How to potty train an adult dog



Tips for potty training a dog

If you recently adopted an adult dog, you may be surprised he is having “accidents” in the house.

It could be the dog was never properly housebroken. Maybe he lived outside. Maybe his previous owners did not train him. Maybe he lived at a shelter for months and learned to eliminate in his cage.

It is also possible the dog was housebroken at his previous home but does not understand what to do in your home. Just because a dog learns a behavior in one environment does not mean he understands what to do in a different context.

How to housetrain an adult dog

Assume the dog was never housebroken.

Don’t expect too much from your dog just because he’s an adult.

Whenever you bring a new dog into your home, it’s best to assume he is not housebroken. Treat him like a puppy.

When you first bring him home, take him directly outside for at least 10 or 15 minutes so he has time to eliminate. After that, it’s best to take him out every hour or so at first to keep reinforcing the correct behavior and to decrease the likelihood that he will go to the bathroom indoors.

Limit the dog’s freedom.

By limiting a dog’s freedom, you are decreasing the opportunities for him to have an “accident.”

If I meet an adult dog that is not potty trained, it is almost always because the owner is giving the dog too much initial freedom. I believe in freedom for dogs, too, but not until they have earned it by learning the rules of the house.

Here is how you limit a dog’s freedom (initially) to prevent accidents:

      • Keep him in a kennel (crate) whenever you can’t supervise.
      • Whenever the dog is not in his kennel, he should be on a 6-foot leash and near you at all times.
      • Once the dog has gone a few days with zero accidents, remove the leash but keep him in the same room as you whenever he is not in his kennel. If you are in the kitchen, he should be in the kitchen too. If you are in your home office, he should also be in your office. Stay at this stage for at least a week, depending on the dog. If the dog has any accidents during this time, go back to the previous step and keep him on a leash.
      • When you are not home, the dog should always be in a kennel for now. A dog that has the run of the house while you are at work is far more likely to eliminate on the floor than a dog that is kept in a kennel. The kennel is a temporary tool that will eventually lead to increased freedom for the dog. Once the dog is fully housebroken, he may no longer need the kennel at all. It’s tough to get to that point without using a kennel. I recommend staying at this stage for at least three months.

Take the dog outside often, to the same spot.

Stick to a routine by taking the dog out to the same area at the same times every day. Reward him with a treat the instant he eliminates outside.

If your dog is so obsessed with treats that he can’t even focus on going to the bathroom, try hiding treats in your pockets without your dog seeing you. Once outside, don’t put your hand in your pocket to get the treat until right after your dog has “taken care of business.” Then give him the treat.

Don’t scold the dog unless you catch him in the act.

I only recommend scolding the dog if you catch him right in the act of peeing indoors. That shouldn’t happen, though, if you are doing your job of taking him out often and supervising him when he’s indoors. A quick “No!” to show your disapproval is all you need to do. Instantly take him outside and reward him there if he goes in the correct area.

You don’t want to get overly upset when your dog has an accident. Definitely don’t yell or put him in his kennel or rub his face in his own waste. At best, your dog will be confused. (“Why is she mad at me?”) At worst, he might think it’s bad to go to the bathroom in front of you. He may then be afraid to eliminate near you outside on a leash. He might start to sneak off to more discrete corners of the house where you won’t see him.

And unfortunately, if we scold our dogs after they’ve already had the accident, they won’t understand why we’re mad. Even if it’s only a minute later. There’s really no point in scolding the dog unless you actually catch him in the act.

Reward for the right behavior!

Reward your dog when he does the right thing! Lots of praise! Lots of treats! Yay!

Keep the dog on a consistent feeding schedule.

I can’t stress this enough. Stop free feeding your dog.

Instead, feed him a specific amount of food at scheduled times. Maybe 1 C. at 7 a.m. and 1 C. at 5:30 p.m. or whatever it might be. Stick to a schedule so you can predict when your dog has to go to the bathroom. If he doesn’t finish his food, don’t worry about it. He’ll be hungry at his next meal.

Don’t use puppy pads, newspapers or fake grass.

I do not recommend training your dog to pee on anything in the house.

If your ultimate goal is to train your dog to pee outside, then that is where you should begin training him to go. Teaching him to pee on a “puppy pad” in the house will only confuse him. You definitely don’t want to give him the idea that it is sometimes OK to pee in the house. It’s way too confusing for the dog and he might think he can pee next to the pad or on rugs or pillows that look similar to the pad.

Recognize the difference between eliminating and marking.

If the dog (male or female) is purposely leaving small amounts of urine on the floors, walls or furniture, the dog is likely marking his or her territory. This is a marking problem, not a potty training problem. If you are not sure whether or not your dog is marking, it’s always best to take him to the vet to rule out a medical problem such as a bladder infection.

