Congratulations! Bringing a new puppy home is an exciting time for your family. But it can be a scary time for your new puppy. The first few nights are an adjustment for both the new owner and the puppy. It’s likely the first time your puppy has slept apart from their litter. The new environment, new smells, and lack of mom and littermates mean you can expect crying. You can prepare for ways you might soothe your puppy but it’s crucial to be flexible because all puppies are individuals. It’s typically the case that your puppy has a different idea about what “soothing” means than what you had planned.
We’ve all heard the advice to ignore a crying dog in their crate until they settle (and, ok, it depends). This is where many new puppy parents get off-track. As any new parent knows, sleep deprivation, frustration, and anxiety can get the best of anyone. And if your puppy vocalizes excessively, you may worry that you are “teaching” him to control you. It’s not a stretch to also believe that the puppy needs to be “taught a lesson.” This thinking limits us to one common answer, IGNORE your puppy (or, worse, punish your puppy). Otherwise, your puppy “wins.”
But is that puppy trying to control you? Or is that puppy a baby animal using the tool kit nature provided to get their needs met? It’s easy to forget that puppies are babies and not just tiny adult dogs with already fully matured biological systems and emotional intelligence.
Labeling others affects our feelings and emotions about them. The stories we tell ourselves when we assign those labels influence what we see and how we respond. If a dog is “stubborn,” why would you ever seek motivation? Labels stop good training before it has a chance to make a difference.
Labeling also misses the function of behavior. Missing this valuable information can cause us to view the puppy as a problem instead of an emotionally immature individual struggling with frustration, separation stress, fatigue, discomfort, or over-arousal. When we see the puppy as having a hard time (rather than giving us a hard time), we will seek ways to help him. We will become problem solvers.
When we look beyond the label, we’re open to many possible solutions for night-time crying such as:
- When your puppy is vocalizing for no apparent reason, always ensure that those basic needs have been met.
- Pain– Is the puppy in pain or uncomfortable? Could your puppy be gassy or have a stomachache from treats, overeating, or a food switch? Does your puppy have parasites? If he is teething, a frozen toy to chew may help.
- Hunger– Is this puppy “hangry?” Your puppy is growing fast, which means caloric requirements change quickly too. Does your pup need a snack?
- Thirst- Treats, training, sleeping, walking around, getting into mischief- all these things make a puppy thirsty. Is there clean water available?
- Temperature- We often consider a puppy being cold, but what about that Husky pup? Is your puppy hot-natured or cold-natured?
- Rest- Can your puppy get some good rest without being bothered by humans, other pets, or household noises?
- Look for a pattern. Does the behavior occur before mealtime? In the evening? In the middle of the night? Keep a Puppy Notebook with housetraining, socialization, and training notes. This will help to see any patterns we may otherwise miss. Sometimes the function of the vocalization becomes apparent in the pattern.
- Don’t leave your puppy alone only at night. Naptime throughout the day is the perfect time to let him practice being alone. Start by letting your puppy be alone in your sight but several feet away. A crate or x-pen in the same area as you are, helps him learn to be alone without being completely alone.
- Keep your puppy’s crate close to you when you sleep. If he doesn’t like the crate, it’s ok to let him sleep close to you outside of the crate. You can try a slower approach during the day. I’ve spent nights on the couch with a puppy.
- Take advantage of visual barriers. Use sheets on the outside of the crate or x-pen or crate. (I like to put a board that is larger than the crate on top, which holds the sheet out of the puppy’s reach.) This will help your puppy learn to self-soothe.
- Spend more time interacting with your puppy while they are in the crate or x-pen or crate. Too often, all the good stuff happens outside the x-pen. No wonder your puppy cries to be out of the crate or x-pen! Make a real effort to condition your puppy that being in a crate or x-pen or crate is wonderful! Make your puppy’s area as much fun as the other parts of your house.
- Provide novelty and enrichment for your puppy! Let him play on small platforms, tunnels, and boxes. Remove and rotate toys often. Plan sniff walks in a puppy-safe yard, or do a sniff walk inside! Collect novel scents (example: chicken feathers, bark from trees, and animal hair) and plant these along with some treats around your puppy’s area. Ensure his daytime routine fulfills his emotional and physical needs, so he will rest better. Be sure to set up the x-pen with a snuffle mat or food toy, so when your puppy returns, there is an activity to help him calm down.
- Give him comfort. Your new puppy is used to sleeping in a pile with littermates, so sleeping alone is a significant change for him and often a hard one.
- Ensure their sleeping area is cozy, with soft toys and blankets for burrowing.
- Provide a warm comfort item such as a heating pad can make your puppy feel warm and cozy.
- There are snuggly stuffed animals with the sound of a heartbeat, which were created for soothing puppies.
- Plug in a (DAP) Dog Appearing Phearmone or spray it. You can also buy Adaptil Junior, which has been specially designed to comfort puppies at night and is worn as a collar. If you have a diffuser plugged in, it can’t hurt to use the spray if needed.
- Calming music or a boring audiobook should make up the bulk of the background noise for puppies learning to self-soothe.
- Start teaching your puppy to sit in front of a person to engage with him. If you reinforce the dog sitting each time you approach, your puppy will have a way to communicate instead of screaming from the x-pen. Create a Reward Station near your puppy’s area, with instructions for any humans and a container of treats for your puppy. Teach all the humans who come in contact to reward when your puppy is sitting quietly.
- And finally, don’t leave your puppy to cry it out. When you leave your baby puppy to cry alone, you teach him that you aren’t available to keep him safe. Puppies can become even more anxious and fearful. You want him to know that you will help him if he’s crying. It’s ok to soothe your upset puppy. You aren’t rewarding your puppy for crying. Promise. Soothe him at the moment and then put together a plan for the future.
Try to remove your puppy before he gets upset (ideally when calm) because learning is always happening and you want to reinforce calm behavior. If your puppy is vocalizing the crate or pen, leaving him to cry it out increases stress hormone activity. Soaking your puppy’s immature brain in cortisol or other stress hormones primes your puppy’s brain to use more in the future, shaping a puppy who is stressed more often and for longer.
There is a difference between a complaining puppy and a truly stressed puppy, and it’s important to know what that is. A complaining puppy may need just a few minutes to settle down before going through the list. A puppy in distress is loudly vocalizing, has dilated pupils, a high respiration rate, or other signs of stress and should not be ignored.
And now you have so many good options to help that puppy!