance.
Let me add here as well that I never recommend restricting water during the day to prevent frequent accidents. I want the puppy to determine the amount of water they need; any restriction should be prescribed by the veterinarian as needed to address a medical condition. I’ve only ever known constant water restriction to be prescribed in the extremely rare diagnosis of diabetes insipidus, so basically it’s not done. The reason I dislike it as a behavioral intervention is that it frequently results in puppies who then drink up their entire bowl of water whenever it’s offered because they are stressed about their ongoing limited access. The result is a loop of water deprivation leading to overconsumption and excessive urination and further deprivation, etc.
People turn to water restriction because they are frustrated by the urine accidents, and it’s our job as consultants to set realistic expectations and offer a framework to improvement. Again I encourage consultants to build sympathy for the puppy’s situation, as this is often a simple way to alleviate tension in the relationship.
Urinating several times an hour
Occasionally there is a client who will say that they are doing everything right — the puppy has frequent scheduled breaks and is eliminating outside with no difficulty, but is urinating several times an hour even at 3+ months old. As a reminder, puppies are learning two things whilst being housetrained: where to toilet (location), and to hold in their eliminations until they have access to that location. Usually they easily learn these together, and gradually build their tolerance for bladder tension. Rarely, the latter needs to be taught. The following advice applies to puppies less than 6 months old who are not hesitant to urinate in front of the client (indoors or out). This plan also does not apply to puppies whose problem is exclusively submissive urination.
Your first step when a client reports this is to immediately punt to the veterinary team. Ask the client to report the very frequent urination and to make it clear to their vet that the puppy has frequent scheduled breaks and does potty outside but is urinating every [X] minutes regardless. The veterinarian will make a plan to rule out health issues; when the rule-out is complete and the vet can assure the client that the cause of the urinary frequency is behavioral, you can work on the behavior end. The veterinarian may want the client to catch a urine sample, and if so you can encourage them to catch the first sample of the morning.
Second step — and this is also to give the veterinarian time to work — is to offer options for immediate relief. People who have spent two months with a puppy who urinates every 15–20 minutes while awake are generally exhausted and disheartened. My go-to plan is an exercise pen or gated small area with washable pee pads to catch accidents. Even if the clients have been trying for outside-only urination, I offer this as a way for them to take a break from running in and out and cleaning up.
Third: Once the vet has said they don’t feel this is medical incontinence, we work on solutions. These can be started along with steps one and two.
Make sure that indoor elimination isn’t being inadvertently reinforced. Some puppies do like to cause a commotion! Human squealing and bustling about for paper towels and cleaner can be exciting.
Reward outside eliminations with jackpots.
Increase outdoor access to every 30–60 minutes, even if the puppy is old enough to hold it for longer. After a day with no accidents, increase the interval by 15 minutes. After another few days with no accidents, increase by another 15 minutes. Another few days, another increase, and so on.
Step up observation, and utilize the crate whenever no adult is available to keep eyes on the puppy. Cooking, doing laundry, and so on, don’t allow for close enough supervision: Use the crate. The crate can be used throughout the day for short breaks and for longer naps. This is to build tolerance of bladder tension. If the client can’t take the puppy out that frequently or the puppy has an aversion to the crate, use the playpen for now. Although the ideal plan combines observation, crating, and frequent breaks, it’s important to preserve sanity and the relationship.
Reassure the client that age will make life much easier. Even a few weeks out, the puppy will be more comfortable holding in urine than they are now. As the puppy gets older, none of this will require such colossal effort by either party.
Eliminating in the crate
Most puppies will do their best to avoid eliminating in a properly sized crate. By “properly sized” I mean that (either by design or using a crate with a dividing panel) the puppy has room to lie flat out on their side, stand, and turn around. Personally, I prefer wire crates to plastic airline crates: the latter are narrower and provide less visibility, and I’ve found them to be less well-tolerated.
