Tracking data in separation anxiety training – why is it so important?

May 16, 2022

All dogs are different, and just like us, have good days and bad days, and are affected by different variables and events. It is therefore vital to keep a track of any events during our separation anxiety training that may affect our dog’s behaviour

What do we mean by ‘data’?

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines data as “information, especially facts or numbers, collected to be examined and considered and used to help decision-making”.

So why is this important to keep a track of when working through a separation anxiety protocol?  The goal in separation anxiety training is to assess the trajectory of your dog’s progress, and any variables that may affect your dog’s ability to achieve or maintain upward progress.

Data helps us see patterns

Imagine you have slowly worked your way up to consistently being able to leave your dog for 5  minutes, which took weeks or months (depending on your dog – it’s usually a slow process!), and then one day your dog falls apart at 15 seconds.

If its one day, it can be written off as a ‘bad day’ – its normal to have ups and downs for sure. So the best thing to do is to reduce duration, give your dog some easy wins for a short while and then they will get back to where they were. Great! Imagine now you are a few weeks ahead, your dog is now aceing 15 minutes absences, and then one day again, he falls apart at 5 seconds.

Why is this happening?

Ups and downs and normal in separation anxiety training (well, in all aspects of training and behaviour work!). Regressions are VERY normal in separation anxiety training (where you feel like you have taken a few steps back in your training), but it is also possible that there are variables in the environment, in your dog’s day that are affecting how well he is able to cope with absences on those days.

If you’re not tracking data for every single training session you do, you will miss these variables that might be influencing your dog’s ability to  be comfortable consistently, and therefore will not be able to address them. By tracking the data, we are able to adapt the training plan accordingly to set your dog up for success.

What is an example of such a variable?

A very common variable to affect a dogs ability to cope with absences consistently is time of day.  For example, a dog may sail through your daily training exercises in the morning, but may struggle during the evening.

Now if you were not tracking the times of day you did your daily training sessions, you would most likely become very frustrated, and not understand why this is happening.  You may end up pushing too much when you work on the sessions during the evening, and could end up with your dog eventually struggling more during the morning sessions, which they used to cope well with.

If you are tracking the data (which you absolutely should be!), you will probably have become aware that time of day is a contributing factor to your dog’s success early on, and can adjust the plan accordingly.

Setting your dog up for success

So once we are aware that time of day, for example, has an impact on how well our dog copes with absences, there are a couple of different things that can be done, all with the aim of setting your dog up for success

For example, often with my clients if I find this is a factor, I will introduce a “two-tiered protocol” whereby the criteria I set them is different depending on whether they do their session during the day or during the evening.  So for example, I might set them a final step duration of 10 minutes if they do their training plan during the morning, but if they choose to work on it during the evening, it might be nearer 2 or 3 minutes (again, depending on the dog – it could be much less). We basically lower expectations during the evening sessions.

Another way of addressing this is to work solely on those morning absences for a while, so your dog can build a solid foundation at this time of day for a while, and then you can start gradually moving the time of your training sessions gradually closer to the “problem timeframe”. It is possible that once the dog is more comfortable with those morning absences, it will bleed into the timeframe they struggle more with.

What data should we be tracking?

There is never a limit on what data you can track! The more the better! But, the main basics are as follows:

  • Time of day of training sessions
  • Day of week of training sessions
  • which family member or combination of family members are doing the training
  • Exercise – amount and time of day
  • Appetite that day
  • Medications and time of day given
  • Any out of routine occurrences that day? Vet visit, visitors to the house, thunderstorms, fireworks etc)

There are often other variables I will track that are specific to individual dogs and clients, and often once we get started with the protocol, it becomes evident that some other variable affects the dog, so we will add that in.

Are there ever variables that we cannot identify?

The simple answer is yes, sometimes there may be variables affecting your dog’s ability to cope with absences, even low level ones, and if you are unsure of why your dog is struggling, or there is no pattern, it is important to consult your vet. Either to discuss medication (medication for separation anxiety, in my view, should not be left as a last resort) or to ensure there are no medical or pain issues at play.

Tracking the good stuff!

Its not just about tracking factors that could impede progress though! Keeping track of data and your dog’s successes gives you motivation and means you are less likely to give up! This is SO important, especially as separation anxiety work is a long process!

There will 100% be ups and downs, but we are looking for an overall upward trend. Learning is never, ever linear!

A good way of viewing this is by a graph….i do graphs for all my clients so we can all easily see the trend line.

Has this given you a headache?

Its ok – its normal! Looking at spreadsheets and charts and working out what to track and how can be hard work! But…..good news….when you’re working with a separation anxiety specialist like myself, we take all this away from you. Well, we ask you to track the data on the days you are working on your sessions, but we tell you what to do, what to track, where to write it and I will analyse it for you! All you have to do is write it down and I do the rest!

If you’re working on your own, you can use a notepad and pen, as long as you keep all the data together so you can easily refer back to it.  Tracking any data is better than tracking none!

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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