Should You Leave Your Puppy to Cry?
“Don’t go to your puppy when they cry, they will never learn if you do”.
“Your puppy has to learn to be alone.”
“Let your puppy cry it out, they will soon settle”.
Before, becoming a canine professional, I was a childcare practitioner. At the time, it was still a popular belief to let babies cry it out, despite the ethos dating as far as the 1880s. This meant that I wasn’t allowed to comfort a crying premature new-born or even a 2-year-old toddler on his very first day of nursery. I was regularly scolded for acting on my instincts to provide comfort and reassurance. Its one of the many reasons I changed careers (that and my obsession for everything dog!). I observed that this did not benefit the relationships we were supposed to be developing with the children in our care.
It was believed that allowing babies to self soothe resulted in independence and a better ability to sleep soundly, however, many studies now contradict this. While babies may have better sleep training, studies show that babies left to cry it out, have a tendency to become insecure, aggressive, bad tempered and more demanding. In fact, the extreme distress occurring as a result of prolonged crying, is even believed to cause significant damage to neurons in the brain. (Darcia Narvaez Ph.D)
At this stage, the brain is developing quickly, thus when the baby is distressed for long periods, it creates conditions for damage of the synapses. Cortisol (the stress hormone) is also released, which when in excess, can destroy neurons in the infant’s brain. Prolonged stress can also begin to impact the infant’s immune system, for example, prolonged distress in early life can result in a poorly functioning vagus nerve, resulting in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. (Stam et al, 1997)
Since the dog’s brain, nervous system and body is very similar to our own, we can assume that the effects of prolonged stress have similar consequences on puppies, in fact many studies demonstrate this. Leaving them to cry it out can be traumatic and cruel, in fact in some circles, it would be labelled as emotional abuse. Don’t agree? Let’s put ourselves in our pup’s paws for a moment.
From day one, your puppy has never been alone. Their entire life has been spent with their mother and littermates. They enjoy constant companionship, safety and warmth from their family and then all of a sudden, strangers pick them up and carry them away from their family to a completely foreign place. They are suddenly surrounded by strangers and then expected to sleep quietly all alone in a cold crate. When I dwell on how my Mando may have felt that first day I bought him home, I could cry. You see we are basically kidnapping them from their own planet and then expecting them to conform to unrealistic expectations and new customs in a completely new world. (Please see this amazing article on the subject Kidnapped From Planet Dog - Whole Dog Journal (whole-dog-journal.com)
How can we expect them to suddenly adjust to such a huge change? Is it really reasonable to expect them to self soothe the first night when they are a social species? In my heart, I knew what was right and I wanted Mando to feel safe from the start. No matter how much I loved him from day one, Mando still needed to learn to trust and love me in return. Could I really accomplish that by leaving him alone to cry all night? No not at all. Many rolled their eyes at me when they heard I was sleeping downstairs next to Mando’s crate but now I know that it was the right call.
On that first week, Mando had the option of sleeping in his crate, with the door left open. In his bed (in the crate), I had the blanket that he had slept on with his mother, so it still had her scent. The crate was then situated in my dining room inside a pen, to keep him safe. He opted to sleep on the floor next to me, as I slept the other side of the pen in my sleeping bag. Even at this early stage, he demonstrated an attachment to me and felt reassured by my presence.
When he cried I spoke to him in comforting tones and checked if he needed the toilet. Mando did struggle with being left in the early days but he quickly became comfortable sleeping in his crate (after crate training), so I eventually moved to the sofa and bought the crate closer with the door closed. If we didn’t have our senior cat Sassy, I would have had the crate next to my bed but I had to factor in the huge change this was for her too and I didn’t want to make her feel insecure. After two weeks, I began going upstairs to my own bed, once Mando was asleep. If he started to cry I would immediately come downstairs and sit with him, whilst he was still in the crate and stay with him until he drifted back to sleep.
While some would argue I was pandering to Mando, I was in fact teaching him that if he was upset, I was there for him. If he felt insecure, I would come and make him feel safe. If I left him, I would always come back when he needed me. If you leave your puppy to cry, what are you really teaching them? Do they really eventually become calm and independent or do they start to believe that they can’t trust in you to comfort them?