Puppies who eliminate regularly inside the crate may have a history of being in a puppy mill/pet shop situation or otherwise have been kept confined in an area too small for them to avoid sleeping near their urine and feces. Make sure the client hasn’t been leaving the puppy confined for so long that this is happening in the home; clients who need to leave the puppy for longer than the puppy can likely hold it (1+ hours per month in age) should move to a playpen setup so the puppy can eliminate away from their sleeping area.
To reintroduce a crate as a “clean” area:
- Make sure the crate is not being overused (puppy isn’t being crated past the point they can likely hold it)
- Clean the crate and bedding very thoroughly with enzymatic cleaner
- Feed the puppy in the crate, both meals and long-lasting chews
Making any space (crate, hallway, guest bedroom) a “working” area can reduce the tendency to eliminate in it, so incorporate the crate into training practice. Use the basic crate exercise of having the puppy chase a treat in, and then rewarding the puppy several times a minute afterward to keep them in there. Spend several minutes per session on this. Work on Sit/Down/Stay (whatever pup knows) within the crate.
If the puppy is urinating very frequently, see the above section on frequent urination for steps.
Won’t use pads
I have found by far the easiest way to get a puppy going on pads is to use an exercise pen (some styles can attach to a crate), paper the floor with pads, and gradually remove the pads over the course of two weeks so you’re down to just one or two pads. If using a turf/tree bark pad, make the ex-pen small enough so there’s a bed, a bit of space, and the substrate block. Once the puppy is reliably targeting the block, you can start gradually increasing the surface area of the ex-pen. Be aware that some puppies do not like to use a pad twice, so if there’s pee on it they will poop elsewhere or vice versa. I have been surprised by the number of clients who want a puppy to “use up” a pee pad and so will leave a quite soiled one down as the only option for a day or so. It’s good to warn clients ahead of time that they may need multiple pads to create a large enough area.
Tearing up pads
If the puppy tears up the pads, there are a few solutions. First, check in — what kind of stimulation and exercise is this puppy getting? How long is the puppy alone (and bored)? Second is to manage the environment: If the client is using the disposable pads, taping down the edges can help, as they tend to flicker up and catch a puppy’s attention. Pee pad holders are an option, as is switching to washable or turf/tree bark blocks. Dogs who are kept inside 24/7 are often badly understimulated, so outside time, food puzzles, dissection-type activities, and chew toys the dog likes can all help. It’s a good time to remind the client that the puppy is always giving us information on their needs and preferences.
Eliminating only when unobserved
This may be just an issue with the third of our housetraining principles: keeping a dog confined or under observation. Some puppies, though, will eliminate only when no one is around, and this does become a real problem. In most cases the dog has been frightened by someone while eliminating or about to eliminate, and has learned that it’s not safe to do so when humans are around. The result is one of those hobgoblin issues — easy to conjure, and quite a beast to get rid of — and it’s why I always try to get clients on board immediately with avoiding punishment. (Bear in mind that even stimuli we might consider mild, like a clap, gasp, or other interrupter, can effectively punish a baby animal in a vulnerable position.)
I’ve seen the problem of eliminating only when unobserved arise more often with defecation than with urination, but the following advice applies to both.
If the clients are using pee pads in the house, they can set up the puppy to defecate within the ex-pen and to do so when no one is watching. To reward the pup, the client can hang out by a doorway, wait until the puppy is finished, and then come in and quietly praise and reinforce the behavior with a special treat. Some pad-trained puppies, those who associate the punishment with pads or with the home, will then transition to defecating outside without further problems. But others have decided to never defecate in front of a human, ever.
If the client has a fenced yard, they can stay somewhat out of view, and then gently and generously reinforce when the dog eliminates. They should use a soft voice and not try to pet or reach for the dog other than to deliver the food reward. If they must walk the dog, it may be best to get a 10- to 15-foot (3- to 5-meter) line and give the dog some space. They can take out their phone, pretend to not look, and then reinforce. Success may not come on the first try. The client should take the dog outside when they’re sure the dog has to defecate, pretend to pay no attention, then come back inside, keep the dog leashed or in the crate for 10 minutes, go back out, and repeat until the dog defecates. The more the dog has been punished, the more you as the trainer need to think about setting up the situation so the dog feels safe enough to relieve themself. Try using a longer line, and go to an area where there is shrubbery or tall grass so the dog feels somewhat hidden. Be creative! The goal is to minimize stress on the dog while opening up any small window for gentle reinforcement.
