Tracking data! One of the most important parts of working through a separation anxiety protocol, and the part that is often left out when people are trying to help their dog through separation anxiety.
What do we mean by ‘data’?
Data in a separation anxiety protocol refers to any variable that could potentially an individual dog’s ability to cope with absences. This will vary from dog to dog and can change over time.
Examples of data to track include:
- Time of day
- Who is doing the session that day
- Day of week
- Daycare / dog walker
- Exercise, and time of day of exercise
- Eating as normal
- Medications and time of day given
- Anything stressful that could have happened that day
This is a general list but there are always extra variables to track for individual dogs, and over time it may be that there is another component that shows itself to affect your dog, so that can be added to the tracker.
Why bother tracking all this data?
Collecting and tracking data enables us to monitor the trajectory of the dog’s progress, and also identify if there are any variables in that dog’s life or environment that is affecting their ability to progress.
If you find you’ve successfully got to the stage where you can leave your dog for 5 minutes, and then one day you find your dog is unable to cope with more than 20 seconds. What then?
Now yes, off days are normal. Ups and downs are SO normal. And yes it could be one of those. But what about if the day after your dog is back up to where they were before, and you feel reassured, and are able to comfortably build up to 10 minutes over time. Then all of a sudden your dog falls apart after 1 minute. What then? Do you push harder? Do you give up?
If you are not tracking data, we may find that this is the pattern that you go through, because you simply will not know if there truly IS a reason why that dog fell apart on those days.
Information (data) is power!
If you are tracking data for all sessions then you are more likely to be able to identify if there is a specific variable that affected your dog on those days, and therefore enables you to adjust criteria of the training plan accordingly!
If we find that, for example, that the time of day that people do their daily separation anxiety desensitisation exercises has a bearing on how well the dog copes, or the dog struggles more when all the family is involved in the exercises versus when just one person does them, we can address it and provide different criteria for each situation.
For example, I have a client at the moment who’s dog finds it harder when both of the humans do the exercises versus when just one of them is home and does them, and this drills down even further where the dog finds it even harder still if, when both people are doing the exercises, they start from the living room. If one of them is upstairs and one is downstairs, and they start in separate room, he finds it slightly less worrying.
I also have several clients whos dogs find certain times of day much harder to cope with absences than other times of the day – for example morning sessions are easier for the dog than evening sessions, or vice versa. I have one client whos dog found it harder when absences were done in the middle of the day, but evening and morning ones he found less worrying.
Similarly, I have a couple of clients who’s dogs find absences much easier to cope with when they have had a good amount of exercise beforehand. If the exercises are done before the dog’s walk, or with no exercise or mental stimulation, the dogs find it much harder, follow much more during the steps and do not remain as relaxed for as long as when they have had an hour or more walk beforehand.
However, I will add that ensuring these dogs have sufficient exercise prior to doing their desensitisation work does not mean that they are then completely fine being left at home alone for as long as is needed! It simply is the case that they find it even harder to cope when they have had no exercise or mental stimulation.
If you are not tracking data, it is easy to not realise there is a reason for the inconsistency in your dogs performance, whereas when you know there are variables that make it harder for the dog to cope with alone time, it can be addressed.
Setting dogs up to succeed
Setting your dog up for success is SO important. Once you have identified that, for example, your dog finds it easier if you do your separation anxiety training sessions in the morning, there are a couple of ways this can be addressed:
- Set a different criteria for morning sessions (and specify which time range this includes) versus afternoon and evening sessions. When a morning sessions is done, the final duration can be longer, and with afternoon and evening sessions it should be shorter (always according to what your individual dog can cope with comfortably).
- You could just do morning sessions for the time being, and once a good foundation has been established at a time of day your dog finds more comfortable, then you can slowly start moving the time you do your sessions later in the day.
With the examples given above, it meant I was able to adjust my plan and provide different criteria for my clients to follow depending on when they did their daily desensitisation exercises. For the dog who finds it easier if one person does the session versus both, I write two different training plans for each day. One for if only one of them did the ssession that day, and one for if they were both involved. The criteria (i.e length/criteria of warm up steps and length of final absence) for the latter is less than the criteria for the former where the dog will find it easier.
With the dogs who find it easier to cope when they have had exercise beforehand, we still want to work on desensitising them to absences prior to a walk, but its important to lower criteria so we still end the absence when they are comfortable. Therefore once again, I provide these clients with 2 options each day – one if the dog has been for a walk prior to the exercises, and one for if they are done before exercise, and the criteria for the ‘post-walk’ exercises are higher than the criteria for the ‘pre-walk’ exercises.
Your dog’s needs must be met
We HAVE to ensure our dog’s needs are met before we work on helping him through separation anxiety, because we are not teaching him a new trick or behaviour. We are working on changing emotions and feelings surrounding being home alone. We are aiming to change the wiring of the dog’s brain (metaphorically!) to help him feel comfortable home alone, and the dog has to feel their needs are met in other areas for him to learn this.
Ups and downs are normal
Learning never happens in a linear fashion, and there will be ups and downs in your separation anxiety journey, but we want the overall trend of your dog’s progress to be upward, over time (we all know this can be a long journey). Below are a few graphs of just a few of my clients to show a typical graph, and why it is important to track data and progress. Graphs are a really good way of immediately showing the journey, ups and downs and the general progress.
If you would like any help with your dog and their separation anxiety please complete the form on the page below and I will be in touch to arrange a quick phone chat: Remote Online Separation Anxiety Dog Training (politepawsdogtraining.co.uk)