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Puppy Prep Course

A complimentary guide to help you navigate the first few weeks with your puppy.

This guide is intended to compliment our Harmony School day training program. Be sure to reach out to chat with one of our Professional Trainers about in-person training options. 

Potty Training

How do we start? How long should it take? Is my puppy peeing behind the sofa just to spite me?


Puppy potty training… we’ve all been there (or, if you’re reading this as you prepare for a puppy you’ll be there soon!). It’s not always easy, and how to start can be confusing. In this section of our Puppy Prep Course, we’ll discuss potty training and how to help your puppy learn where they should be doing their business.

One of the biggest causes of potty training frustration is a misunderstanding of what potty training actually is! Take time to learn what we’re training and why so that you can capture, reward, and reinforce the behaviors needed to complete the potty training picture. The concepts behind potty training will be discussed below, followed by a Step-by-Step approach.

Instinct Is Your Friend

Dogs are wired to avoid eliminating in their dens. It makes sense—you wouldn’t want to eat and sleep in a dirty nest! We use this instinct to our advantage when teaching appropriate spots to go potty. While there is an instinct to avoid soiling their living area, when a puppy’s gotta go it’s gotta go!

Potty “Training” – Teaching the Human or the Puppy?

One of the biggest concerns we hear from new puppy parents is that their puppy refuses to hold their bladder or will potty randomly in their house or crate. Most of the time, these concerns come from owners of puppies that are just 9 or 10 weeks old. We need to support and encourage age-appropriate potty habits. By 12 weeks of age, a puppy still doesn’t have great control over their bladder and bowels. They might not know they have to go, so our job is to predict their needs and help them get to an appropriate spot. Potty training is all about scheduling, confinement, and opportunity. As puppy parents, it is our job to anticipate the needs of the puppy until they are old enough (and well-informed enough) to make a conscious decision about where and when they will potty.

Signs and Schedules

Developing a potty schedule is an important part of speeding along puppy potty training. The scheduling of potty behaviors is something that we focus on in Harmony School. The schedule helps avoid accidents by predicting when pottying will need to happen, and proactively placing the puppy in a potty area so that they can potty in an appropriate place and receive a reward.

Typically, a puppy will need to potty:

- 15 minutes after eating.

- For younger puppies, immediately after drinking. As they get closer to 12 weeks, about 15 minutes after drinking.

- 10 minutes after play begins.

- Immediately after waking up.

When you have your puppy in your house or in its penned living area, be on the lookout for signs that a potty might be on its way:

- The puppy stops what they’re doing and looks like it might be “thinking”.

- The puppy starts sniffing around the floor.

- The puppy goes to a door, barrier, or edge of their pen and lingers. A puppy naturally wants to eliminate as far away from where they live/play, and will tend to start looking for fringes of the area to potty in.

Set up for Success

When potty training, it’s all about setting puppies up to succeed at the thing they want to do naturally. To begin, put them where they can’t make a mistake. A crate is a great way to avoid accidents, but is only effective once the puppy can control their bladder/bowels, and even then is only effective when used for reasonable timeframes. If you keep a puppy in a crate but do not make sure its needs are taken care of ahead of time, they may begin to soil the crate and accept it as their only option. For initial puppy training, we recommend attaching a crate to an exercise pen area with potty pads. Leave the crate open, giving the puppy the option to leave it to do their business on the potty pads. This will reinforce the concept of a clean den being important, and will help you avoid accidents that will set your training back.

Transitioning to the Great Outdoors

If your breeder used an indoor potty, you might be wondering how to make the jump from pottying in an indoor space to pottying outside. It’s important to be clear on what the indoor potty training is and what it isn’t. The indoor potty area gives puppies an opportunity to be correct in where they potty. It reinforces keeping their living area (their pen or your home) clean, and it also reinforces that pottying in front of you (in the appropriate place) can be totally awesome. These things all set you up for success in the training work you need to do at home. It is not a substitute for good scheduling, management, and clear indicators of where your potty area will be.

Once you’ve Set up for Success, commit to a schedule as outlined above. If your puppy has just woken up, take them to your appropriate potty area and wait with them until they potty. It might take seconds or you might need to bring a book! At this point, patience is key. You know the potty will be coming, and you just need to wait it out. Once they’ve done their business, reward them, praise them, and have a potty party! You can add a modifier cue to this behavior so that it begins to have a name. A “good potty!” can turn into a cue for them going if they need to as they grow and have better control of their eliminations.

This process is the same regardless of if you’re potty training for a turf area on your apartment deck or a backyard. Consistently get the puppy to the spot it needs to do its business, reward, and repeat.

Accidents Happen

The puppy will try to keep its area clean, but accidents can, will, and do happen! When one occurs, be sure to avoid scolding them. You might think it’s obvious that you’re scolding them for pottying on the rug, but from the puppy’s point of view you’re angry at them for going potty… or even worse, for pottying in front of you. If your puppy makes this association early, it will make potty training very difficult because even when you get them outside before they need to go, they’ll be reluctant to potty in front of you. As puppies are rarely left outside unsupervised, they might not have an opportunity to “go” somewhere that is out of sight when outdoors. As a result, they may be let back in the house and quickly hide behind a piece of furniture to potty. They aren’t doing it to be spiteful, they’re doing it because they learned quickly that if you catch them pottying you might be unhappy. If an accident happens, take the puppy to an appropriate area to finish up, clean up the mess, and be on watch for the next Schedule or Sign that a potty is on its way. Remember, puppies will use scent to help them find an appropriate place to potty. Be sure to clean up thoroughly, and use a product that is intended to destroy the scent completely such as an Enzymatic Cleaner.