Getting a pad-trained dog to potty outside
This can be a multi-layered issue. Let’s separate them out, but keep in mind that the layers can coexist.
First and foremost: Is this puppy comfortable going outside? Puppies who have been sequestered until they are >4 months are on the back foot when it comes to socialization — which includes being comfortable outdoors. The posture needed to eliminate is a vulnerable one, and a puppy who has Big Worries outside would really rather hold it. (If you were hiking and had seen a bear a mile back, you too would prefer to hold it.)
So the first step is getting the puppy comfortable outside. A fuller discussion is outside the scope of this article, but the general idea is to do some low-risk activity (just sit around, hang out) in an area that is at least semi-familiar (as close by the home as you can find a spot to sit) and let the puppy get used to this deluge of sights and sounds and smells. Continue to make pads available inside the home until you have a puppy who is relaxed and loose-bodied outside, at least in familiar areas.
Second: Is the puppy comfortable eliminating in front of humans? If not, scroll back up and work on finding opportunity to reward the dog for eliminations.
Third: Has the puppy developed a strong substrate preference? Although potty pads aren’t often initially a preferred substrate, some puppies do get hooked on them because of the reinforcement history. If the client has a very young puppy, less than 4 to 5 months old, and is using a crate overnight, they can carry the puppy outside for the first elimination of the day and likely have success. Also, if there is a safe area outside where you can use a long line, you can get the puppy comfortable and playful and see if the puppy will eliminate naturally. I have also known clients to set a used pee pad outside, and some have felt it helped the puppy understand that outside was also okay. I’m not sure of that! But it can’t hurt.
Apartment puppy problems
A common issue, especially in larger buildings, is that the puppy understands the housetraining location to be “the apartment” and consequently eliminates in the hallway, elevator, or lobby. The immediate management method here is to carry the puppy out (if it’s physically possible to do so) when they have an urgent need to urinate. If that’s not physically possible for the client, then it’s best to make more frequent trips so that the puppy isn’t at the end of their ability to hold it by the time they’re headed outside. Keep the puppy engaged in play or sniffing out a treat trail as you hurry outside.
To resolve the issue, we must start showing the puppy that these areas are extensions of the home. At times when the client knowsthe puppy is empty (shortly after potty breaks), play games and do some training in those areas. Treat scattering (Find It!), regular manners practice, loose-leash walking, and so on, work in the hallway and lobby; as for the elevator, it’s a good idea anyway to work on elevator manners such as moving to a certain location within the elevator and Sit/Stay for the duration of the ride.
Most of the puppy housetraining issues you’ll encounter are solved by putting the puppy on a schedule (include potty breaks, meals, and naps for best results), generously rewarding outdoor elimination, and keeping the puppy confined or under adult observation. Management is your best strategy when the puppy is less than 6 months old, as they have little ability to focus and manage their own time and bladder/bowels.
Housetraining drama can lead to broken relationships, so it’s beneficial to frame expectations for the client and create a plan that works for their family. So many clients will nod along, knowing full well they can’t follow the plan they’re offered, and then just disappear. The client is an expert in their own circumstances and abilities, and we need to actively call on that expertise when formulating a plan. Our goal is a low-stress experience for both the puppy and the family, and ideally one that builds bonds rather than breaks them.
Jess Erace, LVT, CPDT-KA, CTDI, is a Brooklyn-based veterinary nurse, trainer, and animal behavior nerd. Her clinical medical specialties include internal medicine and cardiology, and behavior interests include low-stress handling and cooperative care of dogs and cats; feline enrichment; and canine tricks and fitness.