Pet Care

House Training Your Puppy Mill Dog

Brown Rottweiler mix puppy sits outside a cafe

Congratulations! You’ve taken the wonderful step of providing a home for a dog who’s been rescued from a puppy mill. At these large-scale commercial dog-breeding facilities, profit is given priority over the well-being of the dogs. Those who run puppy mills keep canines in cages for their entire lives and often produce generations of dogs with illnesses, genetic defects, fearful behavior and a lack of socialization skills. You’re giving a neglected, abused dog a second chance! You may face some hard work at first, but it’s extremely rewarding to watch these poor creatures come out of their shells and begin to have the kind of life all dogs deserve.

When house training any new dog, you’ll need to focus on the following:

  • Confinement
  • Strict supervision
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom area
  • Rewards for eliminating in the right place
  • Interrupting mistakes

Your puppy mill dog may need to learn a few additional things:

  • How nice it is to feel clean
  • How to use potty pads
  • That the great outdoors isn’t so scary

How to Achieve House-Training Success

Proper Confinement

Create a confinement area—a small, comfy place where your dog will feel safe. In addition to providing comfort, a small confinement area can be a useful training tool.

Using a Crate

A crate may be an effective short-term tool for house training your new dog. Most dogs confined to a small area will naturally try not to eliminate because they don’t want to soil in the place where they sleep. So putting your dog in a crate for short periods of time (four hours or less) can prevent him from eliminating. Then, when you let him out of the crate, you can take him outside and reward him for relieving himself in the right spot. To learn more about how to use a crate, please see our article on Weekend Crate Training.

Pet supply stores and online vendors sell wire crates and plastic airline crates. Both styles have advantages and disadvantages.

  • Wire crates usually collapse for easy storage and portability, and they provide more ventilation than plastic ones.
  • Plastic crates aren’t as portable, but they’re often ideal for fearful dogs. A plastic crate seems especially den-like, which may make your dog feel safer and more secure when he’s inside. In addition, if you need to take your dog out of his plastic crate, you can simply remove the top and lift him out, sparing him the stress of being dragged out through a crate door.
  • Some stores also sell soft crates made of mesh. Although they provide privacy for dogs and are the most portable, they aren’t very durable. Some dogs chew through them and escape.

Although crate training can be great for many dogs, it might not be appropriate for dogs who came from puppy mills. Your dog was probably forced to sleep in his own excrement at the puppy mill, so, unlike normal dogs, he might not have the same reluctance to soil his sleeping area. If he doesn’t mind sitting in his own mess, you may need to use a larger confinement area instead.

Creating a Larger Confinement Area

If you need to leave your dog alone for more than four hours, if crate training is not an option, or if your dog is too fearful to go outside, you’ll need to create a long-term confinement area. A kitchen with a linoleum floor, a small laundry room or a bathroom works well for this purpose. You can use a baby gate or an exercise pen to block the doorway to the room and keep your dog safely confined. The room should contain a crate with a bed inside (leave the crate door open), toys and a water bowl. Create a bathroom area by placing a potty pad or newspapers on the side of the room furthest from where you’ve placed your dog’s bed, food and water. At first, you may need to cover the entire floor with the pads or paper. When your dog begins to use just one corner of the room, you can gradually remove the unused papers, making the potty area smaller.

When you aren’t at home or can’t closely supervise your dog, you must keep him in his crate or long-term confinement area to prevent mistakes. The more mistakes your dog makes, the harder it will be to successfully house train him.

Nighttime Confinement

Let your dog sleep beside your bed so that he won’t be lonely and you can hear him cry if he needs to eliminate during the night. He may feel most comfortable in a small place that reminds him of his former home, so it might be best to put him in a small, soft crate on or beside your bed.

Strict Supervision

Don’t let your new untrained dog roam the house unsupervised. If you do, he’ll probably relieve himself somewhere when you’re not looking, and that spot may become his new potty area! When you’re at home, keep your dog in his confinement area with a food-puzzle toy, like a KONG®, to keep him busy. Alternatively, you can try “umbilical cording.” If he’s brave enough to walk around the house, keep your dog with you on a leash attached to your belt. (You’ll need to slowly get him used to wearing a harness and leash before you try umbilical cording.)

Frequent Trips to the Bathroom Area

  • Take your dog outside or to his indoor potty area every couple of hours. He’ll likely need to eliminate immediately after meals, right after waking up and right after a bout of exercise or play.
  • When you take your dog to the right spot, wait three minutes for him to relieve himself. If he doesn’t eliminate, go back inside, and place him in his confinement area for 15 minutes. Then take him outside to try again.
  • It might help to keep a record of when your dog eliminates so that you start to see his pattern. If you figure out when your dog will probably need to relieve himself, you’ll be able to take him out at appropriate times.

