How to Train an Older Dog to Use a Pee Pad: The Bad and the Ugly
Someone recently contacted me and asked me how to train an older dog to use a pee pad.
Well, that was an interesting conversation. Look. Potty pads have their uses. If you live in an apartment complex and you don’t have access to a yard where you can take your dog every time it needs to go potty, then pee pads are essentials.
Here’s the thing, though – I don’t like potty pads. In fact, for most situations, I think they make it harder to potty train dogs and not nearly as effective as our go to potty training strategy.
However, if you have recently moved and found yourself in a situation where your adult dog needs to get adjusted to using pee pads, potty pads, or puppy pads, then we have a guide for you right below. First, though, here’s a quick little warning:
It’s true – I’ve said it, I’ve written about it, I HATE potty pads!
1) You Give Up
Most people go to the store and buy potty pads and think they are some kind of miracle. Place the potty pads in designated areas and sit back and let your puppy find them and use them.
Viola! He is now potty trained - but not really.
It is like potty pads are a license to give up on actual potty training.
The truth is, they are not a miracle. In most circumstances, they are detrimental to your potty training at best.
Teaching a dog or a puppy to go potty outside is WORK! It is your job to make sure your puppy gets outside right after he wakes, 20 minutes after he drinks or pees, after he exercises and about every two hours in the beginning.
It is your job to make sure he can’t wander off and throughout your house without being constantly accompanied or watched by you! It is your job to catch him in the act of having an accident, and calmly and kindly get him outside so that he can be conditioned to where he should relieve himself. 99% of dogs will have accidents in the house, it is our job as owners and partners to kindly (no beating, no rubbing of noses) catch them and teach them where to go.
It isn’t easy! If it was, no one would have problems and I wouldn’t get this question several times per week. After all, dogs aren’t born with our rules and social norms, they have no problem going potty in their space, until they are taught and given other options.
2) They Are Confusing at Best
Let’s look at it from your puppy or dog’s standpoint…
You scatter these things all over the house, they have one or several attractive smells (like ammonia) and encourage your dog to use them to urinate and defecate.
At least in the “old days,” newspaper had a very unique and different smell and feel.
Nothing else in your house smells like or feels like newspaper, not your laundry, not your carpet, not your rugs, which is the big reason that newspapers often worked but potty pads create more of a problem than they are worth.
3) It Teaches Your Dog to Potty Indoors
Either you want your dog to potty indoors, or you don’t!
When you have a puppy, encouraging or allowing both is confusing.
I mean, how does your puppy know that your intention is to actually have him going potty outdoors full time?
It is especially confusing if you aren’t teaching him. I mean can you honestly say that you are taking him outside or to his indoor spot as often as he needs to go and you aren’t allowing him to wander alone?
In the beginning, I recommend that you either choose to potty train your dog for outdoors or indoors!
Once he is older and conditioned to the path that you have chosen (indoor or outdoor) THEN you can teach him another way!
That way, you can train your dog for one or the other and condition him. I have found in my years of dog training, that usually what a dog learns first becomes his default in times of stress. After all, teaching a human toddler potty training is difficult enough, imagine having different rules in different places!
4) It is Hard to Distinguish a Potty Pad from Your Things
For your dog, it is often hard to distinguish a potty pad from your other things.
Think about it; potty pads are soft and plush and smell like ammonia. Carpet is also soft and plush. Bathroom rugs are also plush and soft and smell like our human (ammonia scent).
Human sweat and urine often smells like ammonia (even to us in some circumstances) now remember that your dog’s nose is thousands of times more powerful and sensitive than your own nose.
No wonder these dogs pull down towels, and pee on laundry and carpet; because of course by using ammonia scented potty pads we are, in fact, teaching him to do so!
Interesting thought, right? I mean, most people don’t realize how stinky we are (to our dogs) and how our own odor can increase the likelihood of our dogs using our things as a place to mark or put their own scent and relieve himself. Heck, he figures you did! We alleviate this when we teach our dog that outside is the only place to use to relieve himself.
5) It is a Main Cause of Euthanasia
A large majority of dogs end up in shelters because people either can’t or won’t potty train their dogs. After years of accidents, or new carpet or flooring people decide to get rid of their problem dog. Most of these discarded dogs never make it out of the shelter. After all, who wants a dog that they KNOW will soil their house?
And, the hard part is that bad habits or poor conditioning (a behavior that has become a habit) is hard to change! In reality, all of that can be avoided, if the people would just devote the time and effort it takes to potty train their dogs. Potty training is more about the person getting the dog out (or into an appropriate spot) and not allowing bad habits to form than it is about the puppy or dog.
