Depending on where you look, you will likely get one of two responses. Back in the day, the typical answer was yes. Let them ‘cry it out’ in their pen or crate. We thought anything else would reinforce the whining, and then you would be stuck with that problem. Times have changed thanks to our better understanding of secure attachments, meeting needs, and the role emotions play in learning. As a result, many trainers and behaviourists no longer recommend having the dog suffer until they settle.

You Get What You Pay Attention To

To be fair, there is some merit behind the old practice. You do get what you reinforce. So just as it’s best not to pay attention to our dogs when they are jumping – unless you want more jumping – waiting for our dogs to stop fussing seems reasonable. But that is based on the assumption that the dog is fussing because they have learned it works to get attention or freedom – it has worked in the past or has been reinforced in some way.

Are Their Needs Being Met?

But what if you’re not sure they are whining or fussing because you have accidentally reinforced it? What if it’s because they:

  • need to go to the bathroom?
  • have been tucked too long?
  • haven’t had enough stimulation or exercise that day?
  • have been alone too much?
  • are over-tired?

If their needs haven’t been met, then it’s not the young dog’s responsibility to deal with that. It’s not fair to add to their distress by expecting them to wait even longer. I will pay attention to the communication and adjust their routine so they don’t have a need to fuss again moving forward. Ensure basic needs are met, there’s an appropriate level of exercise, social interaction and mental stimulation, and the need for the dog to fuss is gone.

Young Pups Need Special Attention

And if I have a young puppy? I’m sure not going to ignore fussing. I want to make sure that I am not missing a call to go out to the bathroom. And I want to make darn sure that their early experiences in containment areas are always positive so they continue to enjoy them in the future.

Another reason your dog might be fussy is that you haven’t prepared them to be in the pen in the way you are asking. Has the puppy been properly conditioned to be comfortable there? If they are always fussing when they are in there, then they likely have not been adequately prepared to be in the pen. For more info on this specific topic, check out my article Why Puppy Pens Fail.

What If Your Pup Has Been Taught to Fuss?

But let’s say you know for sure that you or your family members have accidentally reinforced the fussing previously. They responded to the whining by looking at the pup or telling them, “No!” or “Be quiet”. And now your pup has learned that fussing is a fast way to get attention or freedom. 

To prevent or counteract this, make sure you pay attention to your pup when they are quiet, relaxed or entertaining themselves. And it’s OK to let them out when you weren’t planning to if you catch them being relaxed and quiet. We need to make the behaviour we want reinforcing for the dog. Focusing on the fussing as the problem and just wanting to stop it is not the solution.

This puppy is calm and settled – the perfect time to pay attention or let them out of their pen.

So the takeaway? Your goal is to set your pup up for success in the pen. Build a positive association, and don’t expect your pup to be in there longer than you have conditioned them to enjoy it. Be sure to reinforce them when they are calm by giving them attention, treats or letting them out. If they do fuss, that means something is out of balance with their routine or how you are using the pen. In the moment, you can return to them and see if you can redirect them. Your proximity might be enough to help them settle again. Let them out before they begin fussing again.

Check out A Day With Dogs for more information on setting your puppy up for success in a playpen or den.

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