How to Potty Train a Rescue Dog in 5 Steps

How to potty train a rescue dog

Housetraining can seem complicated if you haven’t done it before or if you aren’t experienced with dogs. With rescue dogs or puppy mill dogs it can be even harder. Often, they won’t have had any house training at all, so you might have to work extra hard to potty train your rescue dog.

However, through understanding the signals, creating a routine, having good house-training habits, and being a calm, consistent authority figure, you’ll potty train your rescue dog in no time at all!

It takes patience and time, but these 5 steps to house training a rescue dog should help. Before you start though, make sure you have enough pee pads (see Amazon prices). They will be essential.

How to house train a rescue dog in 5 steps

1. Learn the body language of dogs

A wagging tail or angry snarl may be easy to spot, but the nuances of dog behavior are worth learning once you have adopted a rescue dog. The signs that your dog may want to pee or poop are subtle sometimes, depending on your dog’s personality and mannerisms.

This is amplified by the fact that many rescue dogs can be more timid in new environments. After you take them home from the shelter, they may feel a bit exposed being in your company 24/7 – often exhibiting very worrying behavioral problems.

Here is a quick list of the three main signs that your dog may want to pee or poop – this is the key to potty training a rescue dog in the first week or so.


When a child needs to pee, they may do the pee-pee dance and be a little agitated. It is the same for your dog. They tend to pace and rebuff any affection when they are trying to take a toilet break.

Sniffing the ground

Your rescue dog will try and find the best spot to pee or poop. It is often somewhere where they or another pet have peed or pooped before. They sniff out the perfect area and make themselves comfortable.


Once the target has been acquired, they will circle the area a few times. You will have about 30 seconds to take action here; circling means they are ready to assume the position.

2. Create a routine

The cornerstone of house training a rescue dog is routine. They are used to having a set routine at the animal shelter or their previous home, so you must be persistent to adapt their internal clock to your rhythms.

To create a bathroom routine for your rescue dog, you need to establish mealtimes. You also need to recognize the key points of the day when your dog needs to pee or poop.

Without fail, your dog will want to relieve themselves first thing in the morning, so make a habit of letting your dog out to pee when you wake up. You can also expect bowel movements 15 to 30 minutes after your dog has eaten.

You’ll want to let your dog out before bedtime too to reduce the risk of accidents overnight.

If you have a rescue puppy, your trips outside will need to be more frequent. Take them outside at least every two hours.

3. Use a crate when you can’t supervise

Crate training is extremely effective for puppies, but you can also use them for adult dogs.

As part of your routine building, you’ll be supervising your dog most of the time. If you’re several hours away from home, however, you won’t be able to keep a watchful eye on your rescue dog when potty training them.

Generally, adult dogs can hold their bladders and bowels for much longer than senior dogs or puppies, so crate training doesn’t need to be done for too long – if at all. You might want to consider this pee training mat on Amazon.

A dog should only be kept in a crate for 6 to 8 hours maximum. Make sure the crate is comfortable, clean, and inviting. You want it to be a place of refuge for them, not a place of punishment.

Please note, if your rescue dog has bad memories of cages, crates, or feeling trapped then this form of training is not going to be effective.

Crate training will distress them more, inducing accidents in the crate, which defeats the purpose entirely. Be mindful of your dog’s mental state whilst using the crate.

4. Reward your dog for good behavior

A great dog owner is warm and open with their rescue dog when potty training. Though house training a rescue dog can have many mishaps along the way, it is always best to keep that positive energy throughout the process.

Like with all training, rewarding your rescue dog is key. They want to make you proud after all!

You can reward your dog in a number of ways. Some rescue dog owners opt for treats which is incredibly effective. I would use treats sparingly though as overfeeding your dog is a problem in itself.

Puppies can pee around 8 to 10 times a day depending on their feeding schedule and how active they are. That’s plenty of treats!

For me, praise worked just fine. Cheerful encouragement let my dog know that she was doing the right thing.

On the other hand, does that mean you punish your dog if they have an accident in the house?

In a word: no.

There are many archaic practices around house training rescue dogs.

In the old days, people used to push their dog’s nose into their messes to “teach them a lesson”. Not only is this inhumane, but it is also a complete waste of time. Your dog doesn’t understand what they have done wrong.

If they have left a mess, the act has already passed for them. You are not correcting any behavior here.

If you catch your dog attempting to squat or circling in the house, you can say a firm “no” and show them to the nearest exit where they can relieve themselves.

This only works in the act. They need to associate the instruction with the act of what is happening, not the mess they leave behind.

5. Train your rescue dog to ask to go outside

This sounds a little more complicated than it actually is. If you are on a set routine and you notice the signs your rescue dog needs to potty, you need to be lightning speed in taking them outside to do their thing.

Dogs are smart and will soon catch on where the bathroom is for them.

That said, you can do certain habits to help with the overall process of potty training your rescue dog. For example, it is good practice to take your dog out of the same door every time.

They’ll soon learn that the backdoor is their unique portal to their toilet. Contrast this with the front gate which may be associated with going for walks.

Blue, my obedient Flatty, takes it a step further and kicks the back door when she needs to pee. That’s an instant signal to me that time is ticking before she squats. Some dogs may bark at the back door or whine.

An important part of this training is not ignoring the call. Your dog has been very intelligent to actually ask you to go outside. That is expert level rescue dog potty training!

If you ignore your rescue dog when they ask in their own way, you’ll confuse them into thinking that maybe that wasn’t the bathroom door after all. This will inevitably lead to more accidents inside your home.


Having rescued three dogs, I’ve had wildly different experiences when it comes to potty training. My Retriever came to us as an energetic 8-week-old eager to please. It took roughly a week for her to understand where the pee pad was located.

Through consistent obedience training, we had very few accidents around the house.

Contrast that with our Podengo, who came to us as a 1 year old and took over a month to housetrain! Every day I would wake up to a mess on the rug, regardless of leaving the back door open at night or not.

You might also like…

There’s more content about adapting to life with rescue dogs including:

Image in header via

Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

Recent Posts