By Erin Buvala
Puppy screams emanated throughout the house.
“You okay out there?” my housemate, Sam, called out from his cracked-open bedroom door.
“Yep, I got this,” I yawned back.
Narrator: she did not got this.
It was 4am on day 3 of having my new puppy, Flower, and I was drowning. I had become an exhausted, frantic, slightly insane person with rat’s nest hair and the permanent odor of hotdogs and pet stain remover wafting off of me like a cartoon character.
I was trying desperately to keep it together, because I was supposed to be the pro. I’d convinced my housemates I could take care of this puppy – that I was ready for the challenge of this particular dog – and that our household wouldn’t be the chaos that many new-dog households become.
But any illusions I may have had about being somehow different from all the puppy parents who had come before me were smashed into a million pieces within the first few hours, and I’d been trying to catch a break ever since.
Flower cried the minute she was left alone. She didn’t want to sleep in her crate, and she screamed like a banshee about it. She raced around the house, knocking things over and chewing on everything until about 10pm, and she wanted to get up and do it all again before the sun was even up. She demanded to be let out at least three times a night. She did not pee on the puppy pee pads – actually, she tore them to shreds. She stole food, she climbed on tables, she bit everyone and tugged at our clothes, she chased the cats, she refused to go for walks – and when she did go, she ate everything she found on the ground, including a used poop bag…
She was a nightmare, and I was in arrogant-dog-trainer hell.
Somehow, I had to manage to hold down my full-time job, despite Flower clearly trying to get me fired. And as icing on the cake, we had all just been thrown into what turned out to be the longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdown in the world, so we got to experience the puppy madness aaaall day. Every day.
Fast-forward a year, and Flower and I not only survived that period of our lives, but we developed a really strong bond.
Flower’s still my little demon child – though, she’s now a teenage demon child, which is a whole other can of ass whooping she’s opened for me and my ego – but she’s grown into a smart (sometimes too smart), capable, intuitive, kind dog. I also managed to keep my job, and my housemates.
How, you ask?
I used my baptism of fire to learn some cardinal rules about how to create a routine that worked with my puppy, rather than one that tried to control her. I thought I’d share those rules with you today.
Rule 1: When in doubt, toilet first. Always.
How often should I take my puppy to the toilet?
We get that question (and many other house training questions) a lot around here. The answers to these questions can be affected by age, breed, health, lifestyle, and training.
But here’s the short version:
Always. Puppies always need to go. Or at least that’s what we should assume while they’re training.
As soon as they wake up, immediately after a meal, 20 minutes after a meal, every hour, right before bed, a handful of times after bed, and pretty much any other time you look at them and think “maybe…”
It’s never maybe. It’s always yes.
You can never take them out too often. The worst that’s going to happen is that the two of you will stand around in the yard for a while making awkward small talk. Any time you find yourself feeling like you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing next, take puppy for a toilet break.
Flower’s routine was punctuated with toilet breaks: they started and ended every sentence of her life for at least the first few months.
Rule 2: when it comes to physical exercise, think Goldilocks.
Not too much, not too little. Juuust right.
Owners hear that they should exercise their puppy almost endlessly: exercise them to prevent behaviour problems, to cure behaviour problems, to keep them physically healthy, in the morning, before bed, if they’re not sleeping, if they’re sleeping too much, and god knows when else.
The dog training world got a little bit obsessed with physical exercise for a while, and we didn’t give very nuanced information. Sorry, our bad.
Because physical exercise isn’t the miracle cure we may have believed it to be. Not only is it not the answer to every behaviour problem, but it can actually make some of them worse.
Puppies who are overstimulated will also be overtired. That makes them cranky. They’re less tolerant of everyday stress and are more likely to resort to aggressive behaviour to get themselves some space, and the extra adrenaline their brains are pumping them with to keep them awake and alert will make things like Hyper Attack Mode (which we discuss in depth in Puppy Survival School) much more likely. Somewhat counterintuitively, they won’t “sleep well tonight” after a big day – they’ll have trouble getting to sleep and they’ll probably be overtired the next day, too.
Too many days like this increase their body’s baseline levels of adrenaline and similar hormones. Which means they’ll adapt to higher and higher levels of activity, and the amount of work it will require to wear them out will get higher and higher, too.
How much exercise should my puppy get?
We like this general rule of thumb:
Puppies should get about five minutes of intense, aerobic physical exercise a day, for every month of age. So, for a four-month-old puppy, that would be 20 minutes of exercise.
What we’re talking about here is exercise that’s a decent amount of work. That will vary by age, breed, health, and individual – but it’s probably not a walk down the street, or a trip to the pet shop to pick a new toy. Those are all important forms of stimulation, but they likely don’t tick the physical exercise box.
Rather, this refers to activities like a run at the park, or an energetic game of fetch. For puppies who aren’t quite up to venturing into the big wide world yet, a flirt pole is a great option.
When’s the best time to exercise my puppy?
Soon after breakfast, and just before dinner. This is because dogs are crepuscular creatures, which means they’re naturally most active around dawn and dusk. They’re going to get a burst of energy during these times pretty much no matter what, so we may as well use that to our advantage instead of being busy doing boring human things and having the puppy drive us nuts.
