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Puppy Crying…do they want my attention or a potty break?

by Heidi Atwood


I want to be with you! I need a potty break! Which one is it? When we bring our puppies home, we want to bond with them, work on house training, and help them acclimate to their crates, pens and other spaces in their new homes. Just like human babies, crying is not only normal but is generally one of the only ways puppies have to communicate with their people. We want to help them learn that crying doesn’t work to get our attention, so they will give up on trying to get a response this way. This is why we don’t look at them, talk to them, or go close to them when they are making attention-seeking noises. 



Bonding is the easy part! We hold and snuggle that warm little puppy and want to be with them every second as we get to know each other. However, at this crucial time, we also need to help them get used to being “alone”. They have usually been part of a litter of other warm and cuddly puppies who pretty much sleep in a pile. This is what they know. Even if your breeder has been amazing enough to help them acclimate to a crate, quite often they haven’t learned how to be a solo pup, especially in a new environment. Snuggle Puppies are helpful because they mimic the heartbeat and warmth of another puppy and are often the same size as your pup. But, it’s not the SAME. 


Remember, your puppy fell for you that first day, and you fell for them, and they would much rather be with you every second, especially at night when they are tired from their long day. So they cry. And they bark. They might even scratch at the crate in an effort to get to their people. They can seem downright frantic. Add into the equation that they also have to go potty frequently at first because their tiny bodies contain tiny bladders. 


So, how do we know the difference between the “I have to potty” cry and the “I want to be with you” cry? It’s hard to tell at first, but it does get easier as you get to know your puppy. We respond to them often because we don’t want accidents and we realize that sometimes it wasn’t a potty break they needed. We need to follow their potty schedule until they can indicate to us that they need to go. We are learning about those signals just as we are learning about which toys they love. Since all puppies are a bit different, they indicate potty needs differently, and sometimes it’s so subtle that it’s just a certain look. Crying, barking, circling, sniffing and pawing at the floor, going to the door, and ringing bells (if you use them) are all ways puppies try to tell us that they need to go potty. For some, it takes a bit of time to figure out that they CAN let us know, and in the meantime, there can be accidents. 


Accidents are normal! Prepare for this by having an enzyme-breaking cleaner available to chemically break down the stain and scent so that the area doesn’t smell like a potty spot and cause repeated accidents. Keep your puppy off carpets, rugs, and sometimes even bedding in the early days since soft, absorbent surfaces encourage accidents. Rely on their schedule completely at first, and start out by taking them to the designated potty place very frequently with the idea that you can gradually increase the length of time between potty breaks. 


As they grow, so does their ability to “hold it” longer and longer. I want to mention that if a puppy can access a potty pad or litter system anytime, it can get in the way of strengthening their bladder and learning to wait longer between potty breaks. It’s better to take them to the designated area on a schedule than give them free access to it unless you will give them unlimited access to a potty system for the long term. I suggest writing down the time of every potty success and every accident, even if you think you will remember. Take a look at the schedule the next day and you will start to be able to identify patterns. We have a Housetraining Chart in our Printables section of the website that is helpful for this. You will see that your pup may need to go more frequently at certain times of the day. Usually, this is when they are busy with activities such as playing, exploring, and moving around. They will drink more water when they are active and we all know that drinking more water means it comes back out more frequently. 


Keep potty breaks very short so that your puppy learns to get the business done quickly, creating a lifelong habit of “potty first, then play”. Puppies get distracted very easily, especially outside, so we want them to learn that this is the first thing they do. This is helpful when the weather is unfavorable or if you have a short time to give your puppy a potty break. I live in a climate that can be brutal in the winter and the last thing I want to do is wait for a puppy to pee for a half hour in the middle of a blizzard. If, after 1-3 minutes your puppy hasn’t gone or if you suspect that they didn’t fully empty, take them back to the crate or keep them well supervised near you for a few minutes to prevent accidents, and then try again. A pup is much less likely to have an accident in a properly sized crate. 


You may need to repeat this cycle a few times until they go shortly after getting to the potty spot. This is when we offer great praise and food rewards. Part of the reward can also be exploring the yard or playing with you or with a favorite toy. I want to mention here that if you happen to have two puppies, it’s best to do separate potty breaks at first because they get easily distracted by each other. 


As you get to know your puppy, you will get better at determining the difference between the “pee cry” and the “I want to be with you cry”. The attention cry can be hard to ignore, but once you know your pup doesn’t need a potty break, you can feel free to ignore any crying or barking. Your puppy will give up on crying once they learn that it doesn’t work, so don’t look at them, talk to them, or go near them if they are making noise. Go about your own activities and routines so that your pup gets used to you moving around and the fact that just because you are near them, it doesn’t always mean they are going to get your attention. If it’s hard for you to listen to the crying, you can give them separation “practice “ by doing some very short crate or pen sessions, and going to them only during a quiet moment, even if it’s just a brief break in crying or barking at first. Put in some earbuds and listen to music, or go take a short walk or shower so that you don’t have to listen to the crying. You can also casually offer a reward when your pup is calm and content. Telling the difference between attention-seeking behavior and potty needs is something you will figure out with trial and error. This is how we learn!


Keep in mind that doing the work now will make your future easier. If you are diligent in the first few days and weeks, there will be a day when your pup will let you know every time it needs a potty break. As your puppy gets more consistent with their potty successes, they will earn more freedom. Also keep in mind that rest is very important so let them settle down for several naps throughout the day, and ignore the crying when they try to protest. Puppies need a lot of naps to prevent overstimulation and the behaviors that result from being an overtired pup. Look at these naps as a perfect time to take a break and do something for yourself, maybe even a nap if you are experiencing puppy exhaustion!

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Unknown member
Jun 21

I was really disappointed to read this particular article as research has shown that letting puppies cry it out is actually detrimental to them. So this is definitely outdated advice. Tbh, it has made me reevaluate other training advice given here.

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I think you should identify yourself

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Love the feedback and question

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This was outstanding! Thank you!!!

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My 11 week old puppy is waking up at 3am then again at 5:30 and is ready to start her day. Do you have recommendations to get her to sleep a little later? I’m fine with getting up in the night, but getting up at 5:30 everyday is wearing on me.

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Outstanding suggestions!

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