You are trying to demonstrate that you are this puppy’s new family and surely you want your puppy to feel safe and loved. If they begin to feel more insecure because prolonged crying hasn’t gotten them the comfort they needed in the past, they will soon learn to escalate their behaviour in a desperate attempt for comfort. Thus, leaving them to cry can actually result in more behavioural issues because your puppy now feels so insecure and anxious, they can’t cope being left alone.
I know what you are pondering. Surely you can’t keep going to your puppy when they are crying, because they will just cry for attention. While I am careful not to anthropomorphise dogs, they do have the same emotional intelligence as a 2-year-old toddler and so we can draw comparisons to address this notion. Referring back to human infants, studies have demonstrated that…
“Caregivers who habitually respond to the needs of the baby before the baby gets distressed, preventing crying, are more likely to have children who are independent than the opposite” (e.g., Stein & Newcomb, 1994).
The same is true of puppies. Rather than thinking in turns of giving attention for the crying, we should be trying to prevent the crying altogether by ensuring we always respond to our puppy’s needs. Crying is the first form of communication puppies develop and its indicative of a need and we took on the responsibility to address that need when we brought them home. So, it is very unfair to decide you aren’t going to respond to the crying, when it is you that decided to bring this baby into your family.
Yes, your puppy could eventually learn that crying results in them being let out the crate if you habitually leave them to cry for prolonged periods and then eventually respond by letting them out of the crate. However, you need to remember that the initial crying was your puppy communicating they felt distressed or that they needed something, such as to go to the toilet.
Notice I said that when Mando cried, I didn’t necessarily let him out of the crate, but I spoke to him reassuringly and put my hands through the bars to fuss him. If this didn’t console him, I would determine if he needed the toilet or a drink. I wasn’t rewarding his crying; I was responding to a need. Therefore, it is far better to set out to prevent the crying where possible but can you accomplish that?
Well firstly, ensure your puppy has a blanket or towel that smells of their mother, as this can make them feel more secure. A warm hot water bottle or even a dog toy with a heat pad inside and be a comfort in the night, as it can imitate the heat they would have felt when sleeping with their mother and littermates. Playing dog music, which can be found on YouTube, can also help them relax, as it reduces their heart rate.
Determine your puppy’s routine and ensure you are letting them out for the toilet regularly. In the early days this will be every 30 minutes in the day and every 2 hours or so in the night. (See toilet blog.) That way, you are getting up to take them out for the toilet before they begin crying in the first place.
Sleep in the same room with your puppy from day one and for however long it takes for them to feel settled in their new home. When you feel they are becoming more confident, you can then start gradually leaving them to sleep alone, if this is the end goal. You may have to come back down in the night but if your puppy is sleeping for a couple of hours alone, this is still progress.
Purchasing a camera with a microphone is also a life saver. That way you can talk to your puppy in the night and give them some reassurance, which worked wonders with Mando. I would use the same tone of voice on the microphone as I did when we first brought him home and reassure him I was there. Sure enough, he would happily go back to sleep after hearing my voice. They key to this was providing reassurance the moment the crying began, so that he didn’t become more anxious.
For us, this took 6 weeks of training. That may sound like a long time, but no two puppies are the same and each puppy will develop confidence at a different pace. Despite an overwhelming amount of well-intentioned advice, I was adamant I would work at Mando’s pace to ensure he felt safe and loved. The result?
We now have a settled and balanced puppy that no longer fears being alone because he knows that I am always there for him. It is so worth putting the time and effort in now rather than needing to address separation anxiety in the future.
Finally, please acknowledge that your puppy is a baby and is relying on you for safety and comfort. It’s unreasonable to expect puppies to conform or behave according to the convenience of their new family. As the guardian, it is our responsibility to ensure our puppy has everything they need to feel safe and secure in their new home, regardless of the inconvenience to ourselves. So please don’t let them cry, give them the love and comfort they need and deserve!
Puppy Training- This Is The Way!