Ringing the Bell to Go Out: Avoid These 4 Common Errors!

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

  1. 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 un-dampen 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. If you can’t get him past nervous, teach him another way to ask to go outside.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 practicing time and time again 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?
  4. 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

A tan dog with a black muzzle is holding a red ball in her mouth. Her tongue is hanging out beside it. She is looking sideways towards the person with the camera
Clara with her precious ball

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!

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

33 thoughts on “Ringing the Bell to Go Out: Avoid These 4 Common Errors!

  1. I bell trained Dexter from the get go, we rent and scratching on doors isn’t the best of habits to get into. Best part is that every time we more our situations change (doors we leave from, location of doors etc.) This time our front door is at the bottom of a set of stairs which I didn’t want the dog going down, since he’s bell trained I was able to place the bell on the gate at the top of the stairs 🙂

    Like yourself, stimulus control is minimal in my house, mostly due to the fact that behaviors he performs don’t necessarily “need” to be under stimulus control, but he does hit the bells with different emphasis depending on why he’s ringing. If it’s to go potty it’s a hard hit, it’s far weaker when he’s just bored.

    We don’t have a yard so I think that helped with what little stimulus control ringing the bells does have since the number of times we go outside means only 1 of two things, a walk, or a ride in the car, vs the multitude of reasons many people go out in their yards, play, sunbathe, potty, gardening, etc.

    1. That’s cool, Ashley! That gives me hope that I may be able to tell the difference if one of my dogs starts working me with the bells. I also like your placement of the bells idea. It had occurred to me vaguely that the bells don’t really _need_ to be next to the door. Maybe when everyone gets fluent (I can dream, right?) I could them a little closer to where the action is in my house. Thanks so much for the comment.

    2. Bell training does save your door from scratch marks. We own our home, but we kept one bell on a shoelace with a loop in it so that we could take it to hotels, or caretakers homes and just put it on the door knob. It worked great! Our beloved boy has been gone two years as of 5 days ago, but I sure miss him. I’ll never have one that learns SO quickly. Three days ago we offered to take in an 8 yr old Yorki-Poo whose dad (a former neighbor) passed away suddenly. I know that had he know he was going to die, he would have asked us to care for her. Anyway, I’m hoping that even at 8, I can get her to ring the bell. I wish Scruffy was still here to teach her. Wish me luck!

  2. I taught one of my dogs to ring the bell to go out. But I didn’t teach any stimulus control. It didn’t seem necessary… Both my husband and I work at home, and the dogs are allowed to be inside or outside according to their own preference. So they’re allowed to go out whenever they want to. (The other 2 dogs weren’t taught to ring the bell; they just sit in front of the door until someone lets them out.)

    Except… sometimes they’re not allowed to go out, like when my husband is mowing. So when I put them inside due to mowing or some other dog-unsafe activity going on outside, my bell-ringing dog seems to think that if he whales away at the bell hard enough, that it will override my decision.

    Oh, and one of my cats has observed the dog ringing the bell and has also started ringing the bell when he wants to go out. I never taught the cat; he just learned by watching the dog.

    1. I like it that you have a casual approach to this. Sounds like the times when they can’t go out are few enough that the bell ringer’s persistence isn’t too much of a problem. That is very cool about the cat!

  3. My Akita Reggie got me out of my office, ringing the bell at the back door – but when I walked through the house and opened the door, he wouldn’t go out. He just stood there staring at me. “You rang the bell, now go out!” I told him. He just stood there staring at me. “What do you want?” I asked. He walked over and stood next to his empty water bowl.

    1. I love that story! Love it when they can make cognitive leaps like that. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I first trained a dog to ring a string of bells 20 years ago and have had success with every dog since then. However, We got our most recent puppy a year ago, and she, too, learned to ring the bells. But she also loves to play with the cat. Sometimes, that’s okay, and sometimes the cat doesn’t want to play. About 6 months ago, when he got tired of the bouncy puppy nudging at him, he went over to the bells and rang them! I think it was his way of saying, “Take this one outside for awhile, please!” It was hilarious and it worked! I took the puppy out for a walk. The cat had time to chill out, eat something, have a drink of water than go find a place to sleep out of the puppy’s immediate reach. Problem solved. 🙂

  5. Silas is on the Clara end of the spectrum. Ringing the bell means the humans get up to come play! And, then, to make it even worse, he came to just enjoy ringing the bell, apparently. He would ring, I would walk over, and he would just look at me like I was crazy. It was, however, a good bridge for us. Once I took the bells down he automatically picked up scratching at the door.

  6. Barnum’s bell-ringing behavior has worked out very well. Mostly I let him out on my schedule and he doesn’t need to ring it. But on the rare occasion he needs to go otherwise, he lets me know by ringing the bell.

