The realities of puppy sleep training – and why following the rules is harder than you think

Three weeks into deciding to becoming a dog parent, Alexandra Fraser reflects on the trials of the first week of sleep training, from chilly midnight bathroom trips to ludicrously early rises.

It’s like having a newborn, they say.

As a rule, whenever people compare something that isn’t raising a human child to raising a human child, I’m instantly doubtful. Parents, especially parents of newborns, have the monopoly on complaining about sleepless nights and early rises. When the day comes that I tote my own mini-me to the family home, sit down and begin my well-earned rant on the trials of the infant sleep schedule, I pity the foolish dog owner who speaks up and compares my experiences to theirs.

However.

cocker spaniel puppy asleep in basket

A rare moment of peace – Wilf napping in his new bed.

When the earliest you can bear to rise is 8am and you’ve already been out of bed five times between midnight and sunrise, you can’t help but think that you deserve a seat at the whinging table.

Sleep training is all about routine. We take Wilf out for a final bathroom trip, place him in his crate, crawl onto our downstairs sofa bed and pray. He, of course, believes that we’d abandoned him and cries like he’s stepped on a lego police boat.

“Should I give him ten minutes to settle back down, or by then will it be too late for his lovely dry bed?”

Dogs are pack animals and do not like to be lonely – that’s why settling a new puppy can be a tricky business. Luckily, with one slightly painful twist of the arm, one of us was able to put our fingers through Wilf’s crate door to comfort him. With a few licks and one or two more cries, he was asleep. For about ten minutes.

There’s a risky game that you must play for the first few weeks of sleep training. Is he crying because he needs to go outside, or is he just lonely? Should I give him ten minutes to settle back down, or by then will it be too late for his lovely dry bed?

Cocker spaniel puppy lying down

‘Hello darkness, my old friend.’

Wilf hasn’t had any accidents in his crate yet, but I believe that’s down to the fact that we’re completely under his spell, rather than his stellar bladder control. We took him outside every time he cried, gave him a few pets and put him back to bed. The advice is to make midnight bathroom trips as uneventful as possible, with no excitement, but to tell you the truth reader, he’s too cute not to cuddle.

One night we slept on a quilt. One night we tried to stretch a double fitted sheet onto a king sofa bed. One night I announced that I’d had enough and dragged the spare mattress downstairs, using the sofa as a very unstable, slightly too small bed base, which was somehow less comfortable than the sofa alone. Every night at some point Wilf ended up on the bed with us for a cuddle, before going back to the crate.

“Dogs, especially spaniels, are sensitive. Spaniels specifically won’t respond well to shouting or berating – you just need a firm ‘no’ and lots of patience”

It’s hard to follow all the rules when you have a very cute, very sad puppy who loves hugs. It’s hard not to lie when you hear a sleepy ‘is it my turn?’ from the other side of the sofa bed. But after a week of less and less crying and easier midnight trips, we finally plugged in the baby monitors and crept upstairs.

‘You’re doing the first trip.’ I mumbled into my pillow, wondering how it was possible to be so comfortable.

Cocker spaniel puppy sits on a cushion

I don’t want to alarm you but I’m pretty sure that it’s dinner time.

We have to Grand-Old-Duke-of-York it up and down the stairs at least once a night and Wilf wakes up at six without fail (the day the clocks went back was particularly difficult) but all in all, we’re proud of his progress, and proud of our ability to function on very little sleep.

Alexandra’s learnings from week three of puppy parenting

  • Patience is key. Dogs, especially spaniels, are sensitive. Spaniels specifically won’t respond well to shouting or berating – you just need a firm ‘no’ and lots of patience.
  • Start your training early! Even at this early stage, I wish I’d been more consistent from the start with stopping Wilf from biting. All puppies are nibbley, but picking one method and sticking to it is key to stop excessive biting early on.
  • You can never have too many socks. Because they will get stolen. Every day.

Wilf is growing up so fast! Find daily updates on his Instagram page, @wilfthecocker


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