Why Are Small Dogs Harder to Potty Train?

Updated on April 3, 2020
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Why Are Small Dogs Harder to Potty Train?
Why Are Small Dogs Harder to Potty Train?

Size Matters When It Comes to Potty Training Dogs

Let's face it, small dogs come with several advantages: they cost less to feed, to board, to treat, and to care for. You can carry them around in a small purse, you can let them travel with you in the cabin of a plane, and you can bring them along to places where bigger dogs can only dream of going.

Having a smaller dog also means fewer concerns about being dragged by the leash on walks, your pizza delivery guy being freaked out when he sees your teeny dog barking, and your small dog killing Fluffy, your next-door neighbors' cat (which by the way, is larger than your dog).

On top of this, because less food and water goes into those tiny, pint-sized bodies, you're left to clean up considerably smaller poops and pees compared to the horse manure-like waste produced by say, a Saint Bernard, Irish Wolfhound, or a Great Dane.

With all of this said, it may sound like life with a small dog is rather simple, but things can get complicated in the potty-training department. Sure, you can carry little dogs outside when they are reluctant to go out in the yard in freezing temperatures, you can train them to pee on pee pads or even in a convenient litter box, and their small poops are rather innocent looking compared to the ginormous outings of some larger dogs, but there are several challenges that you will need to be aware about.

Knowledge is ultimately power, so being aware of these challenges is important. As the saying goes "forewarned is forearmed," so let's take a closer look at these obstacles so that we better know how to face them and address them accordingly.

7 Reasons Small Dogs Are Harder to Potty Train

So, what makes small dogs harder to potty train? Can it be that smaller dogs for some reason lack the instinct to keep their "dens" clean? Well, first off, this deserves an important clarification, dogs aren't really den animals in the real sense of the word.

Sure, when raised well from breeders, this instinct can be easily inculcated by providing appropriate "den-like" areas with designated spaces dedicated for sleeping, eating and playing, and spaces dedicated for eliminating. So, what is it then that makes small dogs harder to potty train? Is it because they have smaller bladders? Faster metabolisms? Below are several possible causes.

1. A Lack of Motivation

Let's face it, smaller waste makes life much easier. Wouldn't you rather pick up poop the size of Tootsie rolls every day over what looks like a giant pile of horse manure? And what about pee? Your small dog's tinkle is a small puddle, whereas your Great Danes' is the equivalent of Lake Michigan, almost requiring an industrial mop for effective cleanup.

The fact that small dog waste is so manageable to clean up most likely plays a role in dog owners' forgiveness. Owners of small dogs may just raise their eyebrows and shrug their shoulders when they find a little "gift," while owners of big dogs are sighing and swearing in exasperation making remarks such as "Seriously? You gotta be kidding me, again? Holy moly!"

Tip: Train your small dog as if he was a large dog. Indeed, the best trained small dogs are those trained with the same devotion dedicated to their larger counterparts.

2. Missing Subtle Signals

Being small and very low to the ground has its disadvantages in the potty training department. For instance, consider signs of a dog needing to go potty. It may be almost inevitable seeing a Great Dane getting ready to squat in the middle of your living room, while in a small dog this may be barely noticeable and easy to miss.

Even the ability to communicate a need to go potty may be difficult in petite dogs. Your Saint Bernard may walk towards you and stare at you intently with an impatient look on his face, while your tiny Maltese may just stare at your leg.

Tip: Always closely monitor your small dog and learn to recognize signs he needs to go potty. For ease of supervision, remove bulky furniture and items that may block your view. When you cannot actively supervise your small dog, he should be crated or in a playpen with pee pads.

3. Missing Messes

On top of missing subtle and not-so-subtle signs of needing to go potty, small dog owners may also miss messes and this can turn problematic in the long run. Let's face it: It is easy to fail to see a small puddle behind a piece of furniture and forget about those messes under the bed!

Proper cleanup of messes plays an important role in the potty training process. If you leave messes around or fail to clean them up properly, your dog will think that those areas are his bathroom (because it smells like it!), and he will be attracted to keep soiling indoors.

Tip: Use a black light and go around the home to spot areas of urine you may have missed cleaning up. Under the blacklight, your dog's pee should become easy to detect as it becomes fluorescent. The glow is due to the fact that urine contains the element phosphorus, by the way.

When you find a mess, make sure that it is properly cleaned using enzyme-based cleaners such as Nature's Miracle. Avoid ammonia-based products at all costs considering that ammonia smells like urine.

4. Using Crates That Are Too Large

Too many small dogs are placed into crates that are too large. Remember: We want to encourage that primordial "denning" instinct most dogs naturally have (instinct that has been thwarted in puppy mill dogs and puppies from pet stores), that is, a dog's instinct to not soil where they sleep.

Ideally, the perfect crate for small dogs allows them to stand up, stretch out and turn around without being too roomy. A crate that is too large may forfeit the whole denning instinct in dogs, encouraging the small dog to poop in one corner and sleep comfortably on the opposite side.

Tip: Look for a crate made for small dogs. If you have any doubts, ask pet store clerks for a recommendation. They should be specially trained to answer questions and make product recommendations.

5. A Matter of Living Quarters

A possible reason for small dogs being less easy to potty train may be the fact that they are often housed in apartments and high-rise buildings with no immediate access to outdoor areas and yards. It is difficult, therefore, to bring these dogs out every time they need to potty, especially as puppies when they may need to go out as often as every hour.

Another common issue is giving small dogs or puppies the run of the house. To puppies and small dogs, a home is a very large area, and it is close to impossible getting them out in the balcony or yard on time. It is too easy for puppies or small dogs to get distracted along the way or have an accident as they are walking towards the designated area. Just as using crates that are too large, a large room or home, therefore, puts the puppy or small dog at a great disadvantage.

Tip: Keep your small dog in a small room where you can easily supervise him. For ease of convenience, pick a room that is the closest to the door leading to the outdoor yard/balcony if that's where you want your dog to go.

6. The Cuteness Factor

This is worthy of mentioning considering that small dogs are cute as a button! It is hard to resist those cute faces and many small dogs just seem to instinctively know how to pull at their owner's heart strings.

"An owner may overlook urinary accidents of a small dog as they often retain characteristics of neoteny into adulthood and therefore owners may “spoil” them or adhere inconsistently to the rule structure that is set," claim Amy Learn, Lisa Radosta and Amy Pike, in a study on house training small dogs.

Also, dog owners may feel bad for small dogs having to go out to potty when it's cold and the snow banks are taller than their dogs! Of course, it makes sense to be particularly protective of small dogs and they sure can suffer the cold, especially those with short hair such as Chihuahuas.

Tip: I can't emphasize this enough: if possible, get your puppy or small dog around spring time! Sure, it is nice to open our hearts and homes to new puppies and dogs around Christmas time, but best to wait when it's spring and warmer weather is around the corner. Countless small dogs won't potty in cold weather or they will take their sweet time while you're freezing like ice cream.

It also takes too much time to put on your hat, gloves and boots when you have a puppy or small dog who can barely hold it long enough. So do yourself a big favor and wait a little bit longer once winter has ended if you can.

"The Golden Rule"

Did you know? Scientists have found that all mammals weighing more than 2.2 pounds (a kilogram) empty their full bladders in about 20 seconds.

7. Smaller Bladders

Finally, are smaller dogs more difficult to potty train because they have smaller bladders? Well, this theory makes sense. After all, the bladder of a young Yorkie pup is about the size of a small grape or cherry, and once grown up, it reaches about the size of a small apricot. However, we must think in terms of proportions too. A small dog's bladder is surely tiny, but a small dog also drinks less compared to a larger dog, so the amount of urine produced is proportionate.

Another possibility is the fact that smaller dogs may have a higher metabolism. This means that they have higher energy demands, they may, therefore, digest faster and remove waste faster. Sure, a faster metabolism and smaller bladder may both play a role, but it doesn't tell the whole story. For instance, consider the fact that many owners of small dogs attest that they can be fully potty trained and therefore are capable of holding it almost to the extent of or even equally to their larger counterparts!

Of course, this doesn't mean leaving small dogs (or any dog for this matter) for longer than they can hold it. Expecting a dog to hold pee for too long causes discomfort to the dog and may predispose them to urinary tract infections.

Tip: If you work long hours, have a neighbor or dog walker stop by to walk your dog mid-day or allow your dog access to an area where he can eliminate (area lined up with pee-pads).

Also, if your small dog seems to pee a lot in the home, consider whether your dog is truly peeing to empty the bladder or urine marking. And don't forget to consider as well if your puppy or small dog is engaging in excitement urination or submissive urination.

When is a dog close to being fully potty trained?

In general, a dog is considered to be close to being fully potty trained when he or she hasn't had any accidents for at least two months.


  • Learn, A., Radosta, L., Pike, A., (2019). Preliminary Assessment of Differences in Completeness of House-training Between Dogs Based on Size. Journal of Veterinary Behavior
  • Whole Dog Journal Handbook of Dog and Puppy Care and Training by Nancy Kerns
  • Law of Urination: all mammals empty their bladders over the same duration J. Yang and Jonathan C. Pham and Jerome Choo and David L Hu}, 2013

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli


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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      4 months ago

      Pamela, thanks for stopping by. I tried to make the list on why small dogs are harder to be potty trained as exhaustive as possible, but chances are, I may come up with some more and come back to update things.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      4 months ago

      Devika, thank you and encouragement is the goal of my article. It is easy to give up on smaller dogs because their accidents are so tiny and hard to spot, but if we put in some effort it can be done!

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      4 months ago

      Hi Heidi, I hope you're safe too in your neck of the woods! I am too a "big dog person," but lately have been working more with smaller dogs who need potty training and training in general. I think applying the "big dog training" to small dogs as well can help prevent a lot of problems in the long run leading to better behaved small dogs.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      4 months ago

      Hi Peggy, thank you, small dogs need a slightly different approach to potty training and more attention to "detail."

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      4 months ago from Houston, Texas

      These are excellent tip about training smaller dogs to be potty trained. This infromation will be helpful to many people.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Adrienne Farricelli this is an interesting and helpful hub to many dog owners and especially if they have a small dog to potty train. All pointers encourage potty training.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I had never thought about the reasons but you sure gave us a good list in this article. Thanks for this good information.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      4 months ago from Chicago Area

      Well, I've never had these problems since we've always had golden-sized dogs. We have the other side of that poo and pee spectrum. :)

      But one day when I'm too old to handle large active dogs, I hope to do the tiny dog thing. All the tips make sense since we used a lot of them while our dogs were puppies.

      Love the Golden Rule. I'm gonna have to time that out. :-D

      Hope you're staying safe and well!


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