Some house trained dogs show obvious signs when they need to go out, like scratching or barking at the door. But others aren’t as adept at telling people when they need to relieve themselves. They know that outside is the place to go, but they can’t figure out how to get there. So they station themselves by a door and wait…and wait…and wait. Eventually, their perplexed people may notice them quivering with desperation and discomfort, ready to explode! If their people don’t notice them in time, these dogs are forced to urinate or defecate inside, often right in front of the door where they’ve been silently waiting. Does this sound like your dog? If so, don’t worry. There’s a way to help him let you know when he needs a bathroom break.
Is Your Dog Really House Trained?
Before you attempt to teach your dog to ask to go out, make sure you’re dealing with a communication problem, not a health, house training or urine marking problem.
If your dog soils indoors, it’s important to visit his veterinarian to rule out medical causes before doing anything else. Common medical reasons for inappropriate urination and defecation include gastrointestinal upset, a change in diet, a urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter, hormone-related problems after spay surgery, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, neurological problems, age-related incontinence and certain medications. Please see our article on Medical Causes of House Soiling in Dogs to learn more.
Incomplete House Training
If your dog relieves himself in various spots around your home, not just by doors that lead outside, he’s probably not completely house trained. Many dogs who regularly make mistakes inside simply don’t fully understand where they should and shouldn’t eliminate. Please see our article on House Training Your Adult Dog or our article on House Training Your Puppy to learn how to remedy this problem.
If your dog urinates on vertical surfaces, he’s probably scent marking. Most male dogs and some female dogs who scent mark raise a leg to urinate. Dogs scent mark to claim territory, when they want to identify themselves to other dogs and when they’re anxious or frustrated. For more information, please see our article on Urine Marking in Dogs.
Give Your Dog a Communication Tool
If your dog is house trained but doesn’t call attention to himself when he needs to go out, you can teach him to do something obvious to ask for outdoor access. One of the simplest solutions is to train him to ring a “doorbell.” When your dog rings his bell, you can clearly hear his request, even if you’re in another room.
Stage One: Teaching Your Dog to Touch the Bell with His Nose
You can make your own dog doorbell using a couple of sleigh bells from a crafts supply store. Attach some kind of sturdy string to the bells. (You’ll use the string later to hang the bells on a doorknob or on a hook next to your door.) Before starting your first training session, cut a number of tasty treats into raisin-sized pieces. Use something your dog loves, like soft dog treats, chicken, hot dogs, croutons or cheese.
- Say “Touch” and present the bells to your dog. Hold them just an inch or two away from his nose. He’ll probably move toward the bells to sniff them. (If he doesn’t, you can rub a treat on the bells to make them a little more interesting.)
- The moment your dog’s nose touches the bells, say “YES!” and immediately give him a treat. Your timing of the “YES!” is important. Your dog needs to know he’s doing the right thing the instant he touches the bells with his nose. (If you use a clicker to train your dog, you can click instead of saying “YES!” To learn more about this kind of training, please see our article on Clicker Training Your Pet.)
- Repeat 10 to 15 times or until your dog readily touches the bells with his nose.
- When your dog confidently pokes the bells with his nose as soon as you present them an inch or two in front of him, start to present the bells a little further away or off to the side each time you say “Touch.” Your dog will have to turn his head or take a few steps to touch the bells.
Spend three to five days practicing the exercise above, aiming for at least one practice session per day. Then you’re ready for Stage Two.
Stage Two: Teaching Your Dog to Ring the Bell on the Door
Use the string connected to the bells to hang them on your doorknob or on a hook next to your door. Get your treats ready and call your dog over to the door.
- Take the bells in your hand (with them still hanging on the knob), say “Touch,” and hold them out toward your dog.
- Right when your dog’s nose touches the bells, say “YES!” and then deliver a treat.
- Repeat 5 to 10 times or until your dog readily touches the bells as soon as you say ”Touch.”
After a short break from the three steps above, do the exercise again, but this time just point to the bells instead of holding them.
- Say “Touch,” and point to the bells.
- As soon as your dog touches the bells with his nose, say “YES!” and give him a treat. (If he doesn’t touch the bells, go back to steps 1, 2 and 3 above, holding the bells in your hand when you ask your dog to touch them. After practicing these steps for a couple of days, try just pointing to the bells again.)
- Repeat the exercise 5 to 10 times.
Plan to practice Stage Two with your dog for three to five days, just like you practiced Stage One.
Stage Three: Teaching Your Dog to Ring the Bell at the Right Time
Now you can put your plan into action. When you take your dog outside for a potty break, ask him to touch the bells with his nose right before you open the door.
- Approach the door with your dog. Say “Touch,” and point to the bells.
- The moment he touches the bells with his nose, say “YES!” Then open the door and let your dog go outside.
Ask your dog to ring the bells every time you take him out. With repetition, your dog will learn that he has to touch the bells with his nose to make you open the door. Eventually, when he wants to go outside, he’ll go to the door on his own and ring the bells. The first time this happens, praise him enthusiastically and immediately let him outside. Give him a few tasty treats after he does his business to make sure he understands that you love it when he rings his potty-break bells.
Playtime vs. Potty Time
Once they discover that bell ringing makes the door open, many clever dogs ring the bells whenever they’d like go outside—even when they don’t need to relieve themselves. If this sounds like your dog, you need to teach him that bell ringing is only about potty time. When he rings the bell to go out, praise him, clip on his leash and take him directly to the place where you’d like him to eliminate. Don’t play with him. Just give him three to five minutes to urinate or defecate. If he does, great! Praise him again and give him a treat before taking him back in. If he doesn’t do his business, just take him back inside.
Dogs Who Prefer Using Their Paws
Does your dog seem reluctant to touch things with his nose? If so, try teaching him to ring a doorbell with his paw instead. There are a number of dog doorbells currently on the market, such as the Tell Bell™ or the Lentek Pet Chime. After mounting one of these products on your wall or placing it on the floor, you can train your dog to paw or step on it. See the product’s packaging or user manual for training instructions.
Help Is Available
If you’d like one-on-one help training your dog to ask to go outside, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified professional, such as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), for guidance. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate an expert near you.