Housebreaking Your Pet 101

Pet Housebreaking Location

Cats enjoy sleeping in small, enclosed spaces.
Cats enjoy sleeping in small, enclosed spaces.
Photo courtesy Shanna Freeman

The basic goal behind all housebreaking techniques is to communicate to your pet that you want it to go one place, but not another. Some animals have a natural preference for using a certain type of surface or substrate (e.g., cats and kitty litter); others must be trained to use a certain substrate (e.g., dogs and grass).

To housebreak your pet, you need to watch her very closely. When she goes on the correct type of surface or in the correct spot, you should praise her. You should try to prevent her from going in the wrong places, rather than correcting her after it happens. Housebreaking is more about prevention than correction. You can also train your dog to eliminate on command by using a key word or phrase like "go potty" when he goes where you want him to. On potty breaks, don't walk around. Stand in one place and let him know this is a business trip.

Ever notice that your dog likes to hole up under the porch or behind your favorite chair? Dogs feel comfortable and safe in small, enclosed spaces. Many cats are the same way and like to sleep in cardboard boxes or kitty condos. Most animals that naturally den, like dogs and cats, can be housebroken. They have a natural desire to be clean, so they don't want to eliminate where they sleep, eat or play. You can use this fact to your advantage when housebreaking your pet.

When training a dog, typically your aim is to teach the dog to do all of its eliminating outdoors. But with very young animals, very small animals, or animals that will always be inside, the "go spot" can take other forms.

Crate Training


Crate training is probably the easiest and most effective way to housebreak dogs because it exploits their natural denning instinct. Essentially the crate serves as an indoor den, or doghouse, and most dogs will not willingly soil their den. Using a crate will keep your dog from eliminating (and from destroying anything) when you cannot supervise him.

To crate-train your pet, the first step is to select an appropriately sized crate (see sidebar below for tips). Crates come in two basic types: the enclosed plastic airline kind and the collapsible wire kind. Which one you use is largely a matter of personal preference. If you think you might ever want to fly with your dog, you will probably want the enclosed plastic kind. If you decide to use a wire crate, you may want to drape a blanket or sheet over the back to help your dog feel more enclosed and secure. Place some type of bedding or blanket inside the crate so your dog can be comfortable.

A collapsable wire crate and an enclosed plastic crate. A collapsable wire crate and an enclosed plastic crate.
A collapsable wire crate and an enclosed plastic crate.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris


The crate should not be used for punishment, because it is your dog's special house. You can help your dog feel good about the crate by offering a small treat to him whenever he goes in and by feeding him his meals in it. Children should be taught that the crate is the dog's "safe space" and they must respect his privacy when he's in there. Never crate a dog wearing a choke chain or training collar; she could get it caught and hurt herself.

When first introducing the crate, toss a treat in and let your dog go in to get it. Leave the door open. When he seems happy to go in the crate, you can close the door for short periods and then let him back out. It's important that you only let him out when he's being quiet and well-behaved. Letting your dog out of the crate when he's barking or scratching rewards the wrong behavior. It may be hard to ignore your crying puppy, but it's better to suffer through it in the long run. Otherwise, you may inadvertently teach your dog that being loud will get him out of the crate.

Like people, animals need to eliminate after waking up, after eating and periodically throughout the day. When you let your dog out of the crate, take her immediately to her designated potty spot and praise her when she goes. Also take her there after she eats, after she wakes up, after she's been playing, and every hour or so throughout the day if she's out running around.

Next, we'll learn about two other types of housebreaking: paper training and litter box training.

The first step to crate training your dog is letting him get used to the crate. The first step to crate training your dog is letting him get used to the crate.
The first step to crate training your dog is letting him get used to the crate.
Photo courtesy Hannah Harris

A crate is a wonderful tool, but you must be careful not to abuse it. In general, it is best not to crate any dog for more than a few hours. Dogs need to stretch their legs too! If you work a full day, you may need to find a dog sitter who can come by your house and let your dog out midday for a potty break.

Puppies fewer than six weeks old don't have fully developed digestive systems and should always have access to somewhere they can eliminate. For older puppies between two and eight months, a good rule is that you can crate a puppy for about as many hours as it is months old. So you can reasonably expect a three-month-old puppy to stay crated for three hours without soiling. Any longer than that and your puppy may be physically unable to hold it. Asking them to do so is cruel and bad for your training efforts, because a dog that is repeatedly forced to soil its bedding will be much more difficult to housebreak in the end as its natural desire to be clean erodes.

Since the crate is primarily a housebreaking tool, it is no longer necessary once the dog is trustworthy in the house. However, having a dog that is comfortable with a crate has other benefits. A crate-trained dog may be easier to travel with and more welcome in hotels. A crate gives you a safe place to contain your dog if you have visitors that aren't compatible with dogs. If you have multiple dogs, feeding everyone in crates can eliminate fighting over food.