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San Diego Humane Society

Puppies: Potty Training

Your comprehensive potty training guide complete with troubleshooting tips to get you off to a great start on your training journey.

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Potty training may feel like a daunting task, but with patience and consistency, you will soon see the fruit of your labors and be able to focus on more fun training exercises for you and your pet! This article will help demystify the potty training process and provide troubleshooting tips for when things don’t go to plan.


A whole host of problems can be avoided by containing your puppy to one or two areas of your home. Too much freedom means accidents, eating unsafe items and experimental chewing on furniture. To avoid this, use baby gates on the doorway of a dining room or kitchen to create an enclosure, or use an exercise pen to create a puppy-safe area in another space. It is also very helpful to have a crate inside of this area (make sure your puppy has room to stand up and turn around, but not so much room that they use the extra space as a potty area). If you have a large yard where puppies may eat plants or bark, use a second exercise pen for outside play.

Inside of the confinement area, you’ll want to ensure you have pee-proof flooring (linoleum or a large, washable puppy pad work well). Place your puppy’s food and water bowls, a bed, multiple chew toys and other toys (if you are sure they won’t eat them while unsupervised) inside of their area.


Create a routine and stick to it. Dogs thrive when their day and environment are predictable, and this will help keep their pottying on a schedule as well. Feed your pup at the same time each day, preferably after a play session so they are tired and can transition into rest time with a full belly. Avoid free feeding (leaving food available all day) as this makes it difficult to know when your pup needs to go out. Place the food down for 20 minutes and then take away the bowl whether it is empty or not. Your pup will soon learn to eat right away.

Your puppy’s routine may look something like this: wake up, potty break, playtime, potty break, breakfast, potty break, nap time. Things may not always go to plan, but stick with the general routine as much as you can. There are many tips below for when things don’t go as you hope.

My Pup Needs to Go Out, Now What?

You notice your pup is circling, restless, moving away from you or sniffing the ground (great job paying such close attention!). There are two ways to get them outside before they potty indoors: Put them on a leash and head to the designated door or — if they are small enough — pick them up and carry them outside. If you let them walk to the door without a leash, they may potty on the way out the door.

Take a treat with you when you go to their designated potty spot. Be sure to praise and treat them within three seconds of finishing (not when you get back inside). Don’t ask them to do anything else before giving them the treat (“sit,” “come”) or they may not understand that they got the treat for going potty. Giving them a treat right away helps them learn where to go and encourages them to go right away to receive a treat. However, be careful not to interrupt them, as they may “hold it” to get the treat faster.

Choose a small “potty area” of your complex or yard and avoid wandering around elsewhere. This may be too exciting for your pup with all the new sights and smells, and they may be too distracted to get down to business. Simply wander back and forth or in a figure-8 in the designated area to encourage them to sniff around. If they don’t go right away, that is OK. Give them about five minutes to think. After they have gone potty, you can reward them with some exploring time.


Puppies tend to need to go out when they are transitioning between activities:

  • The end of meal time
  • The end of a play session 
  • After running around
  • Immediately after waking from a nap
  • After a big drink of water

Anticipate their need to go out whenever a transition in their day occurs. If the transition time is more than an hour since their last potty break, be sure they are also going out at least every hour. They may also need a potty break in the middle of the night. The general rule for how long their bladder can last is their age in months, plus one (i.e. a 3-month-old pup can generally be left alone for four hours). 

Note for households that have multiple dogs: Your puppy is unlikely to stop a play session to go potty on their own. Interrupt play after 10 minutes and take them outside. Otherwise, you’ll see the classic sudden squat and back to play!

If you take your puppy out and they do not go potty, take them inside and either hold them or place them in their crate and take them out again in 10 minutes. If you let them roam around indoors for even a few seconds, you may be in for an accident.

Helpful Tips

  • Never punish a puppy for having an accident. They will not understand and may grow afraid of going potty in front of you. Just clean it up and get them out sooner next time.

  • If you catch your pup in the middle of an accident, you can gently interrupt them  (“Uh oh!”) and then take them outside. If you notice they are fearful of your sound, just pick them up and take them outside with no sound. You do not want your pup to become afraid of pottying in front of people.

  • If your puppy goes potty when you take them out, they can earn 30 minutes of supervised “free roam” time in a safe, puppy-proofed area. Ensure you never take your eyes off them — even for a second — during this free time, or you may have an accident on your hands.

  • Puppies need constant supervision. If you can’t be in the same room as their exercise pen or other play area, leash them to you or tether them next to you with a chew-proof leash (never leave them leashed and unattended, as they may get tangled). This ensures you are only ever an arm’s length away in case you notice signs they need to go outside.

  • Puppies can only be expected to have bladder control according to their age. The general rule is their age in months, plus one (i.e. a 3-month-old pup can generally be left alone for four hours). If you will be gone longer than this, your pup will need a friend or pet sitter to drop by to take them out, or you can look into a reputable daycare in your area.

  • All accidents should be cleaned up with a special cleaner containing chemicals that break down the enzymes in the urine, such as Nature’s Miracle. This ensures your pup won’t be able to smell the urine in that spot in the future and mistake it for a potty area.

  • The final evening meal should be given about two hours before bedtime and their water bowl should be filled only halfway in the evening before bed. If you crate your pup at night, you may want a dog water bottle or screw-on bowl filled halfway so they don’t spill the water. Reducing their water intake in the evening helps them sleep longer during the night.

  • Try lower-arousal play an hour before bed. Puzzle toys, training games or other enriching activities will help transition them into a calmer state for sleep. See: Enrichment for Your Dogs & Cats.

  • It’s a great idea to teach the “go potty” cue so your pup knows exactly when to do their business. You can begin to teach this with the first morning outing when you are sure they need to go. As soon as they begin to squat, say “go potty” just once. Repeat daily until your pup is clear about what “go potty” means.

How Do I Know When my Puppy is Potty Trained?

When you’ve had two weeks with no accidents and your pup is clearly signaling to you that they need to go out (consistently giving the same cue, such as waiting by the door), you can gradually give them more freedom. However, if you notice an uptick in accidents, you may need to stick to your schedule and supervision a bit longer. Continuing supervision and not allowing free-roaming out of sight until your pup matures, around 1 year of age for many dogs, is also a great way to prevent inappropriate chewing and other common struggles families run into with young dogs.


My puppy won’t potty outside

What kind of surfaces does your pup prefer to potty on? Experiment and see if they have a preference. Another reason why your pup may not go potty outside is if the environment is too exciting (stick to the same spot each time). Lastly, some pups learn to “hold it” if you always immediately head back inside after they’ve done their business: Try making a habit of letting them sniff and explore for five minutes after each visit to the outdoors and see if the behavior improves.

My puppy has accidents behind the couch or furniture where I can’t see

Has your pup learned that going potty in front of people leads to bad feelings? This may be one reason why they prefer to find a private place to go. Ensure you are not accidentally discouraging them from going potty in front of you, and be extra patient while you are rebuilding trust. If your pup always goes to the same spot when they have an accident, try placing their bed, water or food bowl over that spot, so they can learn that is part of their “den” and not an appropriate place for toileting.

My puppy potties when left alone

Supervision is key. If you notice your pup is continually having accidents inside their pen, check your routine and schedule and see if anything needs to be adjusted. If your schedule looks good, try making their enclosure smaller, leaving room only for a distinct “rest/food area” and “potty pad” area. Making sure the surfaces are distinct and different from one another gives your pup the clarity they need to go potty on the potty pad or hold it. Watch for clues that your puppy needs to go to the bathroom: circling, restlessness, sniffing or excessive mouthiness. If you see these behaviors, intervene before accidents happen. If your pup is still unable to hold their bladder for any length of time, head to the vet to check for a possible infection.

Is it OK to use potty pads?

If you have a small dog or live in a high-rise apartment, this is a great option. Just remember that when your puppy learns to exclusively use one potty surface, it may take longer to teach them to go potty on a different surface (such as grass). If your puppy is readily using the potty pads but is hesitant to potty outdoors, begin to cut the potty pad size down (you may want to tape down the edges with packing tape so it doesn’t become a chew toy) and once your potty pad is about 12” square, you can bring it outside with you and begin the transition to a new surface.

My puppy potties outside but potties again when we get back inside

Sometimes puppies need to pee twice outside before their bladder is empty. For these pups, have two potty spots: one you go to first, and then one you wander over to second. Additionally, ensure you give them enough time to do all their business outside. Try setting a timer for five minutes if you find you are rushing the process.

How long does potty training take?

Every pup is an individual. Some learn the routine and expectations within two weeks. Others may take longer. Staying consistent and establishing a routine will help make the process as smooth and quick as possible. Remember that every time your pup is left unattended or has accidents indoors, the longer it will take for them to learn the habit of only going outside.

My puppy goes potty in their crate 

Ensure your puppy’s crate is only big enough for resting. They should be able to stand up and turn around without touching the sides or top, but they shouldn’t have more room than that. If the crate is the right size, they may have lost their aversion to pottying where they sleep before they ever came into your home. Be extra vigilant to keep an eye on your puppy at all times and be patient with the process. Most dogs prefer to go outside once they have many good experiences with this process. Ensure you are giving your pup a yummy treat every time they go potty outside, and do not allow them to watch you clean up their mess if they potty in their crate (this can create some attention-seeking behavior over time).

My puppy pees from excitement or fear 

A puppy being unable to hold their bladder when they are excited or afraid is not directly linked to potty training. Your pup may be fully potty trained and still experience this behavior. For excitement urination, try greeting your pup more calmly and refrain from petting them until they’ve calmed down a bit. This form of bladder control generally improves over time as your puppy matures. 

For fear urination, ensure you are not bending over them or making direct eye contact (both of which can be intimidating to dogs). If you do not notice improvement after adjusting these two things, please contact a trainer experienced with shy and fearful dogs (See: R+ Dog and Cat Trainer Directory).

My dog won’t go out in the rain/snow

Many puppies have never experienced things like rain or snow before, and the newness is unpleasant. If they are still within their critical socialization window (4-16 weeks), you can begin to introduce this idea artificially through wetting the grass with water or adding ice cubes to a portion of their usual potty spot. If they are older than 16 weeks, introduce this concept slowly. If you know a storm is coming, take your pup out to a dewey spot in the morning and give them an extra-special treat for going potty there. You can also prepare for snow by placing a tarp over the grass before the snowfall. For the rain, hold an umbrella over your pup to make it a little more comfortable for them.

We have a doggie door and our puppy is still having accidents

We do not recommend a doggie door during the potty training process. Your pup may not have the maturity and impulse control needed to use the doggie door before they have a solid routine and habit of going potty outside. You can introduce a doggie door once they have a strong habit of only going potty in the right spot.

Behavior Helpline: Contact Our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within seven days, but responses may take up to two weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, but it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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