Listen up! My dog needs go to outdoors

Choose a signal to teach you dog - such as barking or ringing a bell


[From Tufts October 2010 Issue]

Dogs don’t speak English, Russian, Spanish, Japanese or any other human language, for that matter. That doesn’t mean they can’t communicate with us. In fact, as any savvy dog owner knows, dogs can be quite proficient at communicating their desires. One of the first, most important communications that most owners want to teach their dogs to offer is “I have to go out!”

Paying attention is the key to successful interspecies communication. Some humans seem to think that their dogs should make the effort to understand English quickly, without realizing they need to make an effort to understand what their dogs are communicating.

‘Shouting’ the message
I’ve met many dogs who thought they were making it clear that they had to go out — politely going to the door, pacing nervously, walking in circles — but their owners weren’t attentive to them. Dogs don’t know that they sometimes have to “shout” to get their message across, at least until their humans are trained to understand them.

Some dogs easily learn to tell their owners they need to go out to eliminate, seemingly without conscious effort on the part of either of them.

This is most often true when the human is tuned in to the dog and takes an active role in housetraining from Day 1 — taking the dog out routinely, as often as every hour-on-the-hour at first, and using a phrase such as “Gotta go?”

This works particularly well if the dog is on leash until he eliminates, and the owner then rewards him with a bit of biscuit and a play session. The dog learns that elimination makes play happen, and his human is part of the “go outside” equation. He’ll become adept at alerting that it’s time for the “eliminate first, play second” routine.

This easy communication is least likely to happen when the dog has free access to going in and out or is kept outdoors much of the time. He never has the necessity to learn to communicate his bathroom needs. Social isolation is also detrimental to dogs for a variety of reasons. Dogs kept in the back yard are far less likely to develop the kinds of relationships with their humans that guarantee them lifelong, loving homes.

A doggie door, convenient as it may be, removes the human from the “go out” equation, making it unnecessary for the dog to learn to communicate a full bladder-alert message. Then when the doggie door is closed or the dog is in an environment where he doesn’t have free access to outdoors, he doesn’t know how to tell his owner he has to go out.

A fairly simple task
If you need to work on communication between you and your dog, don’t despair. Teaching him to let you know when he has to go out is often a fairly simple task. Just go back to square one housetraining. Close the doggie door, keep your dog under direct supervision — on leash, in a room with you with the door closed, or in a crate or exercise pen. If you know his bathroom routine, when he normally has to go, institute the “Gotta Go” training at those times. If you have no clue when he has to eliminate, for the first few days take him outside every hour on the hour, on leash, for elimination first, reward and play after, but first do your “gotta go out” routine selected from the options below.

There are two different approaches to teaching a “Gotta go out” behavior. One teaches your dog to go to the door and give some kind of signal — a barking, scratching or sounding a bell or buzzer. The other teaches him to come to you and give a signal (my preferred method) such as a bark, a happy dance, a play bow or a nudge. Here are examples of how to teach these behaviors:

Bark at the door, or come to you and bark
If you teach your dog to speak on cue, you can cue him to speak at the door by saying, “Outside — Speak!” and then reward him by taking him out. Eventually just “Outside!” will trigger the bark. He’ll come to realize he can ask you to take him out by going to the door and barking. Be sure to listen for his early attempts to communicate this message. They may be tentative at first but will grow stronger if you reinforce them by taking him out when he barks.

If he doesn’t already speak on cue, you may be able to elicit a bark by getting excited with him until he woofs, then opening the door and taking him out. If it’s difficult to get him excited enough to bark, you might be better off selecting one of the other tactics described below.

I prefer having my dog come to me to communicate in case I’m too far from the door to hear his signal. The process is the same. I call him to come to me and cue or elicit the bark, then run to the door and take him out. I caution against teaching a scratch at the door unless you’re willing to accept gouges in its woodwork.

Teach him to ring a bell or buzzer
This requires that you teach your dog to ring the bell or buzzer before making it part of your “Gotta go” routine. It’s a targeting exercise. Decide if you want your dog to ring the bell or buzzer with his nose or paw, and then shape the behavior by reinforcing small pieces of the behavior until you have the whole thing. I prefer teaching nose touches, but if your dog likes to use his paws, that may be easier. (Again, watch out for scratches on woodwork!)

You can use a jingle-bell on a string suspended from the doorknob, a metal desktop bell or an electronic battery-powered doorbell. Encourage your dog to touch it with his nose or paw, and click-and-treat him for any interest in it — even a look or a sniff. As you continue to reinforce him, his interest will increase. Then you can start selecting behaviors to reinforce that specifically relate to the behavior you’re shaping, such as sniffing (for a nose touch) or moving a foot (for a paw touch). When you’ve shaped the behavior and he can ring the bell or buzzer, add your “Ring it!” cue, so he’ll do it when you ask him.

When he will ring the bell or buzzer on cue, attach it near the door that leads to his bathroom area, and add his new cue: “Gotta go? Ring it!” Then take him out when he rings the bell. Again, be sure you can that hear the bell and that you reinforce his efforts when he rings it by taking him outside to eliminate. If he tries it and you don’t take him out, he may stop trying.

Do a happy dance — it’s shared excitement
This is my favorite and the one I teach my dogs. Since it’s a visual behavior rather than an auditory one, it requires that they come to me and get excited. It’s an intuitive response you can easily and quickly teach. Each time you’re ready to take your dog out, wherever you are, get excited yourself, and repeat your bathroom phrase. I use “Want to go out?” in an enthusiastic, happy tone of voice and encourage my dogs to get excited. If I’m good at reading their signals, they don’t have to get over-excited. In short order they learn to come to me and get a little antsy as their way of telling me they need to go out.

Play bow, nudge or other behaviors
The principle is the same for any other behavior you want your dog to offer. For example, to teach a Play Bow, have him standing next to you, put a treat in front of his nose and move it a few inches toward the floor, and slightly toward him. As he follows it with his nose, click your clicker or use a verbal marker, and feed him the treat. Gradually move each subsequent treat lower and lower until he bends his elbows and lowers his front end all the way to the floor, with a click and treat for each small step along the way.

Your goal is to get his front of his body to go down but not his rear. If his rear does go down, start over. Have him stand again, and move the treat down, but in smaller increments. When you can lure him to a bow, add a cue such as “Bravo!” When you’re ready to take him out, say “Outside, Bravo!” and lure the down position. Then open the door to let him out. Eventually, he’ll bow when you say “Outside!” and finally will figure out to offer the bow to ask to go out — especially if you stand at the door and wait for him to do it.

You can select any behavior as his cue that he has to go out. Just teach the behavior, associate it with the ritual of going out to eliminate and bingo! The two of you have learned to communicate with each other. It’s not as complicated as Russian or Japanese, and you’ll never get your dog to diagram sentences, but inter-species communication can work!


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