Building a training plan (what we refer to as a "Mission" should you choose to accept it...) is a very detailed task, and customisation for your own dog is critical. There are no cookie-cutter plans that will fit all dogs' needs as each step in the training plan relies on the result from the last step.
Have you been told to leave for 5 minutes and then leave for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30 minutes, then an hour, and so on? We all have. The challenge with this is that the criteria are constantly increasing in difficulty and that is not desensitisation - that is going to end up being sensitisation - the exact opposite! (Check out the SepAnx Glossary for clarification on these terms.) Your dog will figure out very quickly that every time you leave, you leave for longer and longer and will quickly revert to panicking once again.
Did your brain explode with that new gold nugget? Now do you know why the cookie cutter advice that gets dished out on Google doesn't work? Yep. Thought so.
The steps should be staggered in length so that they are unpredictable but mostly sub-threshold. Why "mostly"? Because we have to push our dogs a little bit and avoid being too conservative while avoiding being too pushy! It's a fine balance, but I'll help you achieve that.
Think of it like going to the gym and building a muscle. Here is the anatomy of these missions:
Warm-ups & easy steps
We must start with a few steps that are well below our dog's threshold - these, we call "warm-ups". They are meant to be boring. We will also sprinkle these throughout each mission so that there is some relief and we can make it easy enough for the dog.
These steps will also be sprinkled into each mission so that we are approaching the threshold, working that muscle at a comfortable level.
These steps are ones that push it a little but not into the distress zone. We may trigger some stress, but with repetition and keeping the other surrounding steps easy, these ones become easier over time.
We are often told in training to "end on a good note" but in systematic desensitisation it's not important as it tends to be a "wasted step". We tend to end on the most difficult step and simply leave it at that so that the dog gets fast relief. We will push that muscle a little more without snapping it.
In what order should I arrange the steps in a mission?
When creating your missions, the steps should be created in a pattern a few easy (green) steps, a step that is a little more challenging (yellow), alternating easy (green) and slightly more challenging (yellow), and then toss in a toughie that is still sub-threshold (yellow), give some relief with an easy step or two (green) and then end on the toughest step (orange).
We create missions this way so that we are staggering the steps, giving relief as much as possible to really bore them, and tossing in some tougher ones that are the "heavy lifting" so to speak. If we were to set a mission up in a way that went: green, green, green, green, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, orange, orange, orange, orange, red, red, red, red, we would be doing exactly what we know doesn't work! If every step increases in difficulty because you leave for longer and longer, the dog will quickly predict a longer absence each time and revert to panicking.
We need to ping-pong our criteria. Take a look at The Anatomy of a Mission in the example below and notice how I added the colours on the left side to indicate the difficulty level of each step! See how they line up with the zone colours?
The goal is not for the last step to cause distress in your dog, but just to show that it is pushing the envelope to really get the best bang for our buck in this mission.