Don't Punish Your Dog for Peeing in the House

Why punishment is the wrong approach for house training mistakes, and how you should house train your dog or puppy instead.
An older dog lays with their head on a blanket looking thoughtful as if punished
Photo: mannpuku/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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How should we house train puppies, and deal with the inevitable mistakes that puppies and adult dogs can have? Suppose your dog suddenly starts to pee in the house. You clean it up the first time but it happens again…. And then again.

Or your new puppy keeps having accidents indoors even though you take her outside often.

In this situation, some people will yell at their dog. Some might even try physical punishment like hitting the dog or an alpha roll. And we’ve all come across the advice that you should rub their nose in it.

Don’t do it.

Whether you're toilet training an adult dog or house training a puppy, here’s why that’s the wrong approach, and what you should do instead.

Punishment can make things worse

First of all, let’s think about it from the dog’s perspective.

Suppose they pee in the house and you yell at them. What do they learn from this?

It’s unlikely the dog will understand why you are yelling. This is especially the case if there is a time lag between the mess being made and you discovering it.

Unfortunately what they might learn is not to pee in front of you. From the dog’s perspective, this is what causes the yelling, not peeing in the house. The dog may also feel afraid of you.

What can happen is that when the dog wants to pee, they now want to do so out of sight of you. I’m sure you’ve heard people tell tales of how the dog ‘sneaks off’ to go and pee in another room, or waits until they are out.

This means that aside from not solving the problem, punishing the dog actually makes the problem worse because it means the dog is now scared to pee in front of you outside.

This can make resolving house training issues even harder. They may avoid urinating on walks, instead waiting until they are home and you are not there.  

A little fluffy Pomeranian dog peeing on the grass in the garden
Photo: Jakkrit Orrasri/Shutterstock

Punishing the dog for urinating inside is basically the opposite of house training.

There’s also the wider issue that punishment is not the best way to train dogs – reward-based training is a better approach.

House soiling accidents are not due to spite

When dogs pee in the house, people often think the dog is being spiteful or stubborn or sneaky. But that’s not the case.

It’s easy to see how people might think that, because sometimes dogs pick odd spots to pee in. Like the time someone told me their newly adopted dog had peed in his shoes.

Well, who knows really why the dog picked the shoes – perhaps he had been sniffing them and we all know that a lot of sniffing precedes peeing, or perhaps it was because the shoes were right by the door and the dog really wanted to go outside.

I can understand why that would feel personal! Luckily the guy knew that his dog was not fully house trained yet and it wasn’t a personal slight, it was just that he needed to house train the dog.

Even if it makes us angry when a dog has an accident inside, we need to stay calm (or try and see the funny side) and not blame the dog.

Medical issues could be the cause of house soiling

Are you thinking, "Why is my dog peeing in the house all of a sudden?"

If your dog is already house trained and they have an accident in the house, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your vet.

There are several medical issues that can cause dogs to pee in the house, including urinary tract infections. Diabetes, kidney issues, prostate disease, and other issues can also be the cause. Some medications cause increased urination as a side effect.

If your dog has a medical issue, no amount of training is going to resolve it. That’s why you need to see the vet.

As well, some of these conditions can be very painful. The dog may associate urinating in the usual spots with pain and be looking for new places to pee instead.

Because people often make assumptions about the dog being spiteful, stubborn or sneaky, they may initially not realize there could be a medical cause. But it’s important to seek veterinary help sooner rather than later.

The secret to house training a puppy or dog

Puppies, of course, do not arrive fully house-trained, even if the breeder has made a good start on this. As well, dogs acquired from other sources (such as online ads or rescues) will sometimes not have been properly house trained yet.

The secret to good house training is simply to take your puppy or dog outside often, and then reward them for peeing and pooping outside. Although this sounds easy, you will have to keep it up for three weeks without mistakes.

Puppies need close supervision while housetraining. This Saint Bernard puppy is outside in the snow.
Photo: Grigorita Ko/Shutterstock

You need to take the dog outside often enough that they always empty their bladder outside and don’t get chance to go in the house.

It’s up to you to stop mistakes from happening by always taking them outside in time. And go outside with them so that when they do go, you are there to reward them right away. (You’ll need to make sure you have some good training treats handy).

Reward the dog as soon as the peeing or pooping is finished.

To help prevent accidents, make sure you always have your shoes, coat and treats to hand. That way you’re always ready to take the dog outside.

You will need to supervise your dog closely in the house, which may mean keeping them on a leash or on your lap at times when they might need to go soon.

You may also learn to recognize the signs that your dog needs to go, which means you should take them outside right away. For puppies and little dogs, when you see them looking as if they want to go to the toilet, you may want to carry them outside quickly so that they don't get the chance to widdle on the walk to the door.

You may want to crate the dog at times when you are not able to supervise them properly. (Of course, this means you have to crate-train the dog as a priority).

For young puppies you may need to take them outside every half an hour as they cannot hold their bladder very long at that age. You may need to carry them outside so they don’t urinate while you’re getting your shoes and coat on.

Don’t loosen up this management until you’ve had three weeks without accidents in the house.

Clean up messes properly

If there are any messes in the house, it’s important to clean them up properly. Dogs have great noses and the smell may linger for them even if it’s not detectable to us.

You can buy ready-made enzyme cleaners from pet stores and supermarkets. Or you can make your own with a 10% solution of a biological washing powder, then rinse the area after cleaning it. Of course, always do a patch test of any cleaner before using it, to be sure your carpet or other flooring won’t be damaged.

A puppy goes to the bathroom outside in the garden in the snow
Photo: Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz/Shutterstock

Availability of water during house training

Sometimes people respond to the dog having accidents in the house by restricting access to water, or taking the water bowl away overnight.

This is not going to solve the problem as you still need to house train the dog or deal with any medical issues.

Water should be available for your pet at all times. (See: what are the Five Freedoms and what do they mean to you?).

Summary: House training do's and don'ts

The problem with punishing a dog for urinating in the house is that it doesn’t help to solve the problem, it may make your dog fearful, and it can even make the problem worse.

If there might be a medical issue, it’s important to see a vet first. Only once medical issues are resolved or ruled out can you work on house training.

If it’s a house training issue, it’s up to you to train your dog by preventing accidents from happening in the first place, rewarding the dog for toileting outside – and keeping this up for three weeks without mistakes.

Understandably this can sometimes be difficult. I recommend the online course From Mess to Success by my colleague (and Special Correspondent) Kristi Benson. This course helps you set realistic expectations and stick to a schedule that works for you and your dog, and tries to turn the chore of house training into something a bit more fun. 

If you’re struggling with house training, you could also seek help from a qualified dog trainer

If you've just adopted a new best friend, check out my tips for bringing home a new rescue dog

If you want more tips on how to train and care for your dog, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

How long did it take you to house train your dog?

The must-have guide for improving your dog's life
Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

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