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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Just Let Him Cry It Out?

“Don’t go back to him if he cries.  No matter what you do, you must ignore him if he is barking or crying.  You will spoil him.  Don’t reward his crying.  Just let him cry it out.  He will eventually stop.” 

Have you ever heard this advice?  It seems to be pretty popular advice to give someone with a new puppy. 

Trainers may argue that going back to a crying puppy and giving it attention will reinforce the crying.  While there might be some truth in that statement, I don’t think much thought is normally given to the emotional cause of the crying in the first place, nor to the physiological changes that are happening to a puppy’s body and brain while he is crying. 

Yes, a puppy left to cry it out will eventually be quiet, but is that the best thing for the puppy?  Can letting the puppy cry it out lead to problems with anxiety down the road? Is there a better way?

I'd like to propose a different perspective about teaching a puppy to stay by itself.

Let’s talk about getting a new puppy.  Let's think about his first day leaving his mother and littermates, and that safe puppy pen.  Everything he had known up until this day had been comfortable and safe for him.  He was never alone.  He always had the comfort of others around him.  Taking him away from that safety and security is a major life change for him.  He is stressed and looking for his mom and littermates, and the sense of safety he had known.  Very quickly that sense of safety begins to transfer to the person who is caring for him.  

Is it really necessary for a puppy to learn that very first day how to be alone?  When he already feels terribly alone and wants to cling to the new person in his life so he feels safe?

Vinny feeling very safe in his confinement area.  

Staying alone and learning self confidence should be a gradual process.  Puppies who cry are distressed. They don't cry unless they have a reason to cry.  They aren't crying to keep you up at night.  They aren't crying to annoy you or to interrupt your favorite TV show.  They are scared and alone and they feel vulnerable.  They are calling out for someone to care for them and comfort them, and to help them feel safe.

Puppy brains are always learning.  Do we want our puppy's brain to learn and develop from a place of fear or panic (fight or flight), or from a place of trust and safety?  

I hear often about people who let their puppy cry and howl for an hour (or more) until it begins to quiet down.  Each minute that goes by increases that puppy's stress, anxiety and fear.  I have to wonder if letting a puppy cry it out and become more and more upset until it is exhausted may contribute to separation anxiety behaviors later in life?  It is something to ponder. 

I want to teach my puppies to have the capacity to self calm, so they are able to settle down on their own. To a puppy, being left alone must be a scary feeling.  He is unable to take care of himself, and the group of others he’s always been with has helped to keep him safe.  He may feel vulnerable.  He may become hypervigilant, watching everything to see if it is a threat.  

Puppies very quickly form emotional associations with the situations around them. Spending so much time learning that being alone is scary and stressful can't be good for staying by himself later on. These are not feelings we really want our puppy to associate with being left alone at home or with being in a confined space, are they?
It is a process to teach a dog to calm itself.  It is not something you can just throw at him all at once and expect him to get used to and understand that all is well.  Expecting a puppy to just cope with it and get used to it is very stressful for him.  Puppy is calling to you to help him and you don’t come.  Does this build trust in your new relationship?  Puppy doesn’t understand why the rules have suddenly changed. 

Perhaps this is how it's always been done - letting him cry it out.  Or perhaps it worked for a puppy we had a long time ago, so we are sure it is the best way to do it.  Or maybe you know someone with a dog and it worked for them, so you're sure it will work for you and your puppy.  But don't we owe it to our puppies to consider them as individuals?  To do all we can to build their trust and their confidence that we understand what they're communicating to us?  Sometimes we do need to think outside of our box ... 


  1. I know this advice relates to puppies, but I learned a little about this first hand last year when I was fostering a little old spaniel for our local humane society. He had been left on the side of a rural highway and was picked up and brought in...he was also deaf and blind! I soon found out that he did not want to be crated or confined, especially at night when we had all gone to bed. After several nightime struggles, i finally got him a little bed which I placed on my bed for him. First night I put him in that bed, he curled around in it, nesting, and never moved for the rest of the night! He needed to know where I was and needed to feel and smell me to feel safe. i learned so much from this sweet little old man. I had him for 4 months before he passed away of renal failure and he slept in peace and comfort every night!

  2. Darn, I was really hoping that you would go into detail on an alternative approach. I agree a new approach is needed but I need to know what to do.

    1. Don't worry :) More blog posts are coming!