Housebreaking 101 – With Grace & Style … And a Plan

Let’s face it. If you’ve never had a dog before, and now you have one, housebreaking can be right up there with your worst nightmare … if you let it.  Much better is to arm yourself with a few handy tools, a sense of humor and the thought that thousands of new dog owners have “been there done that” and if they can succeed at this, so can you.


"cavachon cavalier king charles bichon mixed breed puppy laying in grassy backyard


Remember Mia?

Mia came to stay at my house for 12 days this past August while her human family went on vacation.  At that time, she was 3 months old, cute, and not housebroken.

She had almost figured this out when she came down with puppy diarrhea, much to the dismay of her humans who were (and are) first time dog owners.  At their wits end,  they incorporated training pads to Mia’s toileting routine.  By the time Mia showed up at my house, she knew that peeing on training pads that had been strategically placed in two places in her house, was acceptable.

Not in my house, thank you very much.

Here are the tools I used and here’s how Mia became “house trustworthy” in 12 days. 

Tools:  an x-pen, one baby-gate,  a crate,  one 6 foot leash,  the clock on the kitchen wall, and maybe, a golf umbrella.

This is a collaborative effort between you and your dog.  Your goal is to learn to read your dog’s body language,  be consistent in how you work with your dog, and, to learn to love the rain!

Let’s begin with the fact that puppies have small bladders and typically, 20-30 minutes after they have had a drink of water, they will need to go outside to their x-pen to pee.

You can literally set your watch by this.

Like this.

Mia helps herself to a drink of water and while she’s doing that, I glance at the clock on the wall above the kitchen sink, noting the time.  You don’t have to say this out loud, but I find it helps me to remember.

I say:  “Mia needs to go outside in 20-30 minutes.”

Mia finishes her drink and finds a play toy on the kitchen floor or one of my dogs – also in the kitchen – to annoy in her delightful puppy-way.  (Mia’s access to the rest of my house is cut off by the baby gate that prevents her from going anywhere else.)

When another 20-25 minutes have gone by,  I pick Mia up and carry her outside, gently plop her inside of her x-pen and calmly say,  “Mia, pee.”

And I stand back, with my mouth shut, and simply watch her.

Mia may glance up at me or she may decide she wants out of the x-pen and put her front paws up against the wire.  I watch.  Mouth shut.

At some point, Mia will start to sniff the ground (or she may not),  but what she will do is find a place somewhere within the confines of the x-pen, squat and pee.  As she is “performing” I will say,  “Good girl, Mia. Good pee.”   Your job is to stand outside of the x-pen, watch your dog and praise it as it pees.  Don’t place your puppy in the x-pen and then go back inside the house.

When she’s done,  I’ll pick her up, take her inside and we’ll either end up in the kitchen or Mia may be placed into her crate.

Every time that Mia helps herself to water,  this series of steps is repeated.  You can extend the time from the moment she stops drinking to the time you take your puppy outside up to 40 minutes but no later than that.

Two good tips: 1. confine your puppy to one room in your house during this training time.  Typically, the room most families choose is the kitchen because the floor is easy to take care of and there’s easy access to the outside.  And, if your kitchen is like mine, it’s often the busiest room in the house so your puppy gets a lot of socialization.

  1. What to do when you are taking your puppy out of its crate after your pup has been sleeping or just hanging out for any length of time.  Open the crate door,  pick up your puppy and go outside to the x-pen, gently plop your pup inside the x-pen and say your-dog’s name followed by the word “pee.”

 Q & A

 Why did I pick Mia up every time I took her outside to her x-pen?

Mia associated the feel of training pads as where she could pee.  I wanted her to get used to peeing on grass, not on those training pads.  The x-pen’s sole purpose was to be Mia’s bathroom.   Until I had a better understanding of Mia’ body language,  picking her up and carrying her outside was a way to prevent her from squatting and peeing on the kitchen floor before she got outside.

The second time that Mia was placed inside of her x-pen,  when she sniffed the ground, she went to the spot where she’d already peed and peed again.   The smell of her own pee is a nice reinforcement that she naturally figured out.  For dogs,  it’s what the nose knows.

What if you have an open floor plan and it’s difficult to contain your puppy to just one room? 

The underlying strategy is that your puppy does NOT have the freedom to roam about your house until they are completely housebroken.   You wouldn’t give your (human) toddler the freedom to crawl about your home without your loving supervision, right?  Puppies are no different.

