Tuesday, March 26, 2013

PoochieBells Pet Product Review: Train Your Dog to Tell You When He Has to Go

Folks, we finally finally finally got into the doggie doorbell game, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The displacement situation had effectively eliminated our existing method of Desmond communicating when he had to go potty. The arrival of PoochieBells has really helped us out with knowing for sure that Desmond has to go.

For those of you who have no clue what I am on about now, PoochieBells are literally a set of bells that you hang by your door and train your dog to ring when they have to go potty. 

No, I'm serious. Look:

Aren't they cute? They come in a ton of colors and designs, too. And yes, those are your average jingle bells. A little bit of Christmas all year long!

OK, so here is the rundown!

We started training Desmond with the bells on February 18th. I had suspicions that if he were going to figure this out at all, he would start ringing the bells alllllllll the time, just because he didn't feel like being in this apartment anymore. I feel you Des. I'd like to ring the bells, too.

And damn it if I wasn't right!

In less than 3 days, Desmond started to figure out that ringing the bells opened the door, but he didn't necessarily understand that it was time for bathroom action. By February 26th, he was definitely ringing when he had to go out--but he also seemed to think that he could ring them any old time to signal that he wanted to simply leave the apartment.

Now, we followed all the training directions that PoochieBells come with--which are super simple by the way:

And we absolutely did not ever take him anywhere other than outside when he rang the bells, but he still didn't seem to comprehend how this works. 

Our original strategy was to take him directly outside when he rang the bells--every time he rang the bells. In hopes that he would start pairing the bells with outside (and we put the cue word, "Potty!" on it). That worked just fine, but this didn't seem to properly register as "outside and only outside. do not pass go. do not collect $200." Nor did it work to stop him from ringing the bells either A) whenever he felt like a change of scenery or B) whenever he heard a noise downstairs or next door or a car door slamming out front.

I touched base with the PoochieBells rep who had contacted me about the review and gave our progress/challenge report. I got the following feedback, which is pretty much what we were already doing:

As the bell is a communication tool, dogs will learn to ring it for your attention.  If you are strictly using if for potty training, during the training process, be sure to use the bells for potty time only... meaning don't mix potty time with play time - when you go out.  After he is trained that isn't an issue.
But let's face it: Desmond is one special dog. So we needed a new strategy. That's when I started to ignore most of his bell ringing shenanigans entirely. My theory being that if he really had to go out, I would know because he'd be dancing around at the door or he would ring the bells again/more loudly or something. (When he does ring them, he does it kind of gingerly. Sometimes we can't even hear it. Our delayed reaction may be affecting the quality of our results.)

And that theory is actually more or less reflected in their training FAQs online:

Q: What if my dog rings the bells all the time?A: As with any training procedure, it is important that you remain the authoritative leader. You can rectify this behavior by controlling the frequency you allow your dog to go outside. If your dog just went out and then rings the bells shortly afterwards, wait until a reasonable amount of time has passed (no more than once an hour) before responding to the ringing. He will soon learn not to abuse his new communication tool.

This method is mostly working, but we have not mastered it yet. We are almost always able to tell when he has to actually go out to potty. And the fact that we now have the bells at all it such a help, because previously he was just kind of standing around near-ish the door, looking confused. It's bad enough the poor guy is still confused about the lack of grass once he gets outside; I'd like him to at least not be confused about showing us he needs to go.

Or, worse yet, he was running to the door and whining in response to noise--so we'd take him outside and he'd then just stand there looking around and sniffing the air. Like we have time to just be at his service. Rudest dog ever.

One of the weird things is that our choice of bell location should be helping us in this endeavor:

The bells are on a closet door. The door to the hallway is on the right.
One of the tips on the site suggests that by keeping the bells on the door you use to exit, it will help reinforce the idea that bells = outside. But because this door does not lead outside, we knew we didn't want to do that. Plus, hearing those bells ring all the time would drive us bonkers.

What's funny is that the recycling bin is behind that closet door. So we often have recyclables piling up in the kitchen--just to avoid opening that door and making the bells ring and having Desmond leap off the couch like it's party time. Purpose semi-defeated?

I'll tell you this, though--the reactivity does not help matters. He is the nosiest of nosy neighbors. Every single thing that might be going on without his supervision is a problem. Any noise, and he's prancing over to the bells and banging on them. He hits the bells harder for that than for when he wants to potty.

It's like he's waiting for his one true love to show up in the hallway downstairs and he is just going to jump right out of his skin if we don't let him go investigate the reason the front door slammed. What if it is his soulmate down there and they have a missed connection?? He can't post on Craigslist without opposable thumbs! He could never see her again! Traumatic, to be sure. 

But you know what? (As my mother would say...) MYOB, dog. Not everything is about you. 

What's most frustrating to me is that if we were home with our fenced-in yard, I'd totally let the dude go in and out whenever he wants. I have no problems with that, really, regardless of whether or not it's the "right" thing to do. And I know we would keep the bells right on the back doorknob. No concerns there.

(Know what else is frustrating? Putting on a coat and sneakers every time the dog needs to go out, bells or no bells. Seriously, folks, if you have a fenced-in yard that your dog can frolic in, cherish it. Love it and hug it and cut its grass with care. Roll around in it with abandon--in a spot where your pup doesn't do his business, of course. Because once you lose it, you will weep on the inside every day. And sometimes on the outside if you've had enough wine.)

In any case, the PoochieBells clearly do their job, and the issue comes in on the training side. Actually, no. Scratch that. We have trained him on the bells just fine. What it comes down to is that Desmond is a manipulative drama queen. Plain and simple.

We will absolutely continue to use the bells, even when we get back home one day. And I will be making sure the bells go with Desmond whenever he is staying over with grandparents or our Goodnight Lucky dog sitter. Anything to bring some consistency back!

[disclosure] One set of PoochieBells was sent to us free of charge in exchange for our honest review of them. In addition, we were sent one of these really awesome reusable, disposable towels to try. I didn't want to write up a full review of it--and was not asked to--but very quickly I will say it is fantastic for wiping off Desmond's paws when we come in from outside. I prefer it to a real towel.
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