Rule 3: What goes up, must come down.
After all that physical exercise of the appropriate amount for your puppy’s age, it must be sleep time, right?
Hold your horses, there, friend. We’re missing a step.
Physical exercise gets the blood pumpin’ – and it also gets a lot of those stress and alertness hormones we talked about in Rule 2 pumpin’, too. Although their bodies might be tired, those little puppy brains are running at full speed. We have to exercise those as well.
Without mental stimulation, all we’ve done is add fuel to a spark, and create a roaring fire. And then we put that fire in a crate and ask it to have a nap.
After physical exercise is a great time for training. Harness all the engagement you just encouraged through physical exercise or adventures, and channel it into mentally taxing activities that focus that engagement on you.
Start off with easy tasks your puppy knows pretty well, so that they can earn a lot of rewards in the beginning and really buy into the game of training. Great options include:
- Recall (come when called)
- Leave It
These cues encourage handler-focus, so your pup will be looking at you for further instruction. Then you can move on to tougher things, like the “place” cue (ie “go lie down on your bed”), crate training, or alone time training. These tasks are harder for puppies, which will help tire out their brain, and they’re also not particularly handler-focused activities, so you can start teaching Sparky some independence.
After all this intense thinking, it’s time to play some smooth jazz, get in our comfy puppy pyjamas, and relax in our crate with a nice chew, lick or sniff item. Like a bully stick, a frozen stuffed Kong or marrow bone, or a snuffle mat.
Why? Because chewing, licking and sniffing activates various parts of the neurological feedback systems that control things like stress levels, heart rate, circadian rhythms, memory, and emotional processing.
Basically, it helps your puppy process everything they’ve been learning today, and relaxes them enough for a nap, which should be the next activity on their agenda.
Rule 4: Redirect yo self before you wreck yo self
You can do everything right – you can give your puppy the perfect routine – and, at some point (actually at a lot of points) they will still go a little bit crazy.
They’ll get the zoomies in the house and knock over your favourite lamp, they’ll chew on the side of the couch (or the entire couch, if you’re lucky like me), they’ll pee on the carpet, they’ll bite your arms, they’ll jump up and scratch you, they’ll try nipping at your face and your ankles, they’ll steal things, they’ll play tug with your socks and run away with your underwear and chew on your shoes.
How do we navigate the moments when these things inevitably happen, in a way that isn’t just going to make us more frustrated, and damage our relationship with these sweet little angel babies from the depths of Hell?
Redirection, my dear. It’s the key to managing these behaviours, and also to managing your emotions.
Puppies use those “annoying” behaviours to investigate the world. Everything is new to them. They have no idea what a shoe is, or that it’s any different from the expensive toys we’ve bought for them. They don’t know that the kitchen bench isn’t just a different puzzle toy full of delicious treats they’re supposed to figure out how to get. And they don’t know that human skin is different from the skin of their littermates, whose faces they’ve been gnawing on in play for about eight weeks.
So, they’re not doing any of this to be jerks, they just don’t know any different. And a lot of this behaviour comes preprogrammed, so teaching them to behave differently takes time, patience, and consistency.
When puppies chew on the wrong thing, or bite too hard, they don’t need to be told off. There’s no point, because in all likelihood they have very little control over their behaviour at that point, and telling them to stop doing something doesn’t tell them what they should do instead.
Think about what need their behaviour is trying to satisfy – exploring with their mouths, play, teething, soothing, foraging, or maybe a breed-specific behaviour like herding – and show them how they can satisfy that need in a way that doesn’t make you want to go back in time and get a goldfish instead.
Shove a toy in their mouths, instead of the human arm or tv remote they’re currently latched on to. Trade the underwear they’ve run off with for a delicious treat, and then play a game of chase with one of their favourite toys. Start a flirt pole game in the yard, instead of the zoomies that threaten all your expensive vases in the living room. Give them a snuffle mat instead of the foraging they’re doing through the trash.
Redirection works for puppy parents, too
Frustrated? At the end of your rope? Go scream into a pillow, or take up kickboxing and punch a bag for a bit. Go for a run, have a long shower, listen to heavy metal turned all the way up.
Having time for yourself feels impossible when you have a puppy, and although having a good routine won’t completely stop all these annoying puppy behaviours, it will likely help you carve out half an hour where the puppy is safely asleep in their crate, and you can have some time to be a person again.
Just take a minute. Take a deep breath. Feel all your feelings. Realise that they’re not always an accurate picture of what’s really happening – like, your puppy isn’t actually trying to ruin your life and turn your family against each other and make you look like a failure – but that they are valid. You deserve the space to feel them, and then wave goodbye to them as you strap your boxing gloves on and turn up the Ramstein blasting through your headphones.
Your behaviour stems from an unsatisfied need, too.
Rule 5: Do NOT let the bed bugs bite, or so will your puppy.
We all know that puppies need sleep for their adorable little bodies to function properly.