Dogs are more likely to mark if they are in a new environment, if there are new dogs around or if there is a female in heat. Female dogs are also more likely to mark while they are in heat.

Spaying or neutering your dog typically decreases the marking behavior, but not always. If your dog continues to mark in the house, try keeping him on a leash and correcting him with a firm “no” every time you see him begin to mark. You can also use a product called a belly band (it’s basically a diaper) while you train him. Most dogs will stop the behavior if their freedom is restricted and they are corrected in the act.

Recognize the difference between eliminating and submissive urination.

Another problem separate from potty training is submissive urination. Some dogs will squat and urinate out of excitement/submission if someone tries to pet them, especially a stranger. This can be frustrating because the dog can’t always control the behavior. You can help your dog by ignoring him when you return home (to decrease his excitement level) and taking him directly outside without petting or talking to him first.

When you have guests over, ask them not to talk to your dog or pet him until she has had a chance to calm down or feel more comfortable. It also helps to take the dog outside for a bathroom break right before guests arrive.

If your dog is urinating frequently, it doesn’t hurt to take him to the vet to rule out a physical problem such as a urinary tract infection.

What other tips or questions do you have about potty training an adult dog?

For more info, check out my previous post on puppy potty training.

Black lab mix sleeping on a dog bed

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  1. Niki on December 20, 2012

    We rescued an adult chihuahua in July (Stanley) the rescue said he was potty trained but he came with a belly band, so I knew something was up. He started off peeing in my other chi’s dog bowl. I figured this is from spending time in the pound (he spent 6 long months in the county pound) Now, I am noticing our living room carpet is a mess… Stanley has been marking furniture and peeing on carpet. I rarely catch him in the act. He will only go out if my female (alpha) chi goes out to potty. He is such a lover, just wish he would stop!

  2. Flea on December 20, 2012

    Amazing information. Thank you!!!

  3. Nancy's Point on December 20, 2012

    Really good information. I think you covered things very thoroughly. I’ve never had to potty train an adult dog since we got all our dogs as puppies. I guess the techniques are pretty much the same whether your dog is an adult or pup. I have used newspapers in the house, but they are messy and it is actually much easier to just take the dog or puppy directly outside. It’s actually pretty amazing how quickly they catch on if you are just consistent enough and willing to do it really often. We started with every 45 minutes with our springer pup. Worked well most of the time. One other tip that was useful for us with the nervous dog who urinated whenever anyone new came into the house (even if she knew them) was flipping her over on her back. That’s a good trick that worked well for us. She didn’t go then and the person could even pet her. Sometimes even when she was ignored, she would still urinate, so this was effective for us, at least sometimes.

  4. Kristine on December 21, 2012

    Is it true that smaller dogs have a harder time learning this or does it just seem that way because they have smaller bladders and can’t hold it for as long? So many people I know with little dogs have struggled with housetraining and a few have just given up completely. I am going to pass this on to them and hopefully it will help!

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 10, 2013

      I think it’s just that the owners of small dogs tend to take training less seriously. I know tons of small dogs that had no issues and it’s because their owners took the time to properly train them. Others … not so much.

  5. BellyRub.net on December 21, 2012

    Niki:
    You must be often, letting your Chihuahua out of your site to be rarely catching him in the act. You need eyes on him constantly so you catch him in the act so you can modify the behavior right away as it is happening. No free roming around the house.
    The longer he continues to pee without you catching him doing it, the harder it will be to break him of the habit.

    • Niki on December 21, 2012

      Yes… I am figuring this out! I am gating him in my laundry room while I am gone. I am a stay at home mom so I don’t really leave for long periods of time. When I am home, he is stuck to me at all times. So that does help if he tries to wonder into living room. I am taking him out constintly and giving treats for going outdoors. Thank you for your help!

  6. Mel on December 24, 2012

    I love that you mention to treat them like a puppy. I do this every single time we have a new foster dog join us. I always go into it assuming that they’re not housetrained and I section off part of the house the first few days. I take them for frequent potty breaks and I never take my eyes off of them. I’m like an overbearing mother, but we’ve had such great success that any potty issues are nipped in the bud right away.

  7. Erika on December 29, 2012

    My rambo is 3 years old and he is a miniature pomeranian. My ex and I shared him for the most part of his 3 years up until the last year he had been mainly at my house. He understands where to pee we open the door in the back and he goes out and does what he has to do and comes back. However he is always marking on bags? Furniture? Garbage bin? And i cant get him to stop. He isnt neutered and i dont want to neuter him. I know i have to give him routine and start somewhere any pointers?

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 10, 2013

      I would keep him on a leash and near you at all times for a few weeks and correct him in the act so he learns the behavior is unacceptable. Then, slowly increase his freedom. Use a belly band at first to catch any of the urine if he still tries to mark. But the goal should be to stop using that eventually. Best of luck! How frustrating!

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