Rewards for Eliminating in the Right Place

When your dog eliminates in the right place, always praise him softly and give him a few delicious treats. Use something he doesn’t get at other times, like small pieces of cheese, chicken or hot dog. You’ll achieve success faster if you make it clear that eliminating in the right place pays off.

Interrupting Mistakes

Again, never leave your dog unsupervised unless he’s in his crate or confinement area. Keep a close eye on him, and respond to any pre-potty behavior that you see—like sniffing, circling, pacing and walking with stiff back legs—by taking him outside fast.

If you see your dog start to relieve himself inside, quickly but calmly lead or carry him to the right spot. If he finishes there, praise him enthusiastically.

How to Respond to Mistakes After They Happen

Clean up the mess
If you don’t catch your dog in the act but find an accident after it happens, don’t punish him in any way. He can’t connect punishment with something he did hours or even minutes ago. Scolding or rubbing his nose in his waste will only stress or frighten him. Instead, just clean up the mess and make a mental note to supervise more carefully in the future. Be sure to use an enzymatic cleanser designed for cleaning pet urine and feces. You can find them at most major pet stores. Using an appropriate cleaner will minimize odors that might attract your dog back to the same spot to eliminate again.

Clean up your dog
Don’t be surprised if your dog has an accident and then lies down in his own mess, especially if you keep him in a crate. Although it may seem repulsive to you, he was forced to do that at the puppy mill, so it seems completely normal to him. As soon as possible after the accident, thoroughly clean him up. Former puppy mill dogs need to get used to the feeling of being clean. They’ll eventually learn to like it! If a full-on bath is too traumatizing at first, use a mild puppy shampoo to spot-clean, or try using a dry shampoo or wipes sold at pet stores.

Common House-Training Mistakes

  • Waiting too long in between bathroom trips  
    Start by taking your new puppy mill dog outside every two to three hours—or even more often if he’s extremely active indoors. Once house trained, healthy adult dogs can be expected to hold it for no more than eight or nine hours. This means that an adult dog will need at least three or four trips outside each day after he’s house trained. Smaller-breed dogs may need to potty five or more times a day. Tiny bladders just can’t hold as much!
  • Punishing your dog for eliminating in the wrong place  
    Punishing your dog for house-training mistakes will only make him afraid to eliminate in front of you, which will be a big problem when you want him to do exactly that outside. If you catch your dog in the act of relieving himself indoors, you can gently interrupt him and immediately take him out—but avoid scolding.
  • Punishing after the fact  
    Remember, your dog won’t understand if you punish him for something he already did. If you didn’t catch him in the act of making a mistake, you weren’t supervising carefully enough.
  • Failing to reward good behavior with extra-special treats  
    House training is hard for a new dog to learn, especially if he came from a place as horrible as a puppy mill. The key is to reward your dog with really delicious treats, like small pieces of chicken, cheese, dried liver or hot dog, when he eliminates outside. Special rewards will make a much bigger impression than plain, old, dry dog biscuits. You want your dog to be eager to relieve himself in the right place.
  • Going inside right after your dog eliminates  
    If you make a habit of walking your dog until he relieves himself and then going right back inside, you’ll teach him that fun walks end as soon as he eliminates. If he likes to be outside, he’ll hold it to make walks longer. So praise and treat your dog for going to the bathroom outside, and then continue your walk as an additional reward.

However, it’s important to realize that many puppy mill dogs find the outdoors really scary. If your dog is afraid to go outside, you can actually teach him to relieve himself more quickly by bringing him back inside the moment he’s empty. Coming inside is the reward, not continuing a walk.

Additional Tips

  • Stick to a strict feeding schedule. If your dog eats at scheduled times every day, he’ll likely need to eliminate at regular, predictable times, too.
  • If your male dog lifts his leg in the house, try using a belly band. Belly bands are Velcro “diapers” that wrap around a dog’s waist and keep urine from hitting furniture. At best, the dog will give up trying to mark as the urine never goes where he wants it, and at worst the mess will be confined to the diaper instead of on your furniture.
  • If your new dog is extremely fearful, we recommend training him to eliminate inside on potty pads first. As he becomes more comfortable in his new home, you can slowly transition him to eliminating outside.
  • House training a puppy mill dog can be challenging. Don’t hesitate to contact a qualified animal behavior expert for guidance. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT), a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) in your area.
  • Most importantly, be patient. It may take some time to successfully house train your puppy mill dog, but your hard work will pay off in the end.
  • For general information about helping your dog adjust to her new life, please see our article on Adopting a Puppy Mill Dog.