I Used to Teach Dogs to Potty in the Bathtub!
What if You NEED Your Dog to Potty Inside?
So what if you need your dog or your puppy to go potty indoors?
Occasionally there is a person who can’t take their dog out; or perhaps they work such long hours that they simply need their dog to go potty indoors!
It CAN be done!
But, I will tell you it is even more difficult, in most respects, than potty training outdoors can be.
20 years ago, before there were ever indoor grass potty spots, I was teaching dogs to pee and poop in the bathtub!
Yes, it is true! I trained Service Dogs, and a couple of my clients wanted to take their dogs with them on a cruise ship.
As you can probably imagine, a cruise ship is not set up to have grass for dogs to poop and pee. Yet the physically disabled partner relies on his/her Service Dog, and, they should be allowed to travel together!
So, before there were indoor doggy patches, we were using grass carpeting in the shower/tub (of course it was easier to clean up here).
In the beginning, we used a very large piece of grass carpeting, and slowly as the dog became used to going potty in the shower; we could cut it down to a tiny piece that could simply be tossed into any shower.
Sounds easy, right?
The Hard Part
Like potty training a puppy to go outdoors, this took time and effort, even more so than regular potty training.
When I am potty training a puppy to go outside, all I have to do is take him out and release him into a yard. The puppy can run off a distance away and relieve himself.
With indoor potty training you can’t take the dog outside (after all, it is indoors where you want him to go), you have to take him on leash to that ONE spot and wait for him to go potty there.
Often, I had dogs that would hold their bladders for hours and hours not wanting to go potty inside. And, I had dogs that would refuse to poop for over 24 hours for the same reason.
It took time and consistency taking the dog to the same spot inside and not wavering. Every 2 hours, sometimes more, I would walk the dog to the shower and ask him to go potty and then wait. Just like outdoor potty training, I couldn’t then allow the dog to run off leash in the house or he would likely find his own place to relieve himself; which of course was what we were trying to avoid.
Imagine from the dog’s perspective being confused and just wanting a moment to get away so he could relieve himself. Not one moment of being by himself was allowed.
If he was restless, he was taken to the grassy spot in the shower, no exceptions.
We knew, as trainers, how bad it would be if the dog were to poop or pee anywhere he wanted. 20 years ago Guide and Service Dogs were much less accepted and an incident like that could ban dogs on all other cruises. Heck, I remember the story of the “Service Pig” that pooped all over a plane and the desire people had to stop letting service animals on planes.
Therein Lies Some Differences
But, therein lies the difference, we were dog trainers; we knew the importance of consistency!
We knew there were no exceptions.
We could not allow the dog to have accidents in the house or give way to taking him outside (let’s admit I considered this several times).
Training Your Dog To Use a Potty Pad
Sometimes, the inside of your house or apartment is all you have access to. Like I said previously, training your potty to use a pee pad isn’t the best idea, but if that’s all you have, then that’s what you have to roll with. It can lead to accidents elsewhere. However, training your dog to use only the pee pad is possible, it’s just extremely difficult.
There are a few things that can make using puppy training pads easier, one of which is the type of training pads that you’re using.
Potty Training Puppy Pad Options
For dogs, newspaper on the ground may not be obvious enough.
Why is it ok to pee on this spot but not this spot?
Why can I pee on this newspaper but not that magazine?
Giving your puppy a distinct spot to do their business is key for successful puppy pad training.
There are a lot of options for training your puppy to pee in a specific spot inside.
You can try:
Classic Potty Pads: Puppy pads are traditionally composed of layered, spongy material that absorbs wetness and is leak-proof.
Dog Litter Boxes: You heard that right – litter boxes aren’t just for dogs! These boxes are filled with recycled paper pellets that absorb your dog’s messes.
Grass Mats: Grass potty mats can be made with real or artificial grass. They are an especially good choice for owners who plan on graduating their dogs to outdoor house training, serving as an easy and natural stepping stone.
It’s worth noting that litter boxes with pellets and fake grass mats have huge advantages because they are more distinct from your floor than classic potty pads. They take advantage of your dog’s natural instincts to help them potty in the right place.
Here are some steps that you should take if you’re trying to teach your adult dog to use a potty pad:
Crate Train Your Dog
Training an older dog to use a potty pad is similar to training a puppy. If your dog is already crate trained, then great! You can skip to step 2.
