The Three Pillars Of Housebreaking

Often it seems that a pup is little more than a pooping and peeing machine. Every time you turn around you find a new puddle or pile in the wake of your happy go lucky fur ball. The unavoidable fact is that messes in the house are simply a part of puppy ownership. 

Pillar #1: Confine

The most important thing to understand when speaking of confinement is that dogs, by nature, are den animals. That is, they like the comfort and security of small, confined spaces.

If you’ve had dogs in the past you might have noticed that they often like to hang around under coffee tables, beds and in tight corners. It’s natural for dogs to seek such places of shelter because they offer maximum safety and protection. In other words, they are very den-like. Because of this the most effective tool for confining a pup is a crate (that’s doggie for den or canine for condo) and, when properly introduced, is it not only not cruel but might well become your pup’s favorite hangout.

In relation to housebreaking crates are important because they take advantage of the dog’s strong nesting instinct. That is, dogs have a powerful habit of keeping their den clean because, just like humans, they have a natural aversion to being near their own messes. In fact, they like to be as far away from them as possible and they definitely don’t want them in their den. Crating takes advantage of this instinct by providing maximum incentive for your pup to exercise whatever level of self-control he has. No puppy wants to eliminate in his crate. Thus, if you are diligent in getting him out at regular intervals, as you will see in a moment, accidents in the house should disappear relatively quickly. Ideally you’ll have a crate ready when you bring your new puppy home so you can begin to acclimate him to it immediately. Most typically your puppy will begin to bark, scream, whine and complain and generally throw a fit the first few times you put him in there and lock the door. This is to be expected. After all, for all of his young life he has been continually surrounded by and nestled in with mom and his litter-mates, a warm, fuzzy and intimately familiar situation. Then suddenly you came along, plucked him from his comfortable and cozy surroundings and expect him to sleep alone in his new den. Understandably, this is all a bit traumatic for your pup. It will take him a little time to adjust to his new situation and adopt you as his intimately familiar companion.

Thankfully, there is a great deal you can do to help him. Outfitting the crate for maximum comfort is the first step. Lots of soft, fuzzy bedding is a great place to start (some of the cold weather breeds may not care for this but most dogs will). While it’s not a replacement for mom and siblings it should mimic the warm and cushy surroundings still so fresh in the young pup’s mind. To make the situation even more comforting on cool nights I usually put a hot water bottle under the bedding, the warmth of which will seep throughout the crate and the pup’s body and often lull him to sleep. To sweeten the deal even more I’ll sprinkle a handful of treats inside the crate, which the pup will usually have a fun time finding by nosing his way through the bedding. A Kong Toy (more on toys later) stuffed with peanut butter or cheese wouldn’t hurt either. One final little trick that can also help is to take an old fashioned ticking alarm clock, wrap it in towel and set it in a corner of the crate. The rhythm of the ticking can have a hypnotic and comforting effect on your pup much as the sound of his mother’s heartbeat used to.

Now, despite the fact that you’re holding up your end by making the crate as comfy as possible it’s still likely that at some point your pup will throw a tantrum and demand to be let out. If you haven’t read the section on reprimands now might be a good time to do so because it’s at this point that you must give him some information about the dim view you take of this behavior. Of course, since you view this behavior in less than a positive light the absolute worst possible thing you could do is give in to the pup’s barking and crying and let him out. Just doing this once will likely make the behavior skyrocket as the pup has now hit upon a strategy that gets results. What’s worse, this discovery can quickly bleed over into all other aspects of his relationship with you as the “I scream, I get” outlook on life takes him over like a bad fungus.

So what is the best way to respond? By giving the dog some dramatic negative feedback about his behavior. This could include such measures as slamming your hand on his crate loudly while commanding “quiet”, lobbing a shake can (an empty soda can with five or six pennies in it) from a hidden location at the crate the instant the barking begins, or using a squirt bottle filled either with water or a taste deterrent such as Bitter AppleTM spray or Binaca® breath spray to squirt the pup squarely in the nose and mouth area accompanied by the command “quiet.” Now, to more sensitive readers this might seem harsh and inappropriate but keep in mind what I said above about reprimands. The idea, once again, is not to be mean, but meaningful. These reprimands do not hurt the pup but send a sudden, loud and clear message.

