The Truth About Regressions: Normal but Not Easy

When I adopted my dog, Adora, I already knew she had a hard time being alone. In fact, her barking, crying, destructive behavior, and escape attempts when separated from her foster mom were a big factor in my decision to bring her home. After all, who better to adopt this anxious dog than a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer?

Before Adora came home, I was already preparing for life with a dog who couldn’t be alone. I booked a vet appointment to address the medical issues she’d picked up as a stray, identified the dog-friendly stores nearby that would allow me to run errands without arranging a pet sitter, and recruited helpers to keep Adora company when I had to go out without her. With a solid plan in place to avoid scary alone time until I could teach Adora that being alone actually wasn’t scary, we brought her home.

As I frequently tell my clients, however, separation anxiety training is a marathon, not a sprint. Even with all my ducks in a row, tackling Adora’s fear of being alone was a lengthy process. Multiple health issues that caused chronic pain and discomfort made it hard for Adora to feel comfortable in any situation, and this was exacerbated when I left. A profound fear of loud noises caused repeated setbacks in a city where thunderstorms are a regular occurrence and football victories are celebrated with fireworks. Adora’s early selection of me as “her person” meant that she would scream and claw at the door when I left, even with our other dog and multiple other humans keeping her company. We made slow, somewhat unsteady progress, took weeks off from training when she needed them, and finally reached the point where she could handle being home without any human company. A little over a year after she first joined our family, Adora was putting herself to bed when we left and greeting us calmly at the door when we returned after long absences. My wife and I celebrated tackling this issue and finally getting to live a “normal” life with our very sweet dog.

Then, we had a regression.

The dog who could snooze through an hour or two of isolation was suddenly barking and crying at the door within minutes of my departure. Greetings were frantic and vocal, my normally chill dog throwing herself against my body as she clawed and cried with an intensity that distressed us both. Shadowing at home skyrocketed, with Adora hypervigilant about my every move and unwilling to let me out of her sight even long enough to get a drink of water.

What happened? And where do we go from here?

Regressions are Normal: Even for Experts!

As Malena says, regressions are normal! Fear and anxiety are tricky issues to tackle, and it’s very normal for our dogs to experience ups and downs, twists and turns on their journey to home-alone success. Even with expert training, regressions happen.

Just because I know how normal regressions are, however, doesn’t mean I’m thrilled to encounter one myself. Although I’ve helped many others through this process, I admit I felt frustrated when my own dog regressed. If you are going through a regression with your dog’s separation anxiety training and are finding that your patience is wearing thin, know that you’re not alone. Even professional dog trainers feel frustrated sometimes!

When you find yourself feeling upset about your dog’s slow or inconsistent progress, know that your emotions are valid, and it won’t do you OR your dog any good to beat yourself up for feelings of “negativity.” Remember that your dog is trying hard to be brave in the face of their fear, and that neither their separation anxiety nor this current regression are your fault. You’re both doing your best!

Take a deep breath (or two, or five…) and give yourself permission to feel frustrated and sad if your life with your dog isn’t what you’d dreamed. Then, keep reading because there’s still hope!

Regressions Aren’t Resets

When we’re working on separation anxiety training and we hit a regression, it can feel like we’re starting over from scratch. When two hours of calm time alone drops to a meager two minutes, it’s hard not to think we’ve lost all our progress. It’s helpful to remember:

 1. Your dog has a strong (and positive) learning history.

While Adora is feeling uncertain about my departure right now, she has more than a year of evidence that I’ll come back before she needs to worry, and that my leaving won’t interfere with her getting her needs met. That learning history provides Adora with plenty of reason to feel optimistic about absence training, so she’ll make swifter, smoother progress the second time through our training protocol. If you’re hitting a regression after weeks or months of separation anxiety training with your own dog, remember that all the good experiences you gave your dog with “safe” absences haven’t been erased! Trust in the training you’ve done so far and continue building on that strong foundation.

 2. You have become a skilled interpreter of your dog’s body language.

After a year of living with and training Adora, I know her well. I recognize the subtle signals she uses to announce her anxiety or stress long before she reaches the point of barking or destruction. That increased familiarity with Adora’s unique dialect of Dog allows me to write better training plans than I did when we first started. When you hit a regression with your dog’s training, remember all that YOU have learned in this process, and use your knowledge of your dog’s body language and behavior to get your training back on track. By observing your dog’s body language and moving at their pace, you’ll be able to practice time apart while they remain comfortable and relaxed.

 3. Your dog’s behavior is information.

As a CSAT, I know the importance of data tracking, so I’ve been keeping a careful log of all the training I’ve done with Adora. Thanks to this data, I know what makes it harder or easier for Adora to relax when I leave, and I can juggle those parameters to create “easy wins” and avoid uncertainty as we train. If you’ve hit a regression with your dog, turn to your training log and see if you can identify the things that make it harder for your dog to be alone and remove those extra complications from training for now. Creating relatively easy exercises that you and your dog can complete without anxiety will allow you to bounce back from this regression with more ease.

 4. You can adjust your goals.

When separation anxiety training was moving ahead relatively smoothly, my main focus was building duration, aiming for multiple hours of time apart. As I made progress towards that goal, however, I stopped appreciating the milestones we hit along the way. When I couldn’t leave Adora for 5 seconds without barking, 3 minutes of time apart felt like a victory; once I got used to being able to leave her for 30+ minutes at a time, I took for granted those “short” absences that used to thrill me. By shifting my focus from building duration to building consistency at short durations, I can regain the ability to run quick errands without stress, and I can ask for pet sitting help when I need a longer absence. If you are feeling frustrated with your dog’s unsteady progress towards your goal, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on your needs and ensure the goal you first set is still what you want! You may be able to regain a great deal of your freedom and independence with a shorter duration than you first thought.

Keep going!

Like many of my clients, I find myself wondering “how long will this regression last?” Without a crystal ball, I can’t answer that question, but stay tuned for an update on Adora’s training in the near future. 

If you are working on separation anxiety training with your own dog and have hit a bump in the road, please be patient with yourself and your dog as you find your balance once again. Regressions may not be a fun part of this training process, but they aren’t a cause for panic, either. With good data tracking, a personalized training plan, and a bit of patience, you’ll be back on track soon! In the meantime, take a deep breath, remind yourself what you love about your dog, and ask for help with the things that challenge your bond.



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About Malena DeMartini

Malena DeMartini is renowned in the dog training industry for her work with separation anxiety over the past two decades. She is the author of two groundbreaking books on the topic, and the founder of the Separation Anxiety Certification program. More information about Malena and resources about separation anxiety can be found on her website at:

About Malena

Malena DeMartini is renowned in the dog training industry for her work with separation anxiety over the past two 

decades, for more information about Malena Read More…

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