15th August 2022

Missing the Trees for the Forest: Are your big separation anxiety training goals stalling your progress?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of celebrating small wins. We understand that we can’t tackle large problems like social injustice, for example, without breaking them down into smaller solutions with achievable goals. Without those smaller increments, big problems seem insurmountable. And problem-solvers feel overwhelmed, so they avoid tackling them at all. Or they set unrealistic goals without a roadmap to lead them there and ultimately fail. 

Small Wins and Home Alone Training

The power of using incremental goals to achieve big change applies to separation anxiety training, too. We break down the problem context (being home alone) into the smallest possible approximation that the dog can handle comfortably. So let’s say that your dog needs to be comfortable for home alone for 4 hours per day. We wouldn’t start with 4 hours; that would be too much. Instead, we would create a training plan that breaks that ultimate goal into a series of micro-goals. To start, we might just touch the door knob. For some dogs, we might able to start with a couple seconds of stepping on the front porch. But the idea is that we start with what the dog can do right now comfortably. And we build from there.

This is incredibly important from an animal learning perspective, too. And it’s aligned with my training philosophy. I do not use any methods that hurt or frighten dogs, so we have to start where the dog is 100% comfortable. We also have to gain the dog’s trust. We need the dog to believe that, from this point forward, absences are safe. To prove this to the dog, we limit absences to those that they can be completely blasé about. If we mix in a few that are distressing, the dog will learn that sometimes absences are safe, but sometimes they are dangerous. And with that depletion and the dog’s trust account, we will have taught him the absences are unpredictable.

So accepting that the small wins are enough will prevent us from pushing too fast and undermining our efforts. 


Small Wins for the Guardian

This concept is also important for the human learner. Separation anxiety training is daunting. I’m asking my clients to make big changes in their lives. And these clients have usually already been through a few trainers and are at the end of their rope. They might be skeptical if this can actually work. And there’s a whole lot of trust in the process that is needed to make it to the finish line. So having small milestones along the way give the human learner the same sense of trust and motivation to keep going. They give them that little burst of feel-good emotions that propels them forward. They start to see what their dog is truly capable of. 

But you don’t have to take my word for it. There is mounding evidence supporting the importance of celebrating small wins to maintain our emotional health. We need to keep acknowledge, reflect on, and rejoice in not just our major achievements but also the ones that may feel insignificant if we aren’t paying attention. This has been proven to not only keep us on the path toward our big goals, but also to simply make us feel good. In fact, a number of studies have found that lots of small successes from more mundane activities create more long-term happiness than huge successes, like winning the lottery.


In Summary

So remember, whether you are reflecting on your personal life or your dog’s separation anxiety training journey, be sure to take the time to recognize and celebrate the smaller achievements. Congratulate yourself. Congratulate your dog. It will make you both feel good, but also, it will keep you in the game and get you that much closer to your separation anxiety training goals.