If you are persistent in your reprimands while at the same time continuing to make the crate inviting the way I suggested above, your pup will sooner or later (some pups are quite persistent) figure “hey, if I throw a fit they scream, throw shake cans and spray me, but if I just settle down I can chew on my toy, dig around for treats and enjoy the warmth of my den.” Rocket science isn’t a prerequisite for your pup to figure this out.

Another question that often arises in relation to crates is how long you can reasonably expect the pup to stay in one without having to go to the bathroom. While every pup is different, and you’ll need to observe your own pup to figure this out, the best rule of thumb I’ve ever run across is as many hours as he is months old, plus one. For example, if he’s two months old three hours are probably okay. That having been said, I personally never like to crate a dog, pup or adult, for more than four hours during the daytime without some kind of outing, either for elimination or exercise, except in extreme circumstances.

All of the above having been said, it should be clear that the purpose of crating is to give your pup maximum incentive to contain himself. However, this doesn’t mean he will do so forever. After all, when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. Nowhere is this more true than with young puppies. Thus, your job as owner is to be sure that your pup is outside in an area you have deemed appropriate for his toilet activities when he needs to go. Since initially you don’t know when he needs to go it’s good policy to take him out every hour or so until you see a pattern emerging. Does this mean that your pup is to always be in his crate unless he is eliminating? Of course not! That would be extraordinarily inhumane and brings us to the second pillar of our housebreaking program.

Pillar #2: Supervise

Clearly your pup can’t be expected to spend his entire life in the crate or in his potty area. He needs to have ample time to explore his surroundings, play with you and otherwise entertain himself. However, he is only to have opportunity for such activity under your strict supervision.

You wouldn’t let a two year old child just wander around your house without keeping an eye on him so don’t do it with your pup either. In short,your pup should never have any unsupervised activity around your house during his critical socialization period. Not only would such activity have seriously detrimental effects on your housebreaking program, it would allow your pup to get into all sorts of trouble without you being in a position to reprimand him. In the context of housebreaking supervision enables you to do two things. First, it allows you to observe the pup for signs of needing to eliminate and second, it allows you to give him important feedback about eliminating in places you don’t want him to. Let’s take a look at each of those in turn.

First, puppies generally need to eliminate on three occasions: after waking, even if only from a short nap; after eating or drinking; and during or immediately after vigorous play. You can easily tell when a pup’s mind is preoccupied with the need to relieve himself. Generally he’ll stop whatever he’s doing and begin sniffing around a bit anxiously as if he’s lost his keys. When he starts doing that you’d better scoop him up and get him outside to his designated area. Once he’s eliminated you can bring him back inside and allow him to play as he was before. On the other hand, if you’ve taken him outside and he hasn’t eliminated, having gotten sidetracked with all the interesting smells and sounds of the great outdoors, you should definitely not bring him back into the house and play with him or he’ll almost certainly pee or poop where you’d rather he didn’t. Instead, you should return him to his crate, give him fifteen minutes of down time and then take him out to his potty area once more. This will allow the need to eliminate to rise to the surface of his consciousness once more and will increase your likelihood of success the second time around. If he once again fails to eliminate simply repeat the procedure. Only when he has eliminated would you allow him to spend more time freewheeling in your house — with your supervision, of course. In relation to this, it’s not necessary to stand with the pup in his elimination area forever waiting for him to do something. After four or five minutes bring him back inside, confine him, and try him a little later.

Between the two pillars discussed so far, confinement and supervision, your pup should simply have no opportunities to eliminate inappropriately without being observed. However, there will definitely be times when he will eliminate shamelessly right in front of you. As I’ve already mentioned, this is to be expected as he has essentially no bladder or bowel control. However, because you’re supervising him you’re in a position to give him some feedback about this behavior. If you see your pup squat to poop or to pee loudly clap your hands to interrupt him and with a voice filled with urgency — not anger — say “no”, or “ah ah ah”, run over, scoop him up, take him out to his area to eliminate and praise him like crazy if he does. If he doesn’t, simply return him to his crate and try him again about ten to fifteen minutes later. Soon he’ll realize that eliminating inside gets you frantic and eliminating outside makes you happy and this understanding will begin to set him on the right road.

In this context it’s important to understand that you should never harshly punish a puppy for eliminating in the wrong area. You definitely should not rub his nose in it, hit him with a rolled up newspaper, tie him up next to it, or even scream angrily at him for his faux pas. Doing any of these things simply teaches your pup that you, he, and a pile or a puddle in the same place are a bad idea. The next logical conclusion for him is to never go to the bathroom in front of you but rather to hide and find out of the way places to eliminate. Again, simply startle him with a loud handclap — this will often stop the pup in his tracks — use an urgent tone as you scoop him up and bring him to where you’d like him to eliminate. My experience with my own pup was that after I was able to catch her, take her out and actually have her finish outside three times, she simply got it. I could almost see the little light bulb go off over her head as she realized “oh, not here, there.” While every pup is different, catching them, interrupting them and encouraging them to finish outside can be key to nailing the concept down in their minds.

As a corollary, of course, if you find a pile or a puddle that you did not see happen and you feel the need to reprimand someone please reprimand yourself. The only way such a thing could happen is if you weren’t as diligent in your supervision as you should have been. Such incidents are also an almost inevitable part of housebreaking but will serve to show you where the holes in your system are and thus allow you to patch them. So you see, even you’re not too old to learn a new trick now and again.

Now, on to pillar number three.


Pillar #3: Regulate

Putting the puppy on a routine and regimenting his little life as much as possible is also extremely helpful in housebreaking. As I mentioned above dogs are creatures of habit. The more they are made to follow a strict routine the more their little bodies and minds adapt to it and the more they come to expect it. This type of regularity is very comforting and makes your pup feel that life is safe, secure and predictable.

In relation to housebreaking you want to regulate both feeding times and elimination times. Most owners feed very young puppies three times a day. That’s fine. Just try and be sure that it’s always more or less the same time. Regular inputs tend to produce regular outputs. Please do not free feed your dog, that is, leave food out for him all day long. If your pup nibbles at his food here and there it will be much more difficult for you to tell when he’s going to need to go to the bathroom. At feeding times put his food down for ten to fifteen minutes and whatever he hasn’t eaten, throw it back in the bag. He’ll see it again at the next mealtime. If your pup is particular and turns his nose up at his food that’s fine. He’ll be hungrier the next time around and will soon figure out that he’s got specific windows of opportunity to eat and that he should take advantage of them. Trust me, he won’t starve himself.

As far as elimination is concerned, in the early days your pup will seemingly need to go without rhyme or reason. During this time you should take him out every hour or so, if possible. Soon, however, you’ll begin to see a pattern emerge and you should try to align yourself with that. In other words, be sure he’s out when he needs to be out. For example, if you know that he’s usually got to go ten minutes after his mealtimes try to always take him out at those times. Also, keep in mind that he will most likely need to go immediately after waking and after only a few short minutes of vigorous play. At any rate, try to observe his rhythms and get in sync with them. As he gets older you’ll be able to make adjustments to his routine based on your needs but in order to eliminate accidents in the house as soon as possible with a very young pup you need to work in accordance with his needs more than your own

By getting in sync and establishing a routine your pup will come to not only expect but depend on this regularity and will derive great peace of mind from it. For example, if, as your pup gets older, he consistently learns when his bathroom time is, he’ll have no reason to be anxious about anything. He’ll know that “15 more minutes and I get to go out and go potty” and will, as he gets older, work to restrain himself until the appointed time. He won’t have to worry “Oh my God, I’ve got to go. When are they going to take me out?” He’ll come to know his time is just around the corner and breathe easier in that knowledge. And frankly, wouldn’t you?