Potty Training: Step by Step

Now that we understand what potty training is and what our responsibility in the process should be, let’s break down the training process and troubleshoot some common issues. In the video below, Shanni will walk you through highlights of typical potty training scenarios with a young puppy. As noted in the video, as well as in previous lessons in the Puppy Prep Course, management (confinement, crate training, etc.) is a critical part of your potty training success.

Step 1: Preserving Instinct & Defining Potty Areas

  • Be sure that puppy is confined to an area, but given an opportunity to potty on an appropriate surface (such as a potty pad) to catch any accidents. Our goal is to preserve their instinct to keep their den/crate clean by providing them with an acceptable place to potty. Accidents WILL happen, and we want them to happen somewhere appropriate.

  • Puppy potty pads are typically scented with an attractant that encourages your dog to potty. Use this to your advantage by placing the potty pad on an easy-to-clean surface, preferably on the fringes of your puppy’s pen area.

  • When your puppy uses the potty pad, throw them a potty party! We want to encourage our puppies to potty in front of us. Use lots of treats and praise to let them know that they did an excellent job, and be sure that your party is actually rewarding. A shy puppy can be intimidated or startled by too much enthusiasm.

    • Potty Party Tip: Most dogs are food-motivated. Every dog is brilliant in their own way… most know how to add but aren’t able to divide. When you are giving your puppy treats for a successful potty, break them into small pieces and feed them in rapid succession while praising them. One cookie is great, but one cookie broken into five pieces is even better!

  • Define your appropriate future potty areas. Whether that’s the grass outside or turf on your deck or patio, use your puppy’s established schedule to provide them frequent opportunities to use this ideal area. When they potty on the appropriate surface, reward heavily.

Step 2: Understanding Reinforcement Do’s and Don’t’s

  • DO praise and reward your puppy for every potty on an appropriate surface (potty pad or other designated area).

  • DO ignore any accidents. If your puppy pottied behind the couch while it was unsupervised, it isn’t their fault. Clean the mess thoroughly, and take a step back to look at ways that you can improve your management and scheduling to help your puppy succeed.

  • DO NOT scold a puppy for an accident. Accidents happen, and they’re usually our fault! Scolding a puppy for pottying is counterproductive as it can teach them to avoid eliminating in front of us, which makes capturing and rewarding appropriate potty behaviors extremely difficult.

  • DO NOT lock a puppy in their crate without being sure they are empty. We want to avoid puppies soiling their crate. DO NOT put a potty pad inside of the crate. If your puppy needs to be contained, place the potty pad in the play area.


Step 3: Transitioning to the Great Outdoors

Ideally, you’ll be using a combination of potty pads and access to the appropriate potty areas on a regular schedule throughout your first weeks of potty training. At first, your puppy will gain confidence in using the potty pad, because we are, of course, capturing and rewarding every successful potty  on that pad. Your puppy is now confidently pottying in front of you, and you’re rewarding this fantastic behavior with lots of cookies and praise.

Using the schedule you’ve established for your puppy, you’ll begin taking them to an appropriate outdoor area or established potty station. Armed with patience and a lot of treats, you’ll wait for your puppy to potty and immediately offer them a reward and praise. With repetition, your puppy will begin to understand that this area is also appropriate for pottying. Assisted by the lingering scent of having eliminated in the area previously, your puppy will start to understand that the purpose of the visit is to potty.

Step 4: Troubleshooting

All play, no potty. Some outdoor spaces are just too exciting and your puppy might forget the reason for the adventure. If your puppy is playing in the grass without pottying, you can try a couple of things to remind them to get to business. You can try bringing a potty pad with you to the outdoor space. This can be particularly helpful if there’s no scent history there to remind the puppy to do their business. You can also limit access to the rest of the area by setting up a pen. The puppy can leave the area and explore the rest of the yard once they’ve eliminated and been rewarded.

Stealthy piddling. If your puppy is consistently pottying as soon as you turn your back, they aren’t being naughty or spiteful. They’re most likely having real accidents (remember, it can be 14 weeks before a puppy has sufficient control to “hold it”!) or they’re not comfortable pottying in front of you. Both of these issues can be resolved with patience and management. If your puppy potties whenever it is out of your line of sight… simply remove that as an option. Offer a crate and pen with an appropriate potty area, or keep your puppy tethered to you and move to an appropriate potty area as soon as they show signs of needing to go. Reward heavily for any successful potty to help build trust and confidence.

Soiled Crate. Accidents happen, even if the puppy is provided with an appropriate alternative. If a puppy soils their crate, be sure to completely clean the crate and bedding to remove the scent. If this becomes a habit, take a step back and re-evaluate your schedule and management practices. Do not leave the puppy in the crate unsupervised, and be ready to quickly move them to a potty area when they show signs of needing to potty. Don’t leave the crate door closed until they are reliably keeping their crate clean. Spend more time encouraging them to potty in the appropriate area. They’ll have to go eventually, and sometimes it’s just a waiting game.


In the next section of our Puppy Prep Course, we’ll discuss Independence and Separation training, and how to help your puppy master this important life skill.

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