Constant Supervision: Timing & Consistency
In order to do any type of dog training – potty training, obedience, behavior, etc. – you need to focus on 2 very key points: timing and consistency. I would get frustrated when potty-training my first dog because, “she’s not being consistent with her signals”…when in reality it was I who was not consistent! The dog takes its cue from you, its leader. So if you're not consistent, your training won't proceed smoothly.
Also, timing is important because dogs cannot distinguish 2 seconds ago from 2 minutes / hours ago. So, if you turn around and the dog’s already done its deed, there is no use in correcting the behavior because it’s already in the past. IF, however, you catch the dog in the act, then you can take steps to correct it.
Conversely, if your puppy does what he's supposed to, praise him immediately! Don't let the only thing he hears from you be "No!"
How Do I Know When to Take My Puppy Out?
After knowing that timing and consistency are your weapons for housebreaking your dog, the next step is to know when to take your puppy out to do his deed. This is simple: Any change in activity should prompt you to take the pup outside (or to the designated area if you're using puppy pads). This means whenever the puppy wakes up, gets done eating, finishes playing, etc., they’ll need to be taken out. They won’t always have to go, but chances are – especially the younger the puppy – the majority of the time they’ll at least have to urinate when you take them out. Increased activity will increase the urge to urinate/defecate, so if the pup is outside and you think they might have to go, play fetch for a few minutes or romp around with them.
Keep in mind your young puppy’s bladder is very small, so they won’t physically be able to hold it as long as an older puppy or an adult dog (another reason they need to be taken out constantly). The older they get (plus, the more they understand that creating a mess in the house is unacceptable) the longer they’ll be able to go without being let outside. The “basic” rule of thumb with puppies is for every month in the age of your pup, add 1 and that’s how many hours they can hold it. For example, if your puppy is 4 months old, they “should” be able to hold it for 5 hours. This really doesn’t apply for very young pups, and of course all dogs are different.
Also, this method works wonderfully - when you're home! If you can't watch the dog constantly, another method which can be utilized is crate training.
What Do I Do If I Catch My Puppy In the Act?
So, what do you do if your puppy makes a mess in the house (or in the non-designated area, for apartment-dwellers)? Again, do NOT attempt to “correct” the problem after it’s already happened – it’s only a frustrating experience for you and the puppy since she won’t know why she’s being punished.
You must watch puppies constantly when potty training, and literally follow them around – even if they’ve recently gone outside – because, well, they’re puppies! For the first 8 weeks of their life they evacuate wherever they want and their mother cleans up after them. So, if you notice your pup in a squat (and/or actually peeing/pooping), make a sharp noise (try not to make it too frightening) to not only get the pup’s attention but make it “clamp” and stop messing. Then calmly pick up the puppy and head outside with him. Once there, put the pup down and, once he finishes his duty, praise him with a treat (or by throwing a ball, etc). If the pup doesn’t immediately finish with his duties, you can prompt him to do so by playing with him, making him run, etc – again, going back to the idea that changes in activity often prompt the urge to urinate/defecate.
Some people believe that upon finding the pup messing in the house, the best way to stop the behavior is to rub the pup’s nose in her mess; another method hails to shaking the pup (like her mother would if she was misbehaving), say “NO!” and then take her outside to finish. If a method works for you, it works – I’ve heard many theories on the best practices for housebreaking dogs. In my opinion, though, the best methods for any type of training revolve around positive reinforcement, versus positive punishment.
Eventually, if you're consistent with timing, you'll realize you're worrying less and less about where the puppy is...until one day it will literally "click" and you'll have a potty-trained dog!