Today I was being interviewed at a local radio station about dog training. A caller off the air asked me about teaching a dog to let you know that they need to go outside. One way you can do this is to teach the dog to ring a bell. A few years ago, I taught my Akita puppy to ring the bell when she wants to go outside. The way I did it was to first teach my dog to “target” objects. That is, to teach her to touch objects with her nose. I started off with teaching her to simply touch my open hand and rewarding her with a treat when I felt her cold nose on my palm. Once she got the hang of touching my palm, I added a verbal cue such as “touch.” Once your dog learns to “touch” an easy object like your hand for instance, you can move on to teaching her to “touch” objects like a bell hanging on a door. Then, it is a matter of her making the association that every time she touches the bell and the bell actually rings, the door magically opens and she can go outside to play or go to the bathroom. It may take several sessions for the dog to make the connection that touching the bell means that you will open the door. I have woken up in the middle of the night to the ringing of the bell because one of my dogs had to make an “emergency” potty break. The funny thing is that my older dog who was never taught this behavior has picked up on it without any formal training and he also rings the bell when he needs to go outside. The following video demonstrates how to teach a dog to target an object and it also shows one of my dogs ringing a bell to go outside: How to teach a dog to target
Caveat: Some smart dogs will start ringing the bell just to go outside and chase the squirrel or play. In these cases you must pay close attention to the behavior of the dog and her potty schedule. If I think that she really needs to go I open the door and escort her outside. If no potty happens, she comes right back inside. By careful observation, you can tell the difference by the urgency of the behavior. My dog started doing this and when I put her back inside, if she tried to ring again soon after (and I was pretty sure there she did not need to go to the bathroom, I ignored the ringing). Eventually the dog will learn that she gets to go outside for potty breaks but will be brought back in or ignored if the ringing is not related to going to the bathroom or if it is repeated or excessive. It requires pretty good observational skills and knowing your dog's typical "I need to pee behavior." So, you can see that there is a downside to this method and you will have to be careful about how you manage this behavior.