What’s Going Wrong with Your Bell Training

Let’s talk bell training. Bell training is a popular tool for house training in which we teach a dog to ring a bell attached to a door so that he can ask to go outside. You may have seen these bells before:

It can be a great tool, but one of the common complaints that I hear with bell training is:

“He still hasn’t figured out how to ring the bell when he wants to go out!”

When I hear this, my response is to ask the person to explain or show me how they’ve been training it thus far. The accounts are all very similar, and I can’t remember one that didn’t fall into one of the following categories:

  1. The person rang the bell themselves, then let the dog outside
  2. The person rang the bell using the dog’s body (e.g.: took their paw and rang the bell with it, moved the bell to the dog’s nose to ring it, or other variations) then let them outside

In both of those scenarios, the problem is that we didn’t actually teach the dog how to ring the bell in the first place. Even if the association has been made that ringing = outside, the dog may still not know that he’s capable of making the bell ring. The person always made the bell ring.

One way that I like to explain this issue is using an example of kids’ homework. If we were to do our kids’ homework for them, then the end behavior is complete (i.e.: homework is completed), but the child didn’t actually learn how to do the behavior themselves (i.e.: whatever the homework exercises were). Come test time, the child won’t be able to replicate the exercises from the homework because they didn’t actually do it; we did. We need to teach an individual how to complete the behavior themselves if we want them to do it by themselves in the future. We need to stop doing our dog’s bell training homework for them. 

What should we do instead?

The answer here should be obvious now: teach them how to ring the bell! When starting off with bell training this is the first thing that I do; I then teach the ringing = outside association later. One way that you can teach this (there are multiples!) is:

  1. Starting a few feet from the door, hold the bell near the dog’s nose (it’s easier to ring the bell when it’s not against the door). If they are apt to investigate, great! If they’re not, rub a smelly treat on it to entice them. 
  2. When the dog touches the bell with their nose (or simply moves closer to the bell), mark then treat. Repeat.
  3. Mark then treat for gradually louder bell ringings. Remember that you’ll need to hear this from across the house! Repeat until your dog is consistently ringing the bell at the desired volume. 
  4. Put the bell on the door and repeat steps 2-3 until he can ring the bell at the desired volume while it’s on the door. 
  5. Get the dog suited up to go outside if needed (e.g..: leashed if you don’t have a fenced-in yard). Bring him to the door. When the dog rings the bell, open the door and toss the treat outside. Let him go out to eat, bring him back in, and repeat. 

We’ve now taught the dog how to ring the bell in general, how to ring it when it’s against the door, and that ringing the bell means going outside. Hooray! It should now be far easier to apply this to real life situations. 

Now what?

  • If you have a dog who you’ve been trying to bell train, go through the above steps!
  • Still struggling? Let us help you. Email us at [email protected] to set up a session. 

Happy training!