Here’s how you can safely monitor your puppy if your downstairs living area is one open space:  attach a 6 foot leash to the collar your puppy has on and tie the leash around your waist.   Now, whatever it is you do in the downstairs part of your house,  your puppy stays with you.   Use your crate.   If you don’t want your puppy tethered to your waist, use your crate.   Let’s get back to housebreaking strategies.

We know that whatever goes in a puppy’s mouth is going to come out the other end … eventually.  My dogs usually poop twice a day, once in the morning and again at night.  Let’s make this easy to wrap your brain around.   Know that the 6-8 hours that your puppy sleeps at night will set your pup up to eliminate dinner the next morning.

I knew that Mia would need to poop in the early morning – either when I took her outside for the very first time OR at some point after I fed her breakfast.   Here are two scenarios:  1) early morning:  I’m usually up between 5:30AM – 6AM.  I come downstairs, put my dogs out, come back into the kitchen, get Mia out of her crate, take her outside to her x-pen and gently plop her inside and say,  “Mia pee.”   (Are you getting the importance of repetition?)  Mia will pee and, she may also poop.  Yea, Mia!  2)  Mia’s first pee of the day takes place inside of her x-pen, we traipse back inside and I feed the dogs.  (This is another post entirely because with 3 dogs and one of them Mia,  I had a routine for this too.)

After Mia had breakfast,  I picked her up and we went back outside to her x-pen.  I gently plopped her inside and said,  “Mia, pee.”  This is the part where your job is to wait and watch.   Nine times out of ten,  Mia would poop.  She might wander around her x-pen for a short while, but sooner or later  (under 8 minutes), she’d poop.  Yea, Mia!

Were there ANY accidents?

Of course.  With puppies, you expect accidents.   In the 12 days we had Mia as a guest, she had two of them.  The very first one took place on the first morning she was with us and it happened because I didn’t  know how to read her body language.   She looks like a tiny wooly bear and so when she started pacing in tiny circles,  I completely missed it.  Because Mia was used to using training pads — the surface of the training pad felt different than the kitchen floor — in MY kitchen, she went for the surface that felt different from my floor – which happened to be the inside of the crate that belongs to my Great Dane.

Sometime in the first two days of her visit, Mia had one more accident in the kitchen.   Neither accident was the end of the world, earth-shattering or a BIG DEAL.   Accidents should not be a big deal for you either.

How do you know if what you’re doing is working?

Four days into Mia’s visit with us,  she was letting me know, by whining, that she had to go outside.   If she wasn’t whining, but she started to sniff the kitchen floor while circling,  she was signaling that she had to out outside.

Did it help that Mia could model the behavior of my three, already housebroken dogs?

Yes,  it did.  But the routine that I put into place and followed was the schedule we kept Mia on for the entire 12 days.   (Note:  there were times when Mia went outside to pee without my dogs because they didn’t have to but she did.)

What about that golf umbrella?

For one,  it’s bigger than a regular umbrella and when it’s pouring down rain,  you really want a golf umbrella.  It’s large enough to hold over your head and the body of your puppy as you are leaning over the side of the x-pen while your puppy finds s spot to pee.   You need to LOVE the rain.  There were a couple of days when the weather was truly wet – and at least one day when we had summer thunderstorms, complete with lightning.

Wear clothes  and shoes that you can get wet and muddy.  Keep your attitude upbeat and the tone in your voice warm and friendly and out the door you and your puppy go.   This is NOT the time to be a wimp.  Remember that this is a partnership between you and your dog.   You may have to adjust the routine you’ve established just a tiny bit as you deal with the rain.  But.  If you,  like Mia’s human family,  were using training pads at some point,  please  don’t go back to using them.  You will only confuse your dog.

At the end of Mia’s visit,  she went home with all of her toys and her tools.   She wasn’t 100% housebroken.  But.  She was what I like to call “house trust-worthy.”   She was signaling when she needed to go outside.  She had been on a 12 day schedule that would be relatively easy for her own family to adapt to their lifestyle.

Are there other ways to housebreak puppies? 

There are.  They almost all incorporate  establishing a schedule and committing to a consistent routine.   If you want some additional material to help you figure this out,  Tamar Geller’s book,  30 Days To a Well-Mannered Dog – The Loved Dog Method has a section on housebreaking that you may like.

Dogs like routine.  Which means that being consistent with housebreaking is a huge big deal.  A plan,  having tools to work with,  and the desire to help your dog succeed work every time. 




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