What is and How to Handle Potty Training Regression

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You thought your dog was house trained. Your home was clean, those dreaded middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks were behind you, and you loved every minute of dog ownership… until your four-legged best friend started using the bathroom inside again. What’s going on?

While potty training regression can be incredibly frustrating, it can also be fixed with the right approach. Take a deep breath and read on! Here’s how to handle your older puppy or fully grown adult dog peeing and pooping inside.

What is potty training regression?

Simply put, potty training regression is when a dog who’s already been house trained — and who previously seemed successful at holding their bladder and bowels for consistent intervals — suddenly starts using the bathroom inside again. These accidents might be triggered by specific things (more on that in the next section) or seem to come out of nowhere.

While potty training regression is unpleasant, the behavior is actually not uncommon. Many owners report their older puppies regressing to an earlier phase of their house training abilities between four months to one year of age. Elderly dogs often struggle with incontinence, too.

Simply put: Most pet parents have experienced at least some level of house training regression — and we’ve all made it through! You’ve got this.

How to handle potty training regression

You should treat potty training regression the same way you’d go about house training a newly adopted adult dog:

  1. Understand the cause of your companion’s indoor accidents.
  2. Eliminate the scent of previous messes around your home.
  3. Go back to a basic house training process.

You’ll be able to rebuild healthier habits in no time!

Step one: Try to understand why your previously house-trained dog might be having accidents

We know it’s aggravating to have to clean up your dog’s messes, especially when you were so excited to think all that scrubbing was in the past. No matter how miserable your pet’s bathroom habits are making you, though, you owe it to them to try to understand what’s going on behind their behavior.

While potty training regression can be a normal part of your dog growing up without any clear cause — puppies have a lot going on and might simply be scatterbrained from time to time — it can also be the direct result of a physical problem or change in routine.

Here are some questions to help you figure out the reason behind your dog’s recent accidents.

For young dogs: Did you increase your house training criteria too soon?

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

That’s just a guideline, though:

  • Small breeds have tinier bladders and higher metabolisms than large breeds do. Because of this, they might need more frequent bathroom breaks (even more often than one hour for every month of their age).
  • Some dogs’ brains and bodies develop more slowly than others. If you’ve been increasing the periods between your dog’s bathroom breaks without waiting for them to have consistent success at the previous level, you might be moving too quickly.

For young dogs: Have you been inconsistent with your potty training process?

It’s also possible that you’ve recently given your dog some mixed signals — or perhaps missed a few regular bathroom breaks — that have resulted in them feeling confused about when and where they’re supposed to go.

Don’t worry: This doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. Owning a dog is a lot of work, and mistakes happen to the best of us!

Just take a few minutes to think about your house training routine. Is everyone in your family on the same page? Is there a chance you haven’t noticed signals that your dog needs to go out? You might just need to clean up your communication.

For dogs of all ages: Could your pet have a medical issue like a urinary tract infection?

Even if your dog has successfully practiced holding their bladder and bowels for months on end, a sudden illness might prevent them from waiting to go until they’re outside. This is especially likely if they’ve soiled their bed or favorite sleeping spot, since canines don’t like to use the bathroom where they rest (more on that later).

Common health causes of house training accidents include:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Kidney or bladder stones
  • Bladder inflammation
  • Kidney disease
  • Genital skin infections
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • 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! When potty training regression happens to an adult dog (older than a year) with no other obvious variables, there’s a good chance it’s driven at least in part by medical issues.

For dogs of all ages: Has your pet experienced any big life transitions?

Stress can have a range of effects on our dogs’ bodies, making it more difficult for them to regulate their nervous systems, process new information, and — you guessed it — control their bladder and bowels.

Your dog might be feeling overwhelmed if you’ve recently:

  • Moved into a new house
  • Brought another pet home
  • Changed your work schedule
  • Lost a family member
  • Experienced a sudden change in season
  • 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.

You should be able to clear up their accidents in no time by:

  1. Getting back to a consistent routine.
  2. Building their confidence through training and play.
  3. Providing appropriate enrichment activities to alleviate stress.

For dogs of all ages: Are your pet’s accidents linked to other behavioral problems like anxiety?

Sometimes our dogs experience chronic mental health struggles. Separation anxiety, past trauma, and more can contribute to house training problems.

Has your dog recently had an intense bad experience? Maybe they were attacked on a walk or accidentally left alone for too long while you dealt with another emergency. Are there any new stimuli in their regular bathroom spots? Have they been startled by inclement weather while trying to go outside?

If you think long-term anxiety could be the cause of your companion’s potty training regression, don’t worry — you’re not alone! Consider setting up an appointment with a certified vet behaviorist to evaluate what you should do next.

Step two: Eliminate the scent of past accidents

Dogs have a natural instinct to relieve themselves where they’ve used the bathroom before. This is the reason why many adult pets choose to pee and poop in the same corner of their yard or block of their walk each day — and it’s also why one or two accidents inside your home can quickly turn into dozens more if not properly cleaned up.

It’s important to thoroughly scrub all potty messes with an enzymatic cleaner. These special enzymes will remove all traces of previous markings! Since urine can have a powerful, pervasive smell to our dogs’ noses, regular soap and water won’t cut it here.

Step three: Go back to puppy potty training basics

If you’ve determined that your dog’s house training regression is not caused by underlying medical conditions or anxiety that you need to address with a certified professional, then your way forward is simple: Let go of your expectations and pretend your dog is a brand-new puppy!

We know it’s frustrating to feel like you’ve lost so much progress. With a little bit of consistency, though, potty training regression is usually easy to fix. It often takes less time than your initial housebreaking process did!

Here’s what to do. In short, getting your dog in a consistent daily routine will help improve their behavior.

Feed your dog on a schedule

If your dog eats on a regular schedule, it will be easier to predict when they need to use the bathroom.

  • Feed them at the same time each day. Keep track of when they eat and when they use the bathroom so you can start to notice their individual patterns. Your dog should consistently process food in a predictable amount of time. (A bonus of this schedule: You’ll be able to notice any appetite or waste changes right away to get in touch with your vet.)
  • Pay attention to any extra treats you give them during the day that might increase their need to relieve themselves.
  • Give free access to water whenever possible, but be aware of any times they drink more than usual (like after playing or finishing a chew).

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

While an adult dog’s bladder should physically be able to hold more than a puppy, it’s still important to start small during the retraining process.

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 or engage in another activity

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

Don’t allow your dog to play or run around before they’ve gone potty — but as soon as they pee or poop 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 in an adult, before offering a tasty treat or fun game.)

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

We previously mentioned that dogs don't like to use the bathroom where they sleep or eat. By confining your pet 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.

Step five: Get professional guidance if needed!

If you and your dog are still struggling even after going back to basics, it’s a good idea to reach out to a professional.

  • Start with a full vet check if you haven’t already. Even if your dog was previously cleared, there’s a chance you missed something the first time around if they’re still having accidents. A second opinion never hurts.
  • Find an in-person or virtual trainer you trust. They’ll be able to listen to your unique situation and propose tailored recommendations.

Trainer Review of 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.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Lindy Langum
Founder - K9 Fun Club Staff Trainer - Summit Assistance Dogs Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies