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How to Train Your Puppy to Ring a Bell to Potty

Ringing true

After you have housetrained your puppy, you might find it useful to train her to ring a bell when she wants to go out to potty. Believe it or not, this is not a difficult trick to train if you follow the instructions below. Your puppy will learn to ring the bell only when she genuinely needs to go to the toilet.

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This bell ringing trick is best for pups that are already at least 95% toilet trained. If your pup isn't already toilet trained, go ahead and teach her how to ring the bell, but wait until your pup is toilet trained before continuing with the subsequent steps.

This is not a behavior you want on cue (command). What you want is for your dog to learn that ringing the bell gets her outside when she needs to go to the toilet and at no other time.

Getting started

The first step is to shape the bell ring that you want. (We assume here that the reader knows a little about clicker training and can shape a target behavior.) This is done by presenting the bell in front of your pup's nose and clicking and treating when she touches the bell, even if by accident.

cute puppy

If your pup isn't interested, put the bell behind your back, wait a few seconds, and then present the bell again. When your pup has a really, really good idea that you want her to touch the bell, stop clicking and treating the quieter rings and only click and treat the louder rings (this is known as selective reinforcement).

Building up

Next step is to present the bell when you know your pup needs to go to the toilet. Present the bell near the door, click when she rings it, and then open the door (no treat). Put the bell away until the next time your pup needs to go to the toilet.

After a while your pup will figure out that "hey, every time I ring the bell I get let out to potty!" When your pup is anticipating ringing the bell before you let her out (demonstrated by looking at you or looking at the bell when it is not presented), then it's time to start leaving the bell hung up on the door.

Timing is everything

What you want is for your dog to learn that ringing the bell gets her outside when she needs to go to the toilet and at no other time.

You should have a pretty good idea of when your pup will need to go to the toilet. If you hear the bell at that time, race over and open the door. If you hear the ring at other times, ignore it. Don't respond to the bell and your pup unless you're at least 80% sure it's because she needs to go to the toilet.

Some dogs will find bell ringing intrinsically reinforcing, regardless of what happens after the bell is rung. These dogs are not easy to teach to ring a bell only when needing to toilet.

Remember, use no cues in this training! Don't prompt with your hands or give verbal hints of what you want your pup to do. Those signals will only add confusion, and you'll probably find that your pup starts looking for and depending on the cues.

"Still bodies, quiet mouths."

Use your clicker to communicate!

[Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from Positive Petzine.]

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Introducing bell ringing at a young age

I was thinking about when we first are going to start training our new puppy to ring the bell before i bring her out so that she will understand that when the bell rings she goes outside to go to the bathroom. Do you think that this could work after she getts potty trained and then start the more improved training as shown above? PLease reply soon! Thanks


Aidan Bindoff's picture

Housetrain First!

Shortly after this article was published, Joyce Kesling contacted me with a reference to Steven Lindsay which can be found at her website, http://www.responsibledog.net/house_training.html:

"Lindsay (2005) suggests on the surface training the dog to indicate the need to eliminate with using a signal (i.e. ringing a bell) may seem like a noble idea, but when we give this idea more thought this may sometimes present a questionable practice.

"If one of our goals is to train our dogs to learn to wait using the effective use of training schedules, by allowing them to signal their need to go out may be counterproductive. In addition, this "need-to-go" signal is dependent on the owners' presence and their ability to respond to the dog's request. This can cause problems later when the owner fails to respond to the dog's signal thus causing the dog to eliminate near by or in another room. This may occur because the dog has been set up through learning to give a signal prompting the owner to respond and then letting the dog out, thus allowing the dog to eliminate, which is the reward. Additionally, using such a training signal often sets dogs and owners up to respond to insignificant requests other than for the purpose of elimination (Lindsay, 2005)."

Based on my experience with the Yahoo Doghousebreaking Group ( http://www.groups.yahoo.com/group/doghousebreaking ), these are indeed real problems. I must stress two things:

1. Your dog must be housetrained BEFORE teaching this behavior. Bell training is NOT an effective housetraining method for many reasons. It is only useful after your dog is housetrained.

2. If your dog is prone to offering "insignificant requests" then you will not be able to use this procedure. It is possible to teach a dog not to make insignificant requests, but it requires a more thorough understanding of the theory than I care to elaborate upon here.

I don't think that an owner not being present will cause any significant problems IF the dog is housetrained before bell training is undertaken. The owner being present becomes a stimulus condition, i.e the behavior will not be reinforced if the owner is not present and the behavior will be reinforced if the owner is present.




Handling "insignificant requests"

Hmmm.  I've been very happy that I have trained all of my dogs over the years to use a jingle bell by the door.  We transition the reward for ringing the bell to be going out together to the "potty spot", where I watch them eliminate, and then click/treat THAT.  If the dog failed to elminate (ie, was just asking me to open the door to go out), I act blase, and we go back inside with no click/treat. 

If my dog has sudden diarrhea she will go and ring those bells with gusto, and I'll be glad I hustled over and let her out.

Lastly, when visiting my parents, it's a relief for my dog to know which door we'll be using to go out for potty breaks-- I just bring the jingle bells and hang them on the appropriate door, and do one or two reps with her to make sure she understands.  I of course keep my dogs close to me when we're in someone else's home, but this practice has been helpful.

So I'm a big fan of this technique, and I encourage folks to try it.  It's pretty easy to teach.  I also have transitioned to hanging  the bells on a hook on the wall next to the door, rather than on the doorknob itself, since I only want those bells to ring when the dog is asking to go out-- not every time the door is opened and shut by someone else coming in and out. 


Diane Bassett





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