Decompressing A Rescue Dog


This is a term that you likely have heard used by trainers and animal rescuers, but
what is it? Decompression is a vital phase which dogs go through during high levels
of stress. For example, a rescue dog arriving in shelter kennels or at the new foster
or adopter’s home. There is no time frame for this phase. Every dog as an individual
with their own individual needs, emotions, and responses, will take his or her own
time to go through this important phase. As their guardians, care givers and families
it’s our responsibility to guide them through it and allow them the time they need.
During decompression, the dog will not display his or her true personality or
temperament. It’s often referred to as the ‘honeymoon period’ where many of their
usual, characteristic behaviors previously displayed, are suppressed. This phase is
where the dog de-stresses and checks out his new environment and all the things in
it. You can’t rush decompression. Put yourself in the position of the dog and imagine
how you’d be feeling, where your emotions would be if you were thrown into a
strange, new environment. All these things take time to sort out. Decompression is
where the dog ‘chills out’. Where all the natural chemicals which have flooded the
body rebalance themselves. It’s a delicate and vital time!


PLAN AHEAD – Preparation is always key. Ensure that you are fully prepared before
dog’s arrival then make sure that you have all the essentials you need, including
stimulating activities such as Kongs, chews etc. (Have a look online for some
fantastic DIY canine enrichment ideas).
Create bed areas and make sure that they are in quiet, low traffic areas of the home.
Many dogs enjoy a den like space so crates and areas under tables can work well.
These areas should be designated ‘safe zones’ where your dog can retreat to and
have his own space. Never invade these areas and keep children and visitors away
from them. If the dog retreats to his ‘safe zone’ then he should not be followed, and
their ‘space’ should be respected. Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario
and be prepared should separation be required; this is especially important in a multi
dog home or in the case of young children. Should the unexpected occur, it is
important to have a safe and secure area where the dogs can be contained until
further assistance can be sought.


Could you imagine being taken away from your familiar environment, even a bad one
and suddenly be placed somewhere else? A place you have never been before where
everything smells different and you are surrounded by strangers speaking a different
language. Scary right? The dog’s nose is his most powerful tool and he needs time to
use it. Through scent, dogs gather all the information about the world and all the
things in it. Allow your dog the space, and time to discover this new world.
It’s vital that you give the dog some distance and grant them the space which they
need right now. As much as you want to hug them and tell them that everything is
ok, but for some dogs this can increase stress and anxiety by invading their personal
space. Consider a complete stranger rubbing your back or stroking your face….
FREAK OUT!! First comes trust…. then comes your cuddles (but only if your dog is a
willing participant). You should refrain from interaction with your dog unless initiated
by him or her. You will have plenty of time throughout the dog’s life for physical
contact but now is not the time. Right now, you are still a stranger. Relationships are
not built in a day. Avoid direct eye contact, keep your body posture soft and turned
away from the dog to communicate that you mean no harm. Always ensure that the
dog has a clear escape route from any situation or experience and never invade the
dog’s space (this means leaning in over the dog or his bed areas too).


Your dog is already coming to you under a whole blanket of stress. Some will be
hyper aroused and some completely shut down. Don’t add to their stress. Your dog is
going through a hard time and needs your understanding. Keep the environment as
calm as possible. Keep children at a distance and keep their play calm, quiet and still
while your dog is going through the decompression phase. A stressed dog is hyper
aware and can easily encounter negative experiences which could manifest into future
problems. Allow your dog to tackle one thing at a time. First his environment, then
everything else one at a time. The most important thing is to give them time and
space. Time to unwind and time to adjust. As humans we want the perfect family
dog, the perfect life and we want it now! Our expectations are held high, too high for
a dog whose whole world has just been turned upside down. Your only goal in these
first few days and weeks is to alleviate the stress, fears and uncertainties being felt by
your dog, and to build a mutual relationship of trust and friendship

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