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How to House Train an Adult Dog

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David Adams

May 11, 2022

Dog Training

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Maybe you just brought home a new rescue who’s never lived indoors before, or your older pet still has the occasional (or perhaps more frequent) accident inside your home. Whatever the cause for your potty training woes, we’re here to help!

Old dogs can learn new tricks, and this guide will send you on your way to a cleaner house in no time.

Let’s dive in!

First: Try to identify the root cause of your dog’s accidents

The steps in this article will help you troubleshoot bad bathroom habits — but it’s always best to understand why your dog is urinating or defecating indoors in the first place.

While ongoing potty accidents are often a simple lack of training clarity or consistency, sometimes our pets are trying to tell us something more. Here are a few potential reasons your dog is urinating indoors.

Is your dog really old enough to hold their bladder and bowels?

A general rule of thumb is that puppies can hold their bladders one hour for every month of age — so a four-month-old puppy can wait four hours while a six-month-old puppy can do six — up to the 8-10 hours we typically expect from adult dogs.

While this is a helpful guideline, it’s important to realize that it is an estimate. Every dog is an individual with slightly different needs! Small breeds, for example, have a harder time holding their bladders than large dogs do (so they might not be able to make it through your entire work day until they’re over a year old).

Does your dog have a medical issue like a urinary tract infection?

Even if your dog is old enough that they should be able to hold their bladder for longer intervals, an illness might prevent them from waiting to go. A medical problem is especially likely if your dog used to be potty trained and has suddenly regressed.

Common causes of house training accidents include:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Kidney or bladder stones
  • Bladder inflammation
  • Kidney disease
  • Genital skin infections
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction in older dogs (often called “doggy dementia”)

If you think your dog might be suffering from any of the above, get in touch with your vet right away!

dog barking

Has your dog experienced any big life transitions?

Just like us humans, our pets sometimes struggle to adjust to new situations. Your dog might be stressed out if you’ve recently:

  • Moved into a new house
  • Brought another dog home
  • Changed your work schedule
  • Lost a family member
  • Or so on

In these instances, our dogs aren’t using the bathroom indoors to “get back at us” — they’re just confused and a little uncertain. Getting back on a consistent routine should clear up their accidents in no time!

Are your dog’s accidents linked to other behavioral problems like anxiety?

Sometimes our dogs experience chronic struggles with their mental health that aren’t directly linked to recent life changes. Separation anxiety, past trauma, and more can contribute to house training problems.

If you think this is your dog, don’t worry — you’re not alone! Consider setting up an appointment with a certified vet behaviorist to evaluate next steps and get back on track.

Next: Eliminate the scent of past accidents for a fresh start

Dogs have a natural instinct to relieve themselves where they’ve used the bathroom before. This means it’s important to thoroughly clean all accidents with an enzymatic cleaner to remove traces of previous markings! Urine can have a powerful, pervasive smell to our dogs’ noses — regular soap and water won’t cut it here.

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Then: Prevent future accidents with a consistent management and training schedule

It turns out that potty training an adult dog isn’t all that different from house training a puppy — but it can take a little longer. Our older or recently adopted pets might have a long history of bad habits we need to break.

Here’s how to get your dog back on track in a better routine with a little consistency and patience!

Feed your dog at about the same time each day

If your dog eats on a regular schedule, it will be easier to predict when they need to use the bathroom. Pay attention to any extra treats you give them during the day that might increase their need to go potty.

Take your dog outside at regular intervals (and increase the time between bathroom breaks slowly)

While an adult dog’s bladder can hold more than a puppy, it’s important to start small during the training process. You want to go fully back to basics and set your pet up for success!

Take your dog outside more frequently than you think you need to at first — and slowly increase the intervals between their potty breaks only when they’ve shown they can consistently handle the previous amount of time.

