Q: Won’t my dog just learn to self-soothe?A: Ah, one of the greatest myths in baby-raising and dog-raising. Self-soothing doesn’t actually exist…at least not the way we think it does. Allowing them to “cry it out” doesn’t change their stress level but it changes their behaviour. They cry for less time each time because they’re learning that crying doesn’t work to bring us back to them, but they still experience the distress and this is still apparent in the measurement of cortisol – the stress hormone. This is an article that talks about this in babies​. Food for thought! (Especially since most of the time, our dogs don’t cry for less time each time we leave them – they escalate into a panic.)

Q: In what order should I arrange the steps in a mission? A: When creating your missions, the steps should be created in a pattern like the one in your example – a few easy (green) steps, a step that is a little more challenging (amber), alternating easy (green) and slightly more challenging (amber), and then toss in a toughie that is still under threshold (red), give some relief with an easy step or two (green) and then end on the toughest step (red). 

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, amber, amber, amber, amber, red, red, red, red, end, 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 Mission 1 in your example and notice how I added the colours on the left side to indicate the difficulty level of each step!

Q: What is “cumulative stress?”A: Cumulative stress is a great concern in any type of behaviour modification plan. We have to take a wide-angle view of our dog’s life and look at other stressors in their world. If your dog is anxious about weather (storms, wind, rain), and is leash-reactive toward dogs, and has gastro-upset more often than you’d like to admit, plus is phobic of certain noises like the fire alarm, we’re looking at cumulative stress. This means that they are experiencing triggers daily or at least almost-daily, which can affect their separation anxiety. 

For example: on a Monday there is a thunderstorm and rain – your dog is not feeling 100% about going outside. On Tuesday they have a belly ache and some loose stool. On Wednesday the fire alarm testing occurs at lunchtime at the pet sitter’s house. On Wednesday night you try to run a mission and you find a huge regression. You can’t figure out why until you look at your data tracker and see that there have been some cumulative stressors in the past few days and so of course they’re going to have a difficult time in this next mission! 

Let’s make this mission much easier rather than pushing it and watch that your dog goes back to his/her “normal self” within a day or so. If not, you’ll need to lower the difficulty level for a little longer and treat this like a regression, which is totally normal! 

Q: Is it normal that my dog follows me from room to room outside of missions? How do I make him/her stay?A: Yep! Even if your dog didn’t have home-alone issues, they will likely follow you here and there when you’re moving about because they’re curious and social creatures who want in on the action. I don’t bother teaching a “stay” for this – they usually grow out of this after a while (some dogs do, some don’t, some take a year) so it’s not that important. It won’t have an effect on the work you’re doing. 

Q: What if my dog learns that barking makes me come back? A: This is called a “behaviour chain” and if it develops, it tells me that you might be pushing your dog over the threshold during an assessment or mission, to the point that they bark, and then you come back. If it happens once or twice, it’s not the end of the world. If it happens a few times, especially close together, we will have a dog who learns that barking makes you come home. 

Make sure your missions are easy for your dog to succeed. If they’re barking, you’re going too far too fast. Slow it down! 

Click “​NEXT LESSON” to receive your assignment! 

Lessons in this Course: