Signals That Your Dog Needs a Toilet Break

How can you tell when your dog needs to pee or poop? The Dog Trainer deciphers dog body language—plus, a trick for teaching your dog to ring a bell to go out!

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #149
The Quick And Dirty

Since the bell hanging by the door presents a slightly different picture than the bell hanging from a string you hold, your dog may touch it more tentatively the first few times he sees it. That’s fine. Any touching of the bell counts as a success; as your dog gets familiar with the process of touching the bell before a walk, you can start to hold out for more vigorous bumps and then for ringing.

by Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

I thought there was nothing new to say about housetraining, a subject I’ve covered in some detail already. But here’s one piece that’s missing for some of my readers and listeners: How can you tell when your dog needs to go out? And how can you teach your dog to signal his need for a toilet break?

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Don’t Wait for Signs in Your Young Puppy

Let me admit right off the bat that “How can you tell when your dog needs to go out?” is partly a trick question. Very young puppies – much below the age of 3 months -- don’t have enough muscular control to enable them to hold their urine and feces; the instant they have to go, they’ve gone, just like young kids. If you wait for signs of imminent peeing and pooping, you’ll be a day late and a roll of paper towels short. Instead, you must anticipate Puppalini’s needs.

Your puppy must get a toilet break as soon as she wakes up (no waiting till you’ve brushed your teeth or changed your shoes!) and a few minutes after eating or drinking or chewing on one of the many chew toys you provide for her. Puppies also usually need to go out after a few minutes of lively play. You’re much better off erring on the side of too many pee and poop breaks than on the side of too few, because the more often your puppy eliminates indoors, the stronger the habit of eliminating indoors becomes. Also, you’ll get tired of hitting yourself in the face with a rolled-up newspaper.

Very young puppies have no control over their sphincters, so if you wait till they clearly need to go, you’ll be too late.

What to Watch for in an Older Puppy

Even when puppies begin to develop control over their sphincters, it doesn’t come all at once. Keep your housetrainee on a regular schedule of frequent outings, but now you should be able to get him outdoors if you act fast, at the first sign of imminent bowel or bladder action. Some things to watch for: restlessness; sniffing; circling (break out the lightning speed here, people); a sudden trot toward the corner or another room. A puppy who has begun to get the point of housetraining may navigate toward the door. These are your cues to gently scoop up Pup and get him outside.

Some trainers suggest clapping or dropping an object to interrupt the puppy. As I explained in an earlier discussion of housetraining, I’ve found that this tactic often winds up scaring the puppy Mixing fear and housetraining is never a good move, so skip it.

How Grown Dogs May Signal a Need to Go Out

Grown, housetrained dogs who need an unscheduled toilet break often signal without being specifically taught to do so. Some are so obvious about it that even the most obtuse of us can’t miss the point – they stand in front of the door and paw at it or bark. Or they trot back and forth between person and door. More subtle cues that a dog needs to go out include standing at the door quietly, lying down facing the door, standing in front of you and wagging his tail, and good old general restlessness and whining.

Sometimes people will take these behaviors for attention seeking and ignore them. And indeed, all of them are behaviors a bored dog might do in hopes that something of interest will happen. But if your non-pesty dog got a lot of freeze-dried liver treats from the neighborhood kids earlier today, and now she’s whining at the door, it’s a good bet she has something to communicate other than “Play with me now, please.”

You can also make it easier for yourself to tell the difference between “is being a pest” and “needs the toilet” by giving your dog plenty of mental and physical activity, affection, and attention. That way your intelligent, social companion animal is less likely to behave like a bored, lonely noodge – and when she stands in front of the door whining, the odds are pretty good that you should leash her up, grab a couple of poop bags, and go.

It bears repeating that if your dog’s bowel and bladder habits change, or if he’s on a new medication or a higher dose of an old one, you should talk with your vet pronto.

Teach Your Dog to Ring a Bell to Go Out

I’ve never found it necessary to teach my dogs to ring a bell to go out, because they’ve all given me clear behavioral signals on their own. But many people find it convenient to hang a bell by the door and teach their dog to ring it. Here’s how:

First, you’ll need to teach your dog to touch a bell with his nose – to “target” the bell. I’ve explained this skill in detail in my episode on target training. Here’s a very short version: Most dogs will sniff a novel object. Show your dog a bell on a string, and as soon as he sniffs it, click your clicker or say “Yes!” and give him a treat. Do about half a dozen reps a day for a couple of days, and start to hold out for nose bumps hard enough to ring the bell.

After a few days of practice, your dog should be confidently ringing the bell with his nose. Now hang the bell by your door. When it’s time to go for a walk, point out the bell and encourage your dog to ring it. As soon as he bumps it with his nose, put on his leash and take him out. Do this every time you take a walk from now on.

Once your dog strongly associates ringing the bell with going out, he may experiment with ringing the bell in order to produce the result of going out. The first few times he does this, take him out for a pee/poop break even if you don’t think he needs to eliminate – you don’t want him to give up on bell ringing, after all. Bell ringing should always result in a toilet break, but not in a long walk or an outdoor game. Remember, the best way to avoid creating an Attention Pest is to meet your dog’s reasonable needs for activity and attention in the first place.

That’s all for this week. For lots more doggy advice, check out my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!

Jack Russell puppy photo from Shutterstock


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).