Dogs don’t like to pee or poop where they sleep, so giving your dog a smaller space can help teach her to hold her pee. When you are just starting out, use a crate for your puppy. Be sure to take her to the potty pad as soon as you let her out, but whenever you’re not watching her, she should be in the crate.
You’ll want to make sure that you properly crate-train your dog well so that the crate is a safe, happy space to be and not a scary punishment.
When your pup is being kept in her crate for potty training, make sure to take your pup to the potty pad very often.
Remember, puppies cannot hold their potty for very long when they’re little. You’ll want to take your pup to the potty pad as often as possible. Take your pup to the potty area 10 minutes after eating, playing or drinking. Basically, whenever humanly possible!
The more you take her to the pad, the better chance you’ll have of her relieving herself there. When your puppy does go potty in the right place, be sure to lavish him with tons of treats and praise. We suggest using super high-value training treats, like hot dogs!
Also keep in mind:
Puppies that are 2-3 months old need to pee every 2 hours.
Add 1 hour of time for each month after that (for example, a 5 month old dog can hold her potty for 5 hours). So, with your older dog, it’s likely that it won’t need to use the puppy pad very frequently.
Don’t leave your dog without access to a bathroom for more than 8 hours, even if she’s 10 months old.
During the initial puppy pad training stage, you want to make sure not to leave your puppy unattended.
If you’re going to praise your pup for good potty behavior, you need to be there to provide positive reinforcement.
It can be pretty frustrating just hanging around in hopes of catching your dog poop on a pad, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to properly train your dog.
Once you get to stage 2 and 3, you can begin leaving your dog alone, but until then you’ll have to be patient!
This method also works for older dogs. The chances are that your dog has already completed crate training. If you have a younger dog, then you may still need to worry about crate training.
You probably won’t have to worry about training your dog to hold it, either. The bigger issue is acclimation.
For this reason, you should keep your dog in the kennel except for when you’re taking it to the pad.
Much like with a puppy, you’ll need to hang out while your dog is going potty so that you can encourage him.
Also, positive reinforcement is essential throughout the training process, no matter what you’re training your dog to do.
Remember that your dog is seeking approval, and it’s much better to reward positive behavior than to simply punish bad behavior.
Try Using A Larger Area
One your dog is doing well with crate training, you can graduate to a larger space. Instead of leaving your pup in a crate, you will now create a small area within your house for your pup to roam.
Pick where you want the potty pads to go, then confine your pup in a small area including the potty pads.
This can be done with x-pens, indoor dog gates, or by closing room doors.
Give your pup just enough room for a cozy puppy bed, potty pads, plus some water and toys.
Instinctively, she won’t want to potty in her toys, water, or bed – so that just leaves the puppy pads!
Giving her fewer choices makes it easier to make the right one.
As always, when you catch her using the puppy pads, provide ample treats and confirmation.
Also make sure to clean up messes immediately so that your dog never faces the temptation to eat her own poop!
Increase Space Over Time
Once your dog has learned how to use the puppy pad in an enclosed space, you can gradually expand the area. Eventually, you’ll have a free-roaming, potty-trained pro!
At this stage, your pup can finally be left unattended.
How to React When Accidents Happen
Your dog is bound to make mistakes – it’s natural and normal.
Don’t scold your pup, or you may end up confusing your dog and teaching her that it’s not ok to pee in your presence.
When your pup makes a mess, simply take her to the pad. If he goes there, reward her handsomely!
If she doesn’t, don’t take it personally and do your best to reward her when she does it right next time!
You’ll want to clean up messy mistakes immediately to reduce stain and smell.
Dogs have a tendency to pee in the same spot over and over, so eliminating the odor in inappropriate bathroom areas is key.
There are a lot of products available to clean pet messes. We recommend looking for products that are eco-friendly and pet-safe!
If your dog is doing business in the litterbox, grass mat, or potty pad and you do your part to clean regularly, the smell should not be too terrible. These products are engineered to reduce smell!
For disposing of messy pads, most puppy pads usually get tossed in the trash, while grass pads can be biodegradable, but check the instruction details of the products you use for specific disposal details.
This is What Potty Training Comes Down to
Yes, I do think it is important early the in training of your puppy to decide are you an indoor or outdoor potty person and stick with it until you have your first goal (later you can get your dog ready for a cruise).
But It doesn’t matter, indoor or outdoor, what does matter is YOUR consistency and YOUR willingness to not take your eyes off of a learning dog or puppy (use a crate when you can’t) and not accept any exceptions.
After all, your dog’s life might just depend on it one day!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.