Bells for Potty Breaks
Updated: Aug 29
When arriving at a puppy client's home, I sometimes see, to my great delight, that the pup already knows how to ring bells to let his people know he has to go out. It's such a handy skill! In other cases, though, I see bells hanging at the door that go entirely unused, or get misused, because the pet parent hasn't had success teaching this skill correctly. If you've had difficulty with this, don't feel bad. It's not an easy skill to teach, and there are some important training details to keep in mind in order to make this a truly functional skill.
I worked on this recently with a visiting pup who needed some help with his house-training manners. Though he was being walked outside regularly by his pet parents, he was still having one or more indoor accidents a day. For his first week here with me, I focused on getting him out frequently enough to prevent indoor accidents, while also keeping a potty log so his bathroom habits became more obvious. Starting week two, I began teaching him to ring bells, and would like to share some details that will increase your chances of success.
Getting the sound to happen: with most pups, teaching them how to actually bump the bells with their nose (or paw) is a relatively easy task. We present the bells very close at first, so any slight touch is super-easy for the pup to do. Each touch is rewarded, and distance between bells and puppy's nose is gradually increased until they are hung at the door and you no longer have to be close by.
Possible training challenges:
The sound of the bells may startle the pup and make him reluctant to keep touching them. If your pup develops a sensitivity to the bells, he may only touch them lightly, and the sound will then be too quiet for you to hear. You can avoid this issue by ringing them yourself at first, beginning a comfortable distance away from the pup. Follow each ring with a treat. Gradually reduce the distance until they're close enough for the pup to touch himself. (Note: you can avoid this bell sensitivity by choosing a different device, such as a Mighty Paw Smart Bell, though some teeny dogs may have a hard time triggering it.)
The pup must ultimately learn to ring them independently, without any prompting from you, and without you having to be close to the bells. It takes some patient training, one step at a time, to build that distance. It's also important to begin simulating "real life" scenarios, where the pup learns to go to the bells even when it doesn't feel like a training session, and when you pretend to be otherwise occupied.
Bells are for potty breaks only: your pup must learn that bell-ringing ONLY yields access to his outdoor potty zone, rather than being a way to get outside to explore, play, or chase butterflies. It's helpful to walk the pup on leash initially, so you can guide him to a designated potty zone. Reward each pee/poop success. If your pup doesn't eliminate as you expect he needs to within a set amount of time (say, 2-4 min.), go back inside. He'll then need to be contained in a crate or pen for a while, in order to prevent any accidents inside.
Possible training challenges:
Most pups are clever enough to test the bells at some point to see if they can lead to something besides a potty break. At first, I honor those experimental rings by taking the pup out to his potty zone again, even if he was out just a few minutes before. But the same rules apply: pup is on leash, we go to potty zone only, and we go right back inside if he doesn't do anything. Because most pups can eke out a bit of pee shortly after their last pee break, I'll praise mildly when they go but not give a treat, and then we head right back inside.
If your pup is tenacious about continuing to test the bells, there are several ways to handle that. You can ignore it, though this may slowly erode the bell-ringing skill. You can temporarily remove the bells after a successful potty break, but you must remember to put them back in place before the pup actually needs to use them again. Or, you can put up a gate to prevent access to the bells at specific times, though again you have to remember to remove the barrier before the pup legitimately needs to reach the bells again. That can be a lot for a pet parent to manage and remember. I use alarms on my cell phone to remind me.
When and how to reward: at first, you should be delivering a treat each time he makes solid contact with the bells. Treat delivery continues as you teach him how to cover more distance to reach the bells. But once he has the hang of ringing those bells and seems to be anticipating a walk outside, I recommend you drop the indoor treats. Instead, praise enthusiastically as you clip on the leash and take him to his potty zone. When he pees and/or poops, you can deliver a treat immediately after he finishes.
Here's a video clip of the visiting pup ringing the bells when I first let him out of his overnight confinement area. Check out how his whole body wags! Isn't he precious?!
Please let me know if I can help with house-training issues. It's a topic that can easily be covered remotely. :-)
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppy parents.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in the northern areas of Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120