To start, it’s a good idea to take your dog outside every 2-3 hours as well as shortly after they:

  • Wake up in the morning or from a nap
  • Finish a meal
  • Play (especially if they drink a lot of water to cool down)

Encourage your dog to potty in the same area to create a predictable pattern

Remember when we said that dogs are inclined to use the bathroom in the same spot they’ve gone before? You can use this to your advantage outside! Try walking your dog in a small circle in the same corner of your yard to encourage a healthy habit of eliminating there.

Use positive reinforcement when your dog gets it right

When your dog potties outside, praise and reward them! You can use small training treats, physical affection, or a favorite toy to celebrate their job well done.

(Note: Wait until after your dog has finished eliminating so you don’t interrupt them in the act. You want to make sure they have time to fully empty their bladder, which can take more than 30 seconds, before offering a tasty treat or fun game.)

Keep your dog in a crate or pen when you’re unable to supervise

Canines generally don't like to use the bathroom where they sleep or eat. By confining your dog to a smaller space (like a comfortable, appropriately sized kennel or wire pen), you can take advantage of this natural instinct to reduce the odds of accidents while you’re away.

Is your dog uncomfortable with confinement in a crate, or have you just never used one before? You can read more about kennel training an adult dog in this article!You can also consider setting up designated potty pads in your dog’s environment if you have to leave them alone longer than you think they can hold their bladder.

dog on bed

Pay attention to your dog’s subtle signals (or consider teaching them a specific way to ask)

If your dog has to use the bathroom, they might:

  • Pace, circle, or lie down near the door
  • Paw at the door
  • Sniff in circles
  • Lick their hindquarters
  • Bark or whine
  • Retreat to a hiding spot

Every canine gives slightly different signals. Over time, you can learn to recognize your own dog’s tells and take them for a potty break before they’re pushed to go indoors.

Subtle signs not enough? You can also consider training your dog to do a specific behavior, like ring a bell or bark near the door, in order to be let outside! This can work especially well for quiet, stoic dogs who aren’t likely to let you know about their bladder needs on their own.

What if your dog won’t go when you take them outside?

If your dog seems unwilling to use the bathroom when you take them outside for a potty break, you can do a few things:

  • Wait them out. Sometimes our pets are too distracted by interesting smells or sounds from neighboring yards to get down to business right away. Stay still in one spot, and be patient!
  • Bring them back inside and put them inside their crate. Wait a few minutes and take them out again, repeating until they finally go.
  • Get in touch with your vet. It’s possible that using the bathroom is uncomfortable for your dog, and a physical exam might help solve the problem.

Get your dog the safe enrichment they need by renting a Sniffspot

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What to do if your dog has a house training accident

Even if you’re doing everything right, accidents happen. No person (or dog) is perfect! Here’s how to bounce back quickly if your dog uses the bathroom inside.

If you catch your dog in the act

If your dog starts to use the bathroom in front of you, gently interrupt and immediately take them outside. When they finish eliminating in their designated spot in your yard, praise them!

Be careful not to yell or scare your dog. You don’t want them to feel nervous about using the bathroom in front of you even when you’re outside — you just want to remind them that pottying doesn’t happen in the house.

If you find the accident later

If you don’t discover an accident until after the fact, don’t say anything to your dog. They won’t be able to make the connection between their previous behavior and your current response. Any scolding will only confuse them!

Clean it up, return to basics, and trust the process

Clean up any potty spots with an enzymatic cleaner and take a deep breath. You’ve got this — make sure everyone in your household is on the same page about your new house training schedule, and consider decreasing the intervals between bathroom breaks until your dog gets the hang of it.

House training can be tough — but us pet parents are tougher!

We know how difficult it is to enter a room only to be greeted by a big, smelly accident. Potty training struggles can take a toll on our own stress levels, routines, and homes — but we promise the process is worth it in the end.

If you and your dog are really struggling? Consider reaching out to a force-free trainer for more help. You have a whole team cheering for you!

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

Trainer that reviewed this article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Emily Fitzpatrick
VSA-CDT
Owner and Head Trainer | Misunderstood Mutt

David Adams photo

David Adams

May 11, 2022

Dog Training

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