Regressions in Dog Training: Is it normal or did I do something wrong?

You know that feeling when one day it feels like everything is going to plan, that problem you’ve been trying to solve is all starting to make sense and come together, you’re on the right track and it’s great. And then suddenly, you hit a hurdle and all that progress seems to fall apart.

It could be anything, a new fitness programme, a weight-loss journey, a challenge at work, or your dogs’ training…

Just like anything else in our lives, our relationships and journeys with our dogs are rarely straightforward or free from challenges. Not only are we living in an ever-changing world, so are our dogs. They too face new challenges and feel different emotions, they will experience varying levels of stress, anxiety and all manner of other emotions.

It’s no wonder sometimes things don’t go to plan and it can feel like all our hard-work and progress has gone. More often than not, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. You’re working with another living-being who has their own feelings and motivations, ones which we can’t always understand or predict.

Regressions in training and behaviour are really common, they can be caused by things beyond our control or they may even be completely unexplainable. Sometimes we may be slightly at fault, maybe we pushed our dog too far, maybe we haven’t been consistent enough or put enough time in. But don’t get disheartened by this, there is always a way to get back on track.

Regressions can be caused by a number of different factors…

Developmental Changes

As dogs grow and mature, they go through different stages of development and this can have considerable impact on their behaviour.

Puppyhood – puppies are constantly learning; they will change dramatically within a short space of time. Not only are they physically growing, they are developing mentally too. New behaviours will appear as they have new experiences or hit different stages of puppyhood.

  • Puppies often go from sleepy, easily tired and biddable bundles of fluff, to tireless, testing monsters with sharp teeth! You haven’t done anything wrong and there’s nothing wrong with your puppy, they’re simply growing up
  • Accepting that puppyhood is full of behaviour changes and new challenges will help take some of the frustration away
  • Keep reinforcing good behaviours and manage your puppy’s environment to limit their opportunities to practice unwanted behaviours
  • Encourage appropriate outlets for behaviours like chewing, and don’t underestimate the important of SLEEP for your puppy!
  • Here’s some more tips for keeping your puppy’s training on track https://www.adolescentdogs.com/post/problem-puppy-behaviour

Adolescence – if you thought puppyhood was a rollercoaster of changes, adolescence is another turbulent time!

  • This is prime time for training regression. You might have days where your dog seems to forget everything he’s ever learnt
  • Don’t panic if all your training seems to vanish, make everything easier and up your rewards and reinforcement
  • At this age your dog is going through huge internal changes which will impact behaviour
  • For more tips on surviving the trials and tribulations of adolescence, have a read of this blog https://www.adolescentdogs.com/post/teenage-troubles-surviving-adolescence

Aging dogs – you may have a good period of time where your dog seems stable and reliable with their training, but as they age more it’s not unusual to experience yet more changes or regressions

  • Sociability can change as dogs mature and age, they may be less tolerant of other dogs or less inclined to engage in social interactions
  • Their enthusiasm for training might reduce and motivation may be lower
  • This isn’t a sign of your training going wrong, but it’s worth considering whether your dog is experiencing some pain or discomfort as they age. Pain can cause behaviour changes and appear as a regression in training progress
  • There’s some level of acceptance that an older dog will change in some ways and we have to adjust our expectations to fit with this

Unavoidable Experiences

Regressions in training can be caused by different experiences your dog has.

  • Negative encounters on walks or at home can trigger a regression. For example, if your dog is worried by other dogs, having a bad encounter can set your progress back. Remember what we perceive as ‘negative’ may be different for our dogs, only they can decide what’s truly negative for them. Even well-intentioned interactions can cause setbacks if your dog deems it negative
  • A sudden fright can cause negative associations, especially for more sensitive dogs. For example, a loud noise or a painful experience might cause a regression in training, especially if it’s linked to an area of training you’re already working through
  • Behaviours reinforced by someone else might impact your training in a negative way. These experiences don’t always have to be something bad; it applies equally to things like people letting your dog jump up or allowing them to pull on the lead. Even something like a successful attempt to steal picnic food or take a treat off another dog owner can cause a sudden training regression… your recall training might need some more work again now!

If your training has regressed due to experiences your dog has had, you need to think about what experiences have led to the setback and then adjust your training accordingly. If your dog has been spooked or had a negative experience, you will need to go back to earlier steps of training, reinforce more heavily and potentially change or manage their environments until you have rebuilt some confidence and trust.