Putting it all together

Now that we’ve examined the three pillars of housebreaking let’s take a look at how they work together to support your housebreaking program on a day-to-day basis. Of course, the routine outlined below is only a blueprint — one in which I’ve tried to address common problems as well — and you’ll have to work out the details of your own schedule based on the necessities of your life. Nonetheless, I hope you will find it helpful. So without further adieu, let’s dive in.

First thing in the morning, gather your senses and take the pup out to an area you have designated as the doggie bathroom. With very young pups it’s best to simply pick them up and take them out rather than letting them follow you out since they’ll be bursting and will often stop halfway to the door and relieve themselves. It’s also a good idea to have a leash on your pup so once outside you can restrict him to a particular area and help define this area as the bathroom. Otherwise pups have a tendency to roam about looking for new and interesting places to eliminate and, before you know it, your backyard has become more treacherous than a Cambodian minefield. A five-foot by five-foot area should be sufficient and if you’re feeling particularly generous you could find a second spot as well. After all, who doesn’t like having two bathrooms in the house? Once you’ve gotten your pup out, set him down in the designated area and let him sniff about. If he begins to wander out of the designated zone bring him back into it with very gentle nudges on the leash. (If you bring your pup to the same spot consistently he’ll soon be choosing to eliminate there on his own.)

Since it’s morning time it shouldn’t take him too long to find a spot and unburden himself. While he is eliminating (either #1 or #2) you have a wonderful opportunity to teach him to do this on command. As esoteric as this might sound, it’s an extraordinarily simple thing to accomplish. Simply find a suitable phrase such as “get busy” or “hurry up” and gently repeat it over and over again to the pup while he’s eliminating, not before and not after, but during the act. The moment the pup is done reward him with a little treat which you have thoughtfully brought along to celebrate the occasion. This teaches him to associate his body action (eliminating) with a sound (“hurry up”) and a positive result at the end (a treat). Repeat this procedure both after urinating and defecating and do it consistently. You’ll be amazed how fast your pup will begin to respond to your request to eliminate.

Once your dog is done eliminating clean up any messes right then and there if possible. It’s important, if you want your dog to return to the same spot repeatedly, to keep the area reasonably clean. Dogs, despite the nasty things they sometimes get into, are relatively clean animals. They will avoid eliminating in an area that still has evidence from the last outing lying there by choosing a spot a bit further away. If the next time the two offending items are still there he will find a third spot and so forth and so on. Before you know it you’re in the minefield scenario once again. Keep the area clean and you won’t have these problems.

Now that you’ve taken your pup out to the bathroom, rewarded him, and brought him back inside it’s time for breakfast. Remember, no free feeding. Put his dish down for fifteen minutes or so and throw whatever he hasn’t eaten back in the bag. After breakfast you’ll have to keep a close eye on him since, as I told you a few moments ago, pups tend to eliminate on three occasions, one of which is after eating. So now you’re back in the danger zone. How long after eating it takes for a pup to need to eliminate varies but fifteen to thirty minutes is about average. If you play with him for a little while after breakfast you’ll quickly meet the second elimination criteria: during or after vigorous play which means you’ll have to keep an extra close eye on him. Again, if he starts looking around as if he’s lost his keys you should get him out — fast. Once outside simply repeat the procedure outlined above.

It’s possible at this point, or at any point for that matter, that the pup might have a little surprise in store for you: failure to cooperate. In other words, now that he’s all worked up from his playtime and with all the distractions outside, it might not occur to him to take a break from all that fun in order to eliminate even if he has too. He just wants to keep playing. What many owners end up doing is continuing to engage their dog in play once in the potty area or stand around for 20 minutes waiting for the dog to deliver the goods. Once the dog does finally perform he is immediately brought inside because all the owner ever wanted was for him to eliminate. Big mistake! Always separate playtime from time potty time. In other words, if you’re going out in order to have the dog eliminate do not play with him unless it’s after he’s done the deed. Otherwise the pup learns that the longer he doesn’t go the longer he gets to play and conversely, when he does go the fun is over. Pups are smarter than you think. Which do you think he’ll choose?

