I am so lucky to work with amazing clients whose dogs are suffering from separation anxiety. These individuals are the absolute best guardians imaginable in their tireless commitment and kindness toward their dogs, which makes them a true joy to work with. Together, we join in celebrating milestones, and we buoy each other up through rough spots. Throughout the training, we develop a cooperative team and collaborate toward setting the dog up for success. The relationship between CSATs and clients is truly at the core of this process. We work together five days a week on separation anxiety training, and each of those days is customized and individualized specifically for the client, the dog, and the environment.
Why FIVE days a week? Why not every day?
This is a question that I commonly hear from dog guardians as they embark on their separation anxiety training journey. The amount of training necessary to help dogs learn to be alone successfully is often a surprise to our clients, who feel like they need to devote hours of their daily time to the process to make progress. I understand that oftentimes, it feels like more training will yield more success, or at least quicker success, but this is just not the case.
There are genuine benefits to the learning process when we allow for days off for both the dog and the human alike.
Let’s start with how this benefits the guardian side of the equation.
A tremendous amount of stress and worry goes hand-in-hand with having a dog who suffers when left alone. The training itself includes some time commitment, but due to the laws of learning, the client must also implement a management protocol so their dog is not left alone for longer than they can handle. While suspending absences is a temporary requirement during the training phase, it can still take some finagling and create pressure on the guardian. As humans, we need regeneration time from the stressors that exist in our lives. Taking two days off from training each week can help with that. I often recommend that clients take some planned time during their days off to do something relaxing or enjoyable. Having that “me time” (as long as someone is caring for the dog) can help stave off burnout in the training process and frequently allows for enhanced problem-solving about how to proceed. Having worked with separation anxiety clients for over two decades, I am very aware of how this improved thinking benefits the client and, in turn, benefits the dog.
Many years ago, I worked with a client named Trisha and her dog To (short for Potato). Trisha was a hugely successful person both in her educational and business accomplishments. I remember how much I enjoyed working with her, and from day one, I knew we would have a wonderful time in our day-to-day communications to help To. The one little snag in our training, though, was that Trisha was convinced that if she did longer sessions more frequently, she would get to the alone-time finish line sooner. Try as I might, I was unable to assure Trisha that we would gain the most progress if we just gave her and To some breaks along the way. I mention this client specifically because I recall how inept I felt in my ability to persuade her to take days off. As a result, after some time into our protocol, I started to see how impactful the absence of downtime was for both Trisha and To. During an online meeting to reassess To, I learned that Trisha was feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. She expressed that she felt her motivation waning and was questioning whether we would ever be successful. I knew at that moment that both she and To needed rest if they were going to have the ability to continue their training. Through considerable counseling and a bit of laughter combined with a few tears, we came to an agreement that she would take a weeklong break, and then once we resumed training, she would commit to taking two days off per week. The results of their time off solidified in my mind how vital decompression time really is for both humans and dogs.
When we resumed training in a week, both of us had renewed hope and excitement about the training process. We were able to approach the training sessions thoughtfully and creatively from a problem-solving perspective. This pivotal change produced a considerable surge in To’s alone-time comfort and also granted Trisha the ability to feel ready to get through the remaining time in our protocol. Yes, less was indeed more.
As you see in Trisha’s example, days off for the dog are equally important! Taking time off from separation anxiety training can enhance the dog’s learning in several ways. While it might seem counterintuitive, breaks and rest periods play a crucial role in the learning process. This time off helps by allowing the brain to consolidate information, reduce overall stress, and enhance retention through improved overall cognitive function.
Let’s review a few of these benefits for the dog.
- Memory Consolidation: When we take time off from intensive learning, our brains continue processing and consolidating the information we’ve acquired. This process occurs during rest periods, such as sleep or relaxation activities. It helps to strengthen neural connections and transfer newly acquired knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. While separation anxiety training is intended not to create stress or anxiety in our dogs, they ARE still working at learning. It is so rewarding to take days off and see the increased ability in our dogs during their alone-time training after that downtime.
- Stress Reduction: Learning can be mentally taxing, and prolonged days of focus can lead to burnout and decreased motivation. Time off allows for relaxation and stress reduction, which are essential for maintaining a healthy, receptive mindset for learning. We want to enhance that feeling that alone time is safe, and allowing for this overall reduction in stress can foster that.
- Enhanced Retention: Studies have shown that spacing out learning sessions with breaks can improve retention compared to continuous cramming. Taking time off allows the brain to digest and absorb information at a more comfortable pace, leading to better long-term retention.
All the above benefits are ones that we really want to take advantage of, even though our human brains continue to try and convince us that more training must be better somehow.
Taking time off is not only beneficial for overall well-being but also a critical component of effective learning. It supports memory consolidation, creativity, stress reduction, and overall cognitive function, ultimately leading to more successful and efficient learning experiences.
So, how about YOU? Can you let go of the belief that more training will be more effective? I urge you to remember that these protocols can be long, yet being careful with your time, your mental energy, and your dog’s emotional (and physical) requirements will take the most efficient route to that freedom that both you and your dog are working toward.
Less for the win!