If behaviours have been reinforced by other people, you need to manage your dog’s environment more carefully to make sure these behaviours can’t be further reinforced. In the earlier stages of training your dog will be more susceptible to setbacks so it’s important to maintain close management and be prepared to return to easier steps or increase reinforcement.

A Lack of Consistency or Management

Sometimes we do have to accept a level of responsibility. Training progress and behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen without continued work. You wouldn’t expect to master a complex new skill within days, so why should it be any different for our dogs?

  • If you try to rush training you are more likely to experience setbacks so don’t be afraid to go back a step and take things slowly. If you’re experiencing regression rather than progress, think about whether you need to change your method or slow your training down
  • Set your dog up for success – learning should be positive and your dog should find it reinforcing, if it’s always too difficult or they’re experiencing high levels of stress and frustration then regression will outweigh progress. You can set up for success by ensuring your dog is always capable of learning and thinking, don’t overwhelm them or train in difficult environments before they’re ready
  • A backwards step isn’t a bad thing, if your dog is struggling then make changes to help them out. Returning to easier environments or taking some breaks is no bad thing. Progress will happen when you work within your dogs’ capabilities, while always being prepared to take steps back if needed

Tiredness, Over-Arousal and Stress

Our dogs will always be influenced by the environment around them and their daily experiences. Just as you will struggle to focus and think carefully if you’re overwhelmed with stress, so will your dog. Understanding what may impact your dog’s behaviour is important so you’re able to adjust your expectations and adapt to help them.

  • Regression is normal in times of stress – a busy weekend, a stressful experience, or an exciting, tiring day can all affect how your dog behaves. It can look like they’ve forgotten their training, but actually they’re just not in the right mindset
  • Don’t push it too far – if your dog is struggling, don’t keep pushing and asking for more. Just STOP. Let them sleep, give them a rest day, do something easy and fun … it’s not all about perfect behaviour and intensive training, sometimes you have to stop and do something different
  • This doesn’t mean you just let them practice the behaviours you’re trying to change, you can pause your training goals, use some management methods and let your dog get through their tiredness or stress before you resume your training

Habits Don’t Change Overnight

If you’ve ever tried to break a habit, you’ll know how hard it can be. It can be exhausting and frustrating. Our dogs are no different, old habits and well-practiced behaviours will come more naturally to our dogs and often be their first choice until new behaviours become more established habits.

  • When your dog is more tired or stressed, old habits can often reappear as these pathways in the brain are easier to follow. A tired or stressed dog will find it harder to think and process information effectively, so the old well-practiced behaviour will come out more readily than the newer one
  • Old habits can be quickly reinforced again and unintentional setbacks can happen very quickly, this regression is normal but it’s all part of the learning process

There are many reasons why you may see regressions in your training, sometimes there are causes which are beyond our control and sometimes we do have to take a level of responsibility. However, don’t get caught up on blaming yourself or feeling like your dog is a lost cause, these regressions are all part of the process and sometimes they’re actually a really positive sign that your training is having an effect, you just have to ride the wave of regression at times.

Each time you experience a setback, you should find you can rebuild again more quickly than before. You may feel as though you’re back at square 1, but what perhaps previously took you 6 months to achieve will likely progress much quicker this time. It’s important not to get disheartened and give up at this point, focus on the fact that you made progress before so you can make progress again!

If you find regressions are constant, it’s always worth considering whether there are other aspects influencing your dog and their training or behaviour:

  • Pain, discomfort or underlying health issues can have considerable impact on behaviour. Getting a thorough vet check or a physio assessment can help rule out underlying issues contributing to behaviour or lack of progression
  • Your dogs own limitations. We can work on behaviour and training, teach new skills and habits, but ultimately we are working within limits. Your dogs past experiences or genetics may mean there are some things you can never change completely. Accepting an achievable level of progress is important otherwise you will always be left frustrated and disappointed
  • Less can be more. If you put too much pressure on your dog or yourself, this can limit progress and create more struggles. Sometimes you just need to take a step back, enjoy your dog for who they are and manage their lifestyle to reduce the challenges they face. You never know, you may see even more progress simply from taking the pressure off!
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