Additionally, do not stand out there with him and wait around forever. Teach him that he has a window of opportunity to eliminate. How big should that window be? My personal standard is about the length of time it takes for a commercial break to run during my favorite television program or about 3-4 minutes. If the pup does not eliminate during this time-frame bring him back inside and crate him for about ten to fifteen minutes or until the next commercial break. Then try him again. If he fails to eliminate again repeat the procedure. Promptly returning the pup to the crate when he doesn’t eliminate outside prevents him from coming back in where the stimulation level is lower and suddenly remembering his need to go. Only when he finally does deliver the goods outside can you give him some supervised freedom inside.

Throughout the day continue with this routine or some semblance thereof. Feed, play, eliminate, play some more, crate awhile, eliminate, play, feed, crate, etc. Remember that you can use the umbilical cord and tie down approaches to both confine and supervise the pup during the course of your day. Also, bear in mind that keeping whatever routine you establish consistent from day to day will be extraordinarily helpful to your pup.

As you approach evening time be sure to take up your pup’s food and water at least 3 hours before bedtime and give him minimally two more opportunities to eliminate before putting him to bed. This will ensure that he is as empty as possible before bedtime and it will help you get him through the night. However, sometimes, with a very young pup, you’re going to need to bite the bullet and take him out in the middle of the night in order to avoid him eliminating in his crate.

In this connection, I would not recommend just gating your pup in some small part of the house such as a bathroom and allowing him to eliminate there at night primarily because this can teach him that sometimes it’s actually OK to eliminate inside and thus fail to develop the discipline to contain himself until you get him out. While there are circumstances that might demand such an approach (more on that shortly) I would encourage you to avoid this if at all possible.

Instead, try the following routine. First, put your crate next to your bed so you can hear your pup and determine if he needs to go out. Additionally, place a spray bottle filled with water or a taste deterrent on top of the crate so you can reprimand him for unnecessary barking. Having the crate next to you allows you to both monitor the pup and reprimand him if necessary without having to leave your bed. It also serves to give the young pup the comfort and security of knowing someone is there in lieu of mom and littermates. This will tend to help him sleep more comfortably in the early stages. For those of you who don’t want the pup in the bedroom, fear not. It’s not a difficult matter once he is sleeping through the night and comfortable with his new pack, to move him out of the bedroom. But in the beginning it’s just a much easier way to go for all concerned.

Now, there are two approaches you can use to get through the night. The first involves getting up in about three hour increments and taking the pup out. Follow the elimination routine outlined above. Once the pup is finished promptly return him to his crate. Never play with your puppy in the middle of the night! Nighttime is not playtime. It’s sleep time. Do not teach your pup to expect play sessions in the dead of night or he’ll come to expect them and end up driving you crazy. Once your pup is back in bed he should be expected to settle down and go back to sleep. If he barks and complains reprimand him as described in the section on crate training. Be consistent and relentless. Teach him that barking and complaining in the crate is simply not an option. It shouldn’t be too difficult for him if he’s learned this during the daytime already. Soon you’ll find that he gets the idea and goes right back to sleep once he’s settled back into his crate.

The other approach you can take at night is to simply wait until you hear the pup whining a bit because he needs to eliminate and take him out then. Now by doing this you are technically breaking one of the rules — never let him out when he’s complaining — but handled properly this shouldn’t be a big problem. If you hear the puppy express his discomfort upon waking give him the benefit of the doubt and get him out. Once he’s eliminated immediately return him to bed. Now, if he complains after he’s been returned, reprimand him. Soon he’ll understand the concept — complaining for any other reason than the need for elimination leads to a correction.