But how much sleep do they need? How often? What if they don’t want to? Where should they sleep?
What if they cry – should you give in, or let them “cry it out”? What if they’re tricking you into letting them out to pee when all they really want is to not be alone and bored and scared in bed, those sneaky little monsters?
Much like all puppy-related questions, these can have complex answers that depend on the specific puppy. However, there are some general guidelines that will help you make the best decisions for your puppy, and your sanity.
Puppies need, on average, 12-18 hours of good quality sleep per day. That can be in any form or order that works for you and your puppy.
And if Sparky cries in her crate at night? It’s totally okay to comfort her or let her out.
Letting her out of her crate when she cries probably isn’t going to give her any big ideas like “ha HA! If I just cry, I can manipulate my silly naïve human into doing whatever I want!”
And if she does somehow learn that lesson, we can address it down the line with training.
But if she’s left crying in her crate for hours, and she’s too scared or lonely or restless to sleep, then at the very least tomorrow you’re going to have a tired, grumpy puppy on your hands, who has no attention span and no patience for your weird human shenanigans.
And you may even end up with a puppy with learned helplessness. Meaning that as an adult, they’ll be more likely to shut down when faced with stress, lack the confidence to try new things and the creativity to learn new tasks, and have an increased risk of mental health issues, like anxiety, associated with unhealthy attachment styles.
The most important lesson we can teach our puppies at sleep time is: “you are safe, your comfort is important to me, and you can trust that I will take care of you so that you feel secure enough to rest”.
Up until you brought your puppy home, he was probably never alone. Ever! Least of all when he was sleeping. It’s the ultimate state of vulnerability, and everything about puppy behaviour is designed to elicit help and protection from adult dogs and humans when they feel vulnerable.
These are creatures that we have specifically created and bred, for thousands of years, to love us so much that it overrides almost all of their other natural instincts. To love us so much that they’ll not only live with us, but they’ll work to understand us and do what we ask – and they’ll like it. That’s massive. And it makes it not all that shocking that puppies would need our company to help them feel safe enough to fall asleep.
So make sure their sleep environment is comfortable and conducive to sleeping: dark, cool and quiet. Let them out if they ask, even if they don’t end up peeing. Go set up camp on the couch next to their crate and talk them to sleep. Give them an extra chew toy, pet them, put on some music for them… whatever they need. Because sleep is the single most powerful tool you have to get you through the crazy puppy days. And if they’re able to sleep, so are you.
Applying the rules: an example routine
After reading this, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed about how to fit all the puzzle pieces together. So here’s an example of how we would do it.
This routine is designed as a very general example, which means we haven’t gotten too specific – like times, durations, ages, training levels, or amounts. We also haven’t accounted for your lifestyle, or important puppy activities like socialisation which are highly dependent on your schedule and your puppy’s confidence. That might mean that you have to switch some things around to make it work for you.
But, in general, this is a fairly good routine for optimum puppy health and wellbeing:
- Wake up, and straight out of the crate to their toilet spot. Praise and reward with super delicious, high-value rewards when they go potty.
- Back to the crate with their breakfast in a stuffed Kong or similar – frozen as well, if the puppy has gotten the hang of getting food out of these kinds of toys. Human goes back to bed, or gets into their own morning routine calmly and quietly.
- Post-breakfast nap time. For some puppies this could be an hour or more, and for others it could be five minutes or nothing. If it happens, great, if not, that’s okay too.
- Puppy comes out of the crate and it’s time for a toilet break, and then some physical exercise. Pick the appropriate amount for your pup’s age, breed, and other factors.
- Toilet break, then training time. Follow the flow we talked about in Rule 3.
- Time for a puzzle toy and/or some petting, grooming, or other relaxing activity.
- Toilet break, then nap time. It’s time for the human in the relationship to go do something else: work, school, cleaning, screaming into the void – whatever you need to do.
- If puppy asks to come out of the crate, it’s time for a toilet break, and then either back into the crate, or in the playpen with another snack, or some toys. Stay with them if you’d like, or leave them to hopefully get a nap in.
- When puppy is properly awake, it’s time for a toilet break. Then it’s game time, training time, or just hanging out time – judge based on your puppy’s energy levels, and the other demands you have on your time.
- Toilet break again, and then lunch time in the crate. This may lead to a nap time, depending on your pup’s age.
- Toilet break again, and back to game time or training time – but save the serious physical exercise for just before dinner.
- Probably toilet break time again. And then it may be another nap time, but if not, this can probably just be hanging out time, or chew/lick snack time in the crate or playpen.
- Okay, now it’s physical exercise time (after the obligatory toilet break, of course). Get those cute little puppy toe beans moving!
- Toilet break, and then training time. Again, follow the flow in Rule 3.
- Toilet break, and then dinner time either in the crate in a puzzle toy, or you can use Flower’s favourite: scattered in nature’s snuffle mat – the lawn.
- Toilet break, and probably either game time (as calm of a game as you can manage) or hanging out time.
- Toilet break.
- A chew/lick toy or similar in the playpen while you watch tv or something equally as chill.
- Final toilet break.
- Bed time.