Decompression is a buzz word that is used with almost all fosters, adoptions and rescue organizations now as standard protocol for bringing a new dog home and for your existing animals to adjust (or so I hope). There are tons of articles and blogs addressing decompression specifically, and rightfully so. But it isn't, for many new or resident dogs enough to set up an immediate or more importantly long term successful placement. I want people to be aware that decompression is just one important part of the process of bringing in a new animal to their home.
If you aren't familiar with decompression, that's ok we will summarize its definition and function. It is essentially a time period that varies from individual dog to individual dog that allows the new dog to observe, develop a calm mind state and destress from a shelter environment or from transitioning from one environment to a new one. The essential function of decompression is to give a dog who has been through much instability a chance to slowly familiarize them self with the overwhelming newness and change that has been thrust upon them as well as give the resident animals time to observe from a distance the new arrival in their family. It also helps the humans and new dog take the pressure off of too much interaction too soon. This period of time basically gives the new dog, existing animals and humans time to adjust within their own space and time frame to prepare for healthy introductions and immersion into the home and with the family.
If decompression is so therapeutic, why alone isn't it enough to follow decompression protocol and then move forward with full immersion into the home and with other animals? GREAT QUESTION! And there in lies the problem as well. It is the assumption that decompression is the first and only step in preparing your new dog or new animal and existing animals for such a big change. Decompression is part of the process, rather than the whole process. Yes we should be giving ample time for all to adjust but when doing that we shouldn't undo all that patience, mindfulness and structure with a free for all that induces stress and too much environmental change all of a sudden. The worst thing we can do is give our dogs decompression and then take it all away. Some behavioral signs that decompression was too short, not done properly or used without next steps are:
Ok, so now that we have all agreed that decompression is a vital first step to successfully placing a dog into a new home. What are the next steps to ensure that we are building on the healthy mind frame post-decompression?
Once you feel like your dog and resident dog(s) have had enough time to not be overly aroused and charged by each others presence in the home we want to create structured, supervised and routine interactions that develop feelings of predictability and trust. We can accomplish that by having kennel rotations and baby gate spaces that provide interactions with a safety barrier. We want to help our dogs learn to be around each other neutrally and positively before we have them on walks together, leashed together or fully free together. While setting up the environment to eliminate triggers, such as feeding separately, removing bones and toys and providing brain and nose work for pent up energy so energy is not solely directed to dog on dog, we should also be simultaneously teaching our dogs basic words so we can communicate, develop learning histories, speak the same language, guide and coach behavior, reinforce behaviors we want to see more of and give dogs a sense of security and skills to offer conditioned responses instead of purely instinct.
Training play and training walks are some of my favorite skills to teach pet parents. Most of us are waking and playing with our dogs anyways, why not use those naturally reinforcing experiences to learn and create a stronger bond? There is no reason not to! When walking stop every house length and give your dog a task, such as, look, sit, come, down, return, touch, etc. The more our walks are geared toward connection the more our dog will practice good choices and filter out the environment as not as rewarding as you. The environment is full of distractions so teaching our dog to focus, center and connect with us not only builds the bond but reduces reactivity as well. This is the same for training play. Play releases so many endorphins and is just plain fun. Use the toy as the reinforcer to shape and reinforce sits, drop, leave it, fetch, find it and even tricks! You may be asking yourself what does training play and training walks have to do with a dog feeling mentally sound in your home and with your pack...EVERYTHING! A dog that has pent up energy that walks ahead of their owner primed for reactivity is going to not only neurologically have part of their adrenal system heightened but they will practice unhealthy perceptions that are then conditioned and rehearsed in your backyard and home. A dog that practices connected walks before he spends time with dogs in the household is going to have their brain worked more and have less pent up energy to direct toward impulsivity and have practiced defaulting to commands from you, for you and with you. That is a dog that can be redirected and coached to make healthier choices once inside your home and when given more and more freedom over time. Not to mention that when walking both of your dogs you now have a behavioral expectation with cues that can help them walk together with ease and structure. You are in control of the energy instead of enabling them physically and mentally to take over the walk with heightened arousal systems. Overall, moving from decompression to relationship building using science based positive reinforcement and making the time together teachable moments that are purposeful you will have helped create an environment that does not overwhelm your dog but coach them into gaining trust, confidence, familiarity, predictability and structure. All things your dog and resident dog need to live cohesively together.
If we are following decompression for the overall well being of the entire household it only makes sense that we then take the next necessary steps of our behavioral plan as a transition into a post-decompression phase that includes careful and methodical next stages to continue to be a support system for each animal that is getting to know their place in the family, how to feel about each person/existing animal and to nurture confidence and steady growth. A thorough decompression plan is incomplete and insufficient without a post-decompression plan to accompany it! Stay the course and reach out to a professional if you need help creating harmony among your newly adopted animals and your current ones.