How to Potty Train an Older Dog

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Congratulations on adopting a new canine friend! You gave an older dog a chance for happiness during their golden years. Adopting an older dog often means you know all about their personality, health status and even training issues in advance, which can be a plus.

But understanding how to potty train an older dog — or, perhaps even more challenging, how to potty train an older dog in an apartment — can come with unexpected surprises. Here's what you need to know about potty training an older pup.

happy old grey mixed breed dog portrait outdoors in summer

Reasons an Older Dog May Need Potty Training

Everyone understands puppies need potty training, but most people assume an adult dog already knows what's expected. But new people, a strange environment, excitement or plain misunderstandings can cause bathroom accidents. Here are some of the reasons a senior dog might act clueless about potty training:

Old Habits

Formerly kenneled dogs who are used to going on cement runs or gravel might not know what to do on the grass.

Lack of Rules

In the dog's previous situation, they may have eliminated wherever they wanted and simply don't know any better.

Loss of Control

Older dogs, especially spayed female dogs, often can't hold it and leak urine.


Arthritis can make it hurt to "pose" or go up and down steps to a potty spot.

Fading Senses

Senior dogs' senses of hearing, sight and smell can diminish over time. This can make it challenging to sniff out or see their potty spot, or to hear your direction.

Cognitive Challenges

Old dogs may forget to alert you that they need a bathroom break or forget where they usually go.

Health Issues

Age-related issues such as diabetes and kidney insufficiency may increase the urge to urinate, which can increase accidents.

Always schedule a health check with your veterinarian after adopting a new pet. Your vet can help you identify and often resolve issues that make potty training an older dog a challenge. For example, diagnosing and treating diabetes, kidney disease or joint discomfort could make potty training an older dog a breeze. Your vet may also offer treatments to relieve urinary incontinence concerns.

Tips for Potty Training an Older Dog

Throw out the assumption that old dogs can't learn new tricks and start from scratch. Potty train your older dog the same way you would a new pup. Many of the basics apply, no matter a dog's age. Here are some tips to help you and your new best friend with their bathroom behaviors.

1. Choose a Place

Keep in mind that old dogs can't wait for long. Identify where you want them to go in an easy-to-access area close to the door. If you have a yard, take them to the same grassy plot each time so the scent reminds them what to do. When it comes to how to potty train an older dog in an apartment, see whether there's a designated dog walking area. If so, plan to give your dog access well in advance.

Dogs living in high-rise apartments may do better with an indoor potty pad or even a canine litter box. The trip down flights of stairs can bother achy joints, and waiting for the elevator might prove to be a challenge.

When potty training an older dog who's used to going on gravel or cement, choose a surface they accept, such as the edge of the driveway. You can later transition them to the grass with reward-based training once they understand what you want.

2. Schedule Breaks

While puppies need frequent potty breaks throughout the day, adult dogs have a great capacity to hold it. Most healthy adult dogs can wait up to seven hours, which means they'll likely need a break as soon as you come home from work.

But as dogs age, they may lose some of this reserve. Learn your dog's schedule and maintain their routine. At a minimum, take them out first thing in the morning, when you come home from work and right before you go to bed at night.

Pick up their water bowl an hour before bedtime to help reduce urinary accidents overnight. For leaky dogs, consider providing dog diapers to keep them and your floors clean.

3. Watch for Signs

Your dog will tell you what they want and need — you just need to understand what they're saying. Be alert to one or more of the following signals so you can immediately take them to an approved spot:

  • Barking or scratching at the door
  • Sniffing the floor
  • Pacing in circles

Keep a leash handy to guide them to the designated area. They'll quickly learn to head to that spot, especially once you explain how brilliant they are. Consider naming the deed ("go potty," for example) so they learn what you expect with that command.

4. Crate Train

The answer to how to potty train an older dog may be as simple as breaking out a cozy crate. Dogs don't want to sleep near their waste, so confining them to a crate when you can't supervise teaches them to alert you when they need a break. In the case of any mess, this also keeps it contained in an easily cleaned area. Alternatively, you can hook their leash to your waist to keep them near and watch for signals that they need a potty break.

5. Make Accommodations

Part of understanding how to potty train an older dog means accepting they have physical challenges that can be difficult to control. Your dog may have the best of intentions but physically can't help making a mess. In this case, clean up the area and help your dog succeed the next time. For arthritic dogs, consider installing a ramp. Poor vision can make pups refuse potty breaks in the dark, so provide a lighted path as well.

6. Reward Success

Praise your dog when they go in the correct spot. If they love a particular toy or treat, keep it with you as a high-value reward once they've finished their business. Old dogs thrive on praise, and they learn as readily as puppies do. Once older dogs understand what you expect, they won't need a reward every time, but potty training an older dog requires incentives at first.

Old dogs deserve love, consideration and tender care. As you learn together, their golden years will enrich the bond you share, leading to countless wags of happiness and success.

Contributor Bio

Amy Shojai

Amy Shojai

Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant, an award-winning pet journalist and author of 35+ pet titles. Quoted as an expert by the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest and many other publications, Amy has appeared on Animal Planet, Good Morning America, CNN and many others. Amy shares behavior and care information on her website, to empower cat and dog lovers to make informed decisions for their animal companions. She lives in North Texas with her furry muses and several hundred roses.