Separation Anxiety – regressions are normal!

September 10, 2021
Regression separation anxiety

Regressions and plateaus are absolutely normal when teaching a dog that being home alone is safe. In fact, they’re to be expected! And not just with separation anxiety – with any behaviour work we expect to see regressions. However, even when we expect them, it can be so disheartening and disappointing when your dog hits a regression.

What does a regression look like?

When I use the word “regression”, this simply means that, in terms of separation anxiety, the dog becomes unable to cope with durations of absences that they previously were comfortable with.  So if you have been working on teaching your dog to feel safe home alone, and you have successfully reached the stage where you can reliably leave them for 30 minutes whilst at the start they couldn’t cope with 2 seconds, and then suddenly you leave for your 25 or 30 minute absence only to find your dog falls apart after 3 minutes…this is a regression.  Regressions are really hard for us humans to understand or relate to, and it can be very easy to lose motivation and feel disappointed.

Regression separation anxiety

It’s all normal

The first thing I would like you to understand is regressions are normal! Nothing in life moves in a straight line. I mention regressions and plateaus to clients during our very first conversation on the phone, before we even start working together, because they are that normal! As a CSAT I work with multiple dogs and I have not had a client who’s dog has not experienced a regression or plateau of some kind. Sure – some dogs have larger regressions than others, some dogs plateau at a certain level for longer than others, and some dogs take longer than others to bounce back after a regression, but each and every dog who experiences a regression is absolutely normal.

Regressions are simply a way of your dog giving you information – they’re saying that although he has been coping with those absences, he is not ready to be left for that period of time regularly. It is vital that we work at that dog’s pace, so we simply need to take a step back, allow him to gain more confidence and work at a level he feels comfortable so that the foundations will be super strong and we can build on those foundations so that they are strong in the future.

Regressions can result in a surge in progress

This is all a learning process for your dog (and you!), and often when a dog experiences a regression, it can lead to a leap forward. It is as if the regression and subsequent easy exercises that follow enable the dog to truly feel comfortable and move forward in learning being home alone (for that duration) is safe. The speed of that surge forward varies hugely from dog to dog, but it absolutely happens.

Expect the expected!

As previously mentioned, I always ensure owners understand that regressions are likely to happen and are normal. This way it helps minimise the level of disappointment and maintain motivation and helps us all keep on track moving towards the ultimate goal of improving quality of life for you and your dog. It is so important we start moving forward with a separation anxiety protocol with our eyes wide open!

Adjustments are key

The most important aspect for any owner working through separation anxiety with their dog is to understand and be aware of their dog’s “threshold”. This refers to the amount of time a dog can cope being alone before they become anxious. This threshold changes a lot, and adjustments to absence durations are needed constantly, especially after a regression. We simply adjust the duration of the daily absences according to where that dog’s threshold is at that particular moment, and then as the dog becomes comfortable again (this varies from dog to dog, and can be as little as 24 hours), we can build back up from there.

Why do regressions happen?

Regressions give us information – they show that that individual dog is not ready.  We often don’t know why a dog has a regression, although there are often variables that contribute to regressions, and this is why I track a wide range of data with all my clients, so when a dog hits a regression, we can see if there are any variables that contributed to it. A few potential considerations are as follows:

  • Does your dog do better with more or less warm up steps?
  • Does your dog do better at certain times of the day than others?
  • Have you added any new pre-departure cues? for example – did the regression tie in with when you started to put your coat on, or lock the front door? Is there something different, albeit small, that you have done before you leave that may have acted as a trigger?
  • Is he on medication? If not – maybe speak to your vet as certain medications have been shown to greatly help alongside behaviour modification. If he is, does the dose need adjusting?
  • Have we been increasing criteria too quickly for that dog?
  • Has there been a change in household or routine?
  • Does your dog do better or worse when certain members of the household work on the absences as well?

Track the data!

As mentioned above, there are so many criteria that can be adjusted and that can affect a dog, so it is vital to keep track of any adjustments to your sessions.  In order to know what affects your dog, what helps your dog and what may not affect him at all, it is important that we change one thing at a time and we track information closely. I use a spreadsheet with my clients to trach all relevant criteria so we can see what affects the dog.

Don’t give up!

If you accept regressions are normal and will happen, you will not be as disappointed by them. Instead see them as speed bumps in the road, designed to slow you down until you get back on the motorway and can build up speed again! And you WILL build up speed again!

If you would like help with your dog’s separation anxiety please click here

By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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