THE RINGING OF THE BELLS!
I am getting a lot of inquiries these days about teaching dogs and puppies to ring bells to ask to go out in the yard to toilet. I have taught several dogs to do this, and it really isn’t difficult. My only caveat is to housetrain your dog first. If your dog is housetrained, meaning that he ONLY goes to the toilet out of doors this is an easy trick to teach and it can help you by alerting you when your dog needs to go. When you try and do this with a puppy or dog who is not housetrained though, in my experience, you can end up muddling things together and the dog is never quite clear what is what.
I like my dogs, particularly my male dogs to completely empty when they are urinating. To achieve this, I make sure that my dogs go out to toilet ON leash for the first four to six months that I have them. I housetrained my first dogs in apartment buildings, and this meant that every time my puppy needed to out to toilet, I had to get dressed, leash up and go out. It is inconvenient to do that multiple times in a row, so I learned quickly that it is better to teach the pup to toilet and completely empty early on.
To do this, you simply take the pup out to where you want him or her to toilet, and you stand still while holding your pup’s leash, and tell him to go. Once he starts to go, name the behaviour. I use the cue “piddle” but my clients have used things like “potty”, “get busy”, “duties” or even “go to the office”! I wait until the pup is completely and absolutely done before beginning to praise or give a reward. Once the puppy is done, I feed his meal or play with him or even take him for a short walk or training session. I want my pup to know that if he empties, we will do fun stuff. If he decides to go during our fun time, I just name the behaviour, indoors or out, and give him a treat when he is done. I will note how long it was between when he last peed and when he goes again, and then I know how long to wait between times the next time. If he doesn’t go by twenty to thirty minutes later, I give the puppy another chance to toilet just like the first. If he goes, then we keep playing and repeat every twenty to thirty minutes.
The first time my puppy decides that he doesn’t need to go when I stop and give him a chance, then I know he is ready for a nap. If he doesn’t want to go when I first take him out of his crate, then I put him right back in his crate for another twenty to thirty minutes. Once he goes down for his nap, I can take some time for myself, but I am ready so that if he wakes up or gets fussy, I can take him out for a repeat of the previous cycle. After a week or so of this, most pups are going as soon as you say the word.
What I don’t do is take my dog for a walk and keep walking until he toilets. This is the best recipe we know of to make sure that your puppy holds his bladder and holds it and holds it and holds it and holds it, because once he goes, the walk ends. The second best way to not toilet train a puppy is to put him out in a yard where you are not and hope he goes. Even if you see him go, you haven’t had the opportunity to name the behaviour, and he isn’t going on leash, which means that when you want to take him with you on a long trip you will have to wait until he decides he is good and ready to empty or sort of empty in order to get on with your travels. I want my pups to learn to go when I ask them to go, and to completely empty so that I don’t have to worry about them needing to go later.
My general rule with my own dogs is that when I need to go, they need to go and it works out fairly well for us. What this means is that I have to keep track of my dogs until they are actually adults. By the time my dogs are adults, we are on such a good schedule that I haven’t found a need for the bells, however, I have taught a number of client dogs to use them, so IF your dog is housetrained and reliable, then here is how to do it.
Get a set of bells. One bell is rarely enough to make enough noise to get your attention. I like about four large jingle bell type of bells. Using a clicker, teach your dog to touch the bells. Offer the bells, and then click and treat. Offer the bells and if he looks at them, click and treat. Offer the bells and if he touches them click and treat. Continue shaping until your dog is firmly touching the bells when you offer them.
Start offering the bells just before you open the door. If he touches the bells, click and open the door and go out to pee. The reward is now going outside. Don’t hang the bells up just yet though. Keep working at this stage until your dog is looking for those bells every time you go through that door. When he is doing this, have a session where you hang the bells and you shape him to touch the bells without you offering them. If you have done your foundation work, he shouldn’t worry about the bells no longer being in your hand. If he looks at the bells hanging on the door as if they are alien objects, then you must go back a step until he is more certain that touching the bells is desired. At this point I take the bells away when I am not training.
Once your dog is touching the bells reliably before going through the door, you have to start getting him to actually ring them. This means that you need to get him to touch the bells until they actually make a noise. This means that you should be getting two, three or four touches before you click and go through the door. You should still be working on leash at this point so that you have control over the outcome to ringing the bells. When the bells ring, your dog should know that you are not just going out to hang out or to have a walk. If you go out and he doesn’t produce, then go back to the stage of puppy training where you put your puppy back in his crate if he didn’t toilet when you ask. Keep pecking away at the problem though, giving him lots of chances to learn that bell ringing is about going outside to toilet and bell ringing without toileting gets you back into your crate.
Once your dog is reliably ringing those bells every time you approach the door to go out on leash, it is time to start leaving the bells hanging on the door handle for your dog to ring when he needs to go. Every time he rings, day or night, regardless of what you are doing, you must go and take your dog to his toilet place to go. If he does not produce, then he goes into his crate for twenty to thirty minutes. You don’t want to teach your dog to play in and out with you, where he asks to go out over and over again when he doesn’t need to go. You want him to use those bells ONLY when he needs to toilet.
With a house trained dog it takes me between 4 and 7 days to train a dog to use the bells. It takes me about three weeks to toilet train a puppy but I don’t recommend bell training till the pup is a little older because in my house, I want to be very tuned in to my dogs and I want them to be tuned in to me. I want to avoid housetraining accidents, and I want to teach my puppies to completely empty when I ask them to do so. For these reasons, I don’t teach bells to my own dogs. When I have taught client’s dogs to ring bells it has usually been because the people who care for the dog may need reminding that the dog has the need to toilet and cannot take care of this himself-in one case the dog lived with an elderly lady who lived with dementia. When the bells rang she would go see what the alarm was and we put a large sign over the bells that read “take the dog out to toilet now”. This prevented accidents when other family members were not available to let the dog out and the lady was home alone.