    We did, however, go through a very looooooong stage (three years?) when Barnum adapted the bell ringing to mean, “I want…” This is very much like Sue Eh describes the paw lift behavior in her dogs. He would ring if he needed to go out, but also if there was something else he desperately wanted to communicate to us, he would ring the bell. For example, if I left, and he really wanted to be with me, he would ring the bell over and over to try to get the person he was at home with (presumably saying, “I want to be with Sharon” because letting him out only led to him coming in and ringing the bell over and over). Or if I shut him out of my room accidentally, he would ring the bell to say, “Hello! I want to come into your room!” Or other things he wanted that I’m forgetting now.

    I thought this was a very smart and flexible way to communicate, and I was fine with it. Other people in the household got annoyed with it when he rang the bell over and over because he wanted something he couldn’t have (such as me, when I was out). They would take the bell down when he did this.

    As far as I know, he is now so used to being left home when I leave that this is never a problem anymore. The bell is up all the time, and he almost never rings it except to say, “I need to go out!” But I like that is there so that, if he should want to communicate something urgent, we have a system for it.

    1. That is a smart and flexible way to communicate, and I love that you were good with it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. One of my dog’s pups came to visit and within a day he learned to ring the bell by watching my dogs. I am not sure he ‘got it’ that it was for potty but he knew it could earn a treat. He rang the bell and ran to stand and stare at the treat bag on top of the fridge

    1. That’s great! It’s wonderful when they get it that they can communicate. Congratulations!

  8. My dog rang the bell when he needed to go out, when he wanted to go out, and when the cat wanted to come in. What a nice girl!

    1. I don’t anymore, for exactly that reason. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ll put a note in the blog.

  9. Our 8mo old lab came to use already bell trained and when we are in the living room to see her ring the bell it’s not a problem. The problem is I want her to learn to come get us to alert us when she has to potty if we aren’t by the door. We have a 2 story house and if needs out in the middle of the night or when I’m upstairs and she’s downstairs. Do you have any helpful hints on how we can expand the training or should we put a bell upstairs as well or just get a louder bell for by the door!

    1. It sounds like coming to get you would be training a completely different behavior. Since she knows the bell, you might see if you can gradually move the bell away from the door, closer to where you would be able to hear it. Or get a louder one, as you said. That’s my two cents anyway!

  10. I taught my doodle to ring the bell, which was a great decision during potty training but has turned into such a headache. She rings the bell all the time and greatly abuses its power. She wants to go outside every 20 minutes if I’m home, but can magically hold it for 12 hours if it’s raining or cold. Also, when we go to friends houses who don’t have a bell she doesn’t ask to go outside and just goes inside since there are no bells. So we did away with the bell today. Hoping for my dog to chill out a little and ask in her own way to go out.

    1. If you travel via car a lot,would your dog relate hotel doors with bells to ask to go out or does it mainly work at your home? My friends and daughter all do the bell thing and our Wheaten Terrier comes to us and using body language lets us know,no matter where we are in the house. The ones that use the bell method don’t travel with dogs.

      1. I don’t have personal experience of that situation but I would guess that if you brought your regular bell and placed it next to the hotel door, it could work. I hope some others will chime in here about it with their experiences. When I travel with my dog I just take her out a lot.

  11. We thought our dog to bark twice when he wants to go outside. NO bells needed.
    Two barks, means go.
    Also sometimes when you just simply as “do you want to go” he will either bark or not,
    if he barks then he is desperate if not he is not interested.

    First you need to teach your dog to bark on command when you say speak, he should bark
    once and then reward him. Once he learns that you move to using this to communicate with him
    and reward.
    Do you want water? he will “bark”.
    do you want food ” Bark”
    do you want to go outside “bark bark”

    as easy as that.
    then when he wants to go out eventually he will come to you, sit by you and bark twice.
    watch his body language when you get him.. he gets all so happy that you understood.

  12. Our plott hound rescue taught himself how to ask for things. He comes to us and looks at us with ears perked when he wants something. We say, “what do you want?” and he either walks to the door and stands up with his front paws on the door, or he brings us a food or water dish. We just got a maltipom puppy and he was almost 4 months already. He understands potty outside. He will hold his bladder on furniture or in his crate, but is still having carpet accidents. He won’t ask to potty, and sometimes if he’s excited he has to go more than hourly. But he will hold it 6 hours in his crate whe we’re gone. We decided to bell train him since he’s not vocal, but he’s got the attention span of a teaspoon. It’s a work in progress. We have taught him to follow us without a leash so far. We’ve only had him a week so we cant expect the world yet! He is a smart pup so I know he’ll get it.
    My parents have 2 pomapoos and they bell trained them at 9-10 weeks. They now ask to go out to play or when they’re scared of the vaccum.

    1. I like how different dogs develop ways to ask for things. One of my dogs acts a lot like your Plott hound. (Plott hounds are so cool! I’m jealous.) Another comes where I am and sits very close to me and kind of clings. The third looks at me and backs up. That’s left over from some training we did a lot of, but it works for her!

      Good luck with your puppy. I’m sure he’ll get it!

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