This post is for the people who have tried–and failed–to teach their dogs to ring a bell to go outside. I suspect there are a lot of bell ringing failures out there. Not that it’s so hard to teach a dog to poke a bell with his nose or paw. But it can be tricky to teach him when to do it, to let him know that this is a way to communicate with you about a certain thing.
I went through the top hits on a Google search on the topic before writing this post, and all but one of the sets of instructions had some crucial omissions. The exception was a wonderful protocol for teaching a dog to ring a bell to go out by Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs. If you are new to teaching the behavior, just follow her instructions. She will help you avoid every one of these errors listed here.
How Do I Teach my Dog to Ring a Bell to go Outside?–Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs
On the other hand, if you have already worked unsuccessfully on the behavior, check out the rest of this post to help you troubleshoot. There’s a good chance your problems are explained below.
The Common Errors
- Loud noises can scare dogs. If you obtained a set of bells or single bell that is loud enough that you can hear it from anywhere in your house, it may be too loud for your dog’s comfort at first. So start with the bells dampened with tape or cotton, or if it is just one big bell, apply something to the clapper. Do something to make it much, much quieter. Quieter than you think necessary. Your dog is going to have his head right up next to the bell. Use desensitization/counterconditioning if you need to, especially if your dog is already nervous about the bell. You don’t want your dog to never get past a half-hearted little poke at the bell just because the sound makes him nervous. First dampen the bell(s), train a hearty nose (or paw) touch, then gradually undampen them. Hold onto your criteria for the enthusiastic touch. There’s no point in training this behavior if you can’t hear the bells from the other end of the house when your dog rings them. And it’s no fun for your dog if he is even a little bit nervous about the bells.
- Going out the door is not always rewarding. Many sets of directions skip directly from giving your dog a treat for targeting the bell to opening the door when he does so (with no treat). Unless your dog LOVES going outside at any time under any conditions, you have just pulled most of the reinforcement out from under him right when he needs it the most. Not to mention that if you do time it right and require your dog to ring the bell when he is dying to pee, what you’ve got there is negative reinforcement. Not a great way to build enthusiastic behavior.
- Ringing a bell to go outside is a distance behavior. That means that the dog needs to be able to do it when their person is not close by or is even out of sight. Distance behaviors have to be specifically trained. Most of us have a huge “reinforcement zone” around our bodies. That’s where our dogs are used to getting their treats. If you were to cue your dog to lie down when he was 15 feet away from you, what would he do? Unless you have specifically trained him to lie down where he already is, he would probably either 1) look at you blankly; or 2) run over and plop down right in front of you. The whole point of the bell ringing is for the dog to communicate with you, wherever you are. Every set of directions I have seen except for Yvette’s completely neglects the distance. They have you time and time again practicing with your dog at the door when you are standing right there. Some dogs will make the cognitive leap on their own. But why not include it in the training?
- Your dog may “abuse” his new skill. You don’t want the bell ringing all the time, night and day, on the dog’s whim, right? I’ve written before about stimulus control, so I’m not going to go into the full definition here. The relevant part is this: we want the cue for the bell ringing eventually to be that your dog needs to potty, and only that. Not that she wants to play ball. Not that there is a rabbit in the yard. Not that she’s bored. I’m poor at teaching stimulus control, but Yvette isn’t, and she built it right into the instructions.
Our Own Experience
I’m having fun with all three of my dogs with this right now. I made my own string of bells with a cowbell and some jingle bells from an art supply store. I dangled it in a doorframe that is close to my back door so that the bells can be hit from several directions, i.e., they are not flat against the back door itself or the wall. I trained Clara and Summer first, leaving Zani for later since she is the most sound sensitive. However, hearing the bells repeatedly, and getting treats after going through the door (I generally reinforce my dogs for reorienting to me after going out the door) apparently acted to desensitize her to the sound. Yesterday she started offering to poke the bells herself!
However, Houston, we have a problem. I mentioned above that I am poor at stimulus control. Guess who has already put it together that ringing the bells makes me come open the door even when I’m not in the same room? And guess what motivated her to do it? Yes, Clara has rung the bells three times now directly after her supper while I was sitting in the next room. This is prime time for playing ball. And I fell for it. I did not think through the implications of reinforcing the behavior by playing ball. Headdesk! (Edit, 12/19/15: we no longer play ball right after dinner because of the risk of bloat.)
How about you? Anybody have perfect bell ringing behavior? Or not so perfect? I’d love to hear about it!