How to Housetrain a Fully-Grown Adopted Dog

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

crate training a new adopted dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Adopted adult dogs often arrive at their new forever homes with varying degrees of housetraining; however, with consistency, positive reinforcement and patience, this issue can be sorted out
  • Crate training is the most effective tool to help with housetraining; crate training can be very beneficial in many other situations as well
  • It’s important to purchase the right size crate for your dog, especially during housetraining, and place it in an appropriate location in your home
  • It’s also important to follow a few commonsense “rules of the road” for successful housetraining
  • Establishing two-way communication with dogs during housetraining will encourage them to eliminate “on cue” in the future when needed

If you've recently welcomed an adult dog into your family, or you're about to, your new furry companion may or may not be fully housetrained. Depending on his former life, he may have had no potty training at all, or he may just need a refresher now that he's in an unfamiliar location with a daily routine he's not yet accustomed to.

But no matter the details of his previous life, rest assured your dog can learn to eliminate outdoors as long as you're committed to being a consistent, positive and patient pet parent.

Sadly, a significant percentage of dogs wind up in animal shelters due to housetraining problems, and about a quarter of behavior-related visits to veterinarians also involve housetraining issues. In my experience, one of the main reasons housetraining fails is because people have a tendency to look at their dogs — especially adult dogs — as four-legged humans.

They find an accident on the floor, can't believe what they're seeing, and react as though the dog is a human and has just deliberately left a disgusting mess on the floor. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stating the obvious, dogs aren't people, and it's important to keep this distinction in mind at all times. It's also important to realize that if you mishandle potty mistakes in the house, you'll very often get the opposite outcome of the one you want and make the situation worse.

The good news is that it's very possible to successfully housetrain a dog at any age. As I mentioned above, there are three things that will put you on the road to success in housetraining your dog, and I can't stress the importance of them enough. They are consistency, positive reinforcement, and patience.

Crates and Housetraining Go Hand-in-Hand

I'm a big fan of crate training and recommend it to every dog guardian I know, especially those who need to housetrain a new furry friend. Whether your canine companion is a puppy or a senior, providing her with her very own cozy space has a number of advantages for both of you. And a crate can help not only with housetraining, but also car or plane travel, and overnight stays with friends, family, or at a pet-friendly hotel.

Many people equate a crate with a jail cell, but if you understand a little about the nature of dogs, you know this isn't true. If you have any doubts about this, I encourage you to talk with some dog-loving friends who've crate-trained their pets. Chances are they'll tell you their dog seeks out her crate on her own for naps, at bedtime, and whenever she just needs some alone time.

Pregnant wild dogs, including wolves and coyotes, seek out den-like environments in which to deliver their pups, and we can assume that many puppies' first memories are of being with their mom and littermates in a quiet, small space. That's why if a crate is introduced to your dog in the right way, it can become a private, secure spot that she'll want to return to again and again for rest of her life.

In fact, if you bring a new dog into your home and don't have a crate ready for her, she may just find a spot of her own, under a table or chair or even behind the toilet in the bathroom that answers her need for a secure, out-of-the-way "den" of her own.

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A Crate is Your Best Hedge Against Indoor Potty Accidents

If you leave your dog in his little spot, you'll notice he won't relieve himself there. That's because dogs instinctively know not to soil their dens. In the wild, nursing wolves and coyotes teach their pups to relieve themselves outside the den. This keeps predators from investigating inside their little homes and keeps messes outside the sleeping area.

And as it turns out, this is exactly why crates are so useful for dogs who haven't been housetrained. A dog with his own den won't want to pee or poop in it, so by providing a crate, you're working in harmony with his natural drive to keep his resting spot clean.

As long as he's getting consistent and frequent trips outside to relieve himself in an appropriate environment, nature should prompt him to avoid soiling his den in between potty trips (unless there's a medical problem).

Another health benefit of crate training is that dogs accustomed to spending time alone in their den are much less likely to develop separation anxiety or other phobias. This strategy coupled with positive reinforcement behavior training forms the foundation for a secure, balanced, housetrained dog.

Suggestions for Crate Size and Location

When you purchase a crate for your dog, the size is important. You want a space that's not too big or too small. She should be able to stand up, lie down on her side, and turn around easily in it, but it shouldn't be so large that she can comfortably use one end as her potty spot and the other end for sleeping.

If you're unsure what size crate to buy, talk to a shelter volunteer, your veterinarian or your breeder about what you want to accomplish so they can help you pick the right size. If your dog hasn't yet reached her full adult size, you may want to get a smaller crate initially and replace it with a bigger one as she grows.

Another option would be to buy the size crate she'll ultimately need and install a temporary barrier of some sort at one end so that she only has access to a portion of the space until she's fully housetrained.

When you bring the new crate home, place it in an area where your family spends a lot of time — not in an isolated spot, or outdoors, or a high traffic location (can be stressful), or where your dog will experience temperature extremes.

Make sure there's nothing hanging inside the crate that could cause your dog harm, and especially if she's still young and rambunctious, take her collar off before you put her in the crate so it can't get hung up on anything. As necessary, disinfect the crate with either mild soap or vinegar and baking soda and rinse it thoroughly.

For suggestions on how to help your dog learn to love her crate, even if she's hesitant or fearful at first, review my video and article on crate training. It's very important to never force your dog into a crate or use the crate as a form of punishment. Allowing her to acclimate to the crate in a fear-free fashion is the most important first step in crate training.

4 Rules for Successful Housetraining

1. Never leave your un-housetrained dog unattended — not even for a minute — It's very important not to give him opportunities to fail at housetraining.

2. Feed your dog on a schedule — I don't recommend free feeding pets under any circumstances, but it's an especially bad idea with a dog who isn't housetrained. If you're feeding him on a consistent once or twice-a-day schedule, you know that within 30 minutes to an hour after eating, he'll need to be taken outside.

Feeding on a schedule makes potty breaks much more predictable and allows you to exercise more control over the situation. The more opportunities you give your pup to succeed in relieving himself outside, the faster he'll be housetrained.

3. Reward your dog for good behavior — Successful potty training involves consistently rewarding your dog for performing desirable behaviors and praising him in ways he understands. Timing is also really important here. When you use phrases such as "Good boy" and "Nice job" said in a quiet, loving, tone immediately after he goes, you reinforce the desired behavior.

Almost all dogs speak the language of food, so treats are also a good reward during the housetraining process. When your dog eliminates in the right spot outside, praise him with words and give him a treat within 1 to 3 seconds of the behavior.

And remember that consistency is crucial. Food rewards are typically only necessary for a short time before dogs respond to praise alone. Once he's fully housetrained, you can eliminate the treats if you wish, and offer just verbal praise instead.

4. Don't punish your dog for mistakes — No shouting, absolutely no physical contact, and never rub your dog's nose in his mess. For many people, this can be the most difficult rule to follow, but I can't stress enough how important it is. In order to successfully housetrain your dog, you have to avoid punishing any type of mistake.

And mistakes are going to happen. It's important to adjust your attitude toward your dog when it comes to this. Don't give him a chance to fail, but when he does, recognize that your response sets the stage for everything that happens after.

If you respond negatively, you teach him to fear you. There's a good chance he'll respond in the future by going into another room out of sight to potty, rather than learning to trust you and tell you when he needs to go outside.

Your dog will know you're upset at him, but he won't know why. He'll feel confused and scared. After all, you're the center of his universe, so it's really important that he is able to trust you. Even if you catch him "in the act" indoors, don't respond with anger or force. It's important that every situation pertaining to housetraining is very positive. In short, you can't punish or frighten a dog into appropriate behavior.

Ensuring Your Dog's Housetraining Success

When it's time for your dog's potty break, make sure you grab a few treats, put her on her leash, and bring her to a specific spot each time. Give her about 5 minutes to do her business. That's usually enough time for her to sniff around and decide to go.

On those occasions when she doesn't go, bring her back to her crate and close the door. Allowing her to roam loose in your house after an unproductive potty trip is setting her up to fail. In 10 or 15 minutes, grab the treats again and take her back outside to her spot. Chances are you won't need to repeat this more than once before she does her business, but be prepared just in case to go back and forth to the potty spot a few times.

While you're actively housetraining your dog, don't assume if she doesn't relieve herself when you take her out that she doesn't need to go — especially first thing in the morning. She should either be in her crate or outside in her potty spot until she relieves herself.

When she goes, mark her behavior with a verbal cue. For example, the second she begins to pee, say "go potty" in a low, reassuring tone to mark the behavior you want. You're linking in her mind the words "go potty" with the act of relieving herself. "Go poo" or some other short phrase is a good verbal cue for pooping.

Eventually, you'll be able to take her to a spot — ideally any spot of your choosing whether at home or elsewhere — and give the verbal cue you've chosen and voila! Within 3 seconds of your dog finishing her business, you must give her a treat and say, "good job." Give her a couple more treats and continue to praise her before you go back inside.

Don't wait until you're back inside to give your dog a treat, because you'll teach her to associate coming back indoors with treats rather than relieving herself outside. That's why it's so important to remember the treats when you take her outside and reward her within 3 seconds after she completes the desired behavior.

A Word About Letting Your Dog Housetrain Himself

If you have a fenced yard, you can certainly let your dog out on his own to relieve himself. However, I don't recommend you do this in the beginning. It's impossible to establish a verbal "go potty" cue if you're inside and he's outside. You also can't give him a food reward within 3 seconds if you're in different places.

Since you're not hands-on involved in your dog's housetraining (other than opening the door to let him out), you're giving up the opportunity to accompany him and develop a two-way communication that will serve both of you well when you're away from home and he has to relieve himself on leash and somewhere other than his yard.

In addition, certain dogs and certain breeds seem to understand from a very young age to do their business outside, and given free access to your yard, will catch on immediately. Other dogs just don't get it initially and need their human's help to be successful.

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