These nocturnal excursions with your pup may, in the beginning, occur as often as three times nightly. However, as he grows even a little older you should be able to drop these little outings one by one and by the time he’s three to three and a half months of age he should be able to sleep through the night without needing to eliminate. This effort will be well worth it as your pup will be strengthening his habit of going to the bathroom outside, a habit that he will soon have internalized permanently.

Following a routine such as the one I have outlined above should lead to accident free puppy ownership relatively quickly. However, this does not mean that your pup is necessarily housetrained. It only means you’re doing a good job confining, supervising and regulating him. But, given the opportunity your pup might still eliminate in the house. The two benchmarks I use to determine if a dog is reliably housetrained are that he should be six to eight months of age and have not had an accident in the house for at least 2 months. Of course, your two-month count always begins again at the time of the most recent accident but once you’ve reached this goal you can breathe a little easier regarding your pup’s bathroom habits.

One final thought in regard to this. If you feel that your pup has been doing really well on his housebreaking and he’s having a sudden reversion there may be a health problem such as a bladder or urinary tract infection, in which case all bets are off. The pup simply can’t help himself. Be patient, get him to the vet and be prepared to go back to square on temporarily. What you’ll find is that once he’s healthy again he’ll quickly progress right to where he was before he fell ill, if you’ve gone back to square one and gotten him out very diligently during his illness.

The information outlined above should give you everything you need to efficiently housebreak your puppy. Of course, it makes the major assumption that someone is home all day and has the time available to be as diligent as this program demands, an assumption that may be altogether wrong. In the next section I’ll discuss other approaches and problem solving tools in relation to housebreaking but before doing so I’d like to summarize what I’ve covered so far.

The Three Pillars

(Excerpted from There’s a Puppy in the House)




Do not consider your pup housebroken until:

Owner Absent Housebreaking Or What If I'm Out Earning A Living?

The biggest problem with paper training, and the reason that I seek to avoid in all but the most necessary situations, is that it teaches the dog not just to use the papers but to eliminate in the house. For this reason, if the goal is to ultimately get the dog outside to eliminate, I am always looking for different approaches to accomplishing this based both on the owner’s schedule and the layout of the home.

One of the most useful housetraining aids for the “owner-absent” puppy is a doggie door. If you have a deck or a yard of any kind a doggie door can help teach the pup to eliminate outside even if you’re not there. Here’s how to set it up. Take a crate, remove it’s door and put it up to the doggie door so that its opening fits around the entirety of the doggie door. Then put something heavy behind the crate to ensure that it stays firmly wedged up against the opening no matter what the pup is doing inside. On the other side of the doggie door, the outdoor side, put an x-pen that is arranged such that once the pup is outside he’ll automatically find himself within its confines — a sizeable area within which he can relieve himself. I have had excellent results with this approach since the pup’s nesting instinct will drive him to seek an area outside of his crate to eliminate. The only place he can go outside of his crate in this scenario is also outside of the house. It’s automatic. He steps out of his crate and he’s outdoors. With the ex-pen there he’s securely enclosed but he can begin to become habituated to going potty under an open sky rather than under a roof. This basic concept can be adapted in various ways to the physical layout of many homes. If you have a small deck you may not need an x-pen. If you have sliding glass doors you may not need a doggie door although doggie doors that fit into sliding glass doors are also available. Take a look at your situation and see if you can make this kind of arrangement work for you and thus condition your dog to eliminating outside as soon as possible. (put sidebar with R.C. Steele, Drs. Foster and Smith and other doggie supply catalogs).

Before going further I’d like to summarize the alternatives outlined above.


In the preceding pages I have covered 98% of all conceivable housetraining situations. Diligent application of these principles will lead you to a housetrained puppy relatively quickly. Remember, and I am repeating this only for emphasis, that you cannot consider your pup reliably housebroken until he’s six to eight months of age and he’s had no accidents in the house for two months. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop having accidents way before then — you should if you’re diligent about confining, supervising and regulating — it just means that given the opportunity your pup may still eliminate in the house.

Excerpted from There’s a Puppy in the House: Surviving the First Five Months, by Mike Wombacher.

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