You are charging along with your separation anxiety protocol and have made considerable progress on a regular basis. You cannot believe that when you first started this process, Fluffy could barely be left alone for two seconds, and now you are able to leave for 17 minutes while she calmly hangs out. You could squeal with delight about how things are going, and you are admittedly quite proud of yourself — and little Fluffy too!
The next day as you head out the door for your 17-minute absence, Fluffy falls apart at the three-minute mark. You are completely crestfallen. How is this even possible? Your resolve to get this disorder fixed crumbles, and your motivation to continue forward is suddenly whisked away and replaced with disappointment.
If this example sounds at all familiar, please read on, because I have good news for you.
Nothing Strange Here
The first thing you need to know is that regressions are normal when working through any behavior modification plan. Did you hear that? Normal! We could also call regressions “expected,” “customary,” “average,” or “standard issue.” They are… wait for it… completely normal.
Over all the years, I can’t remember a separation anxiety case where there was not at least one blip in the process. Some dogs have bigger regressions than others, and some take longer to bounce back, but each and every dog who experiences a regression is a normal dog.
So let’s embrace normal!
Much like learning a difficult musical instrument or a complicated language, there will be days that are better than others. Sometimes the training will even seem like a big, fuzzy, complicated mess. But, the jumble of high points and stumbles are not only normal, they are to be expected when working through a separation anxiety protocol.
I have better news for you than just normalizing this incredibly common occurrence. Remember, this is a learning process, and, as such, the dog is constantly discerning what is good, bad, or unimportant. From our experience, regressions often lead to an eventual leap or surge in progress. It is almost as if the dog is figuring things out during the regression and subsequent easy exercises. The pace of that jump in the protocol varies from dog to dog, but the uptick happens often enough to not call it an anomaly by any means.
Expect the Expectable
With our clients, we start talking about regressions from the very first day. No, we are not Debbie Downers over here. We just want to set up realistic expectations. We talk about the fact that the first time we experience a regression, it is a veritable celebration: “Yes! Your dog is normal! Yippppeeeee!”
So, other than celebrating the normal nature of the dog, what are we to do about regressions?
Pour a glass of wine comes first to mind, and while I wholeheartedly support that endeavor, let’s also talk about how we fine tune the training surrounding a regression.
Tweaking is Key
Remember that at any given point in your separation anxiety protocol, you are safeguarding the dog’s threshold. The threshold is whatever duration and difficulty that the dog can handle at that time.
When a regression occurs, we have to make some adjustments. Notice that I am not saying that we are going backward per se; we are simply making appropriate duration and difficulty adjustments to continue working through the protocol. Separation anxiety training is much like a dance — several steps forward and the occasional step back.
Rather than get upset by a regression, see it as information that will allow you to tweak things to help your dog. Regressions give you information.
Does the dog have a time of day that is better for him than others? Possibly capitalize on that. Does the dog need to have additional warm-up exercises worked into the criteria, or, for that matter, might we need to drop a few warm-ups? Does the dog have to work out some additional time with certain pre-departure cues, such as adding a purse to the exercises? In those instances, we could simply toggle back and forth between the more difficult “purse-absence” and the less difficult “non-purse absence.” What about looking at whether the current dose of medication is right, or, for that matter, if it is time to consider medications that have been shown to help dogs with separation anxiety considerably. Finally, is it time to slow down the pace for a few days or more and just give the dog some real wins in absence rehearsals. In Fluffy’s case, we could do a few days of one- or two-minute absences and then do a video reassess to see if we are back on track to move higher.
One Thing at a Time
However you go about making adjustments, keep in mind that the number of options for change in criteria are numerous — almost endless really. As with any scientific venture, change one thing at a time so you know what is having an effect. Changing multiple parameters at once might leave you confused as to what influenced the change.
If you have appropriate expectations that regressions will occur, you will not be devastated by them. Rather, you will see them as speedbumps to alert you that a slight change of pace in criteria is needed.
Embrace these blips and know that the bounce-back can be stellar!