In rescue we talk a lot about decompression, and I feel it so is important to define what that means. Decompression is a dog unwinding and getting over all that has led it to be in the system up until they arrive with you. This will be different for different dogs. Some dogs have made long journeys from different climates. Some dogs have been abused and mistreated. So how do we allow a dog to decompress?
First and foremost the hardest but most important part is to leave them alone. The first day your new dog arrives will be a wonderful day for you but it is often a very scary day for your dog. They don’t know you, they don’t know what’s going on, everything is very new to them. It can be overwhelming.
For dogs that have lost their trust in people this leaving them alone stage can last a few weeks. Start small by not exposing them to too much at once, and let them sniff around on their own. If you have a secured fenced in backyard, let them explore it and sniff around at their own pace.
Walking the dog is a great way to both bond with and to let them decompress. If possible get yourself a long leash and go to an area of some nature, the woods, a big open field, etc, and just let them walk and explore and sniff at their own pace. In essence, let the dog be a dog. This doesn’t have to be the only walking you do but while a dog is still new this sort of walk should be a priority.
It is especially important during the decompression stage that we set these dogs up for success. Every home has rules. Decompression is not the time to start going crazy over rules. Set up your house to set your dog up for success. If you don’t want your dog to chew shoes, don’t leave shoes out. If you don’t want the dog in a bedroom, keep the door closed. We want to limit all opportunities for rules to be broken. You will not build trust with a dog you are constantly correcting for breaking rules they don’t know.
Every dog is different. I have met some dogs that have not needed to decompress at all. Some dogs do in fact show up perfect. These dogs are usually the exception and not the rule. The length of decompression time will differ by the dog.
This is also not to say that you need to ignore the dog when it comes home. A dog that wants to be pet and wants attention is easy to recognize. They will come to you and ask for it. It is important to remember that the dog is still new and you do not yet know it. Keep the dog asking to be pet. A few seconds of petting, and then stop and move away. If the dog comes for more, repeat a couple of seconds and then move away. Avoid cuddling the dog or kissing its head. These are not natural dog behaviours and they can be taken the wrong way. You would not cuddle or kiss a stranger you just met on the bus. It takes time with a dog as well.
To sum it up, your dogs life up until the time it meets you has not been easy. It is not right to assume they will be able to settle into a brand new place and lifestyle right away. They need time to unwind, to be a dog, to use their noses, feel grass beneath their paws, and to roll around in things that smell unpleasant. By respecting their personal space and allowing them to decompress in peace you will be setting your dog and yourself up for success in your relationship together. And their is no greater relationship then that of a rescue dog, and it’s forever.
While your dog is in decompression stage, it is important to have patience and to go at the dogs pace. Now is not the time for having all your friends over to visit. Now is not the time to allow strangers to pet the dog on the street.
Now is the time to enjoy the quiet company of your new dog. Be near them. Be kind to them. Toss them treats. Talk to then. Let then eat in peace. Let them sleep in peace. It’s hard to not shower them with love and affection but assured if you can let the dog decompress, build trust, and then help then through their initial issues, you will be able to hug and cuddle the dog as much as you want for the rest of their life.
It is possible that some rescue dogs may show up amazing and will stay that way forever. This guide is not for those dogs. It is also not often that a dog shows up that is just perfect.
Our first job is to identify what drives the dog. It is preferable if your dog is food driven. Food is generally the easiest way to motivate a dog. If your dog is not food motivated, it might be time to try a tastier treat. This must be a give and take relationship, if we are asking the dog to do something for us, we need to give them something in return. As an example, would you rather get paid in corn flakes, or chocolate chips? You would probably be more inclined to take the offer of the person who was paying in chocolate (disclaimer: do not feed your dog chocolate). In the off chance your dog is not food motivated, something else must drive the dogs. Some dogs like toys, balls being the most common example. Other dogs prefer affection.
Once you have found what drives the dog, you will be able to start building trust with the dog by enforcing your rules positively using treats, the ball, pats, etc. It is important to note, that just because the dog lets you pat it’s head, or takes treats from your hand, that this doesn’t mean the dog trusts you.
The most important thing that we can do for these dogs during this initial period of order and trust, is manage our own expectations.
If you read no other section of this guide please at least read this section. Managing our own expectations with newly adopted dogs is the single most important thing we can do for these dogs.
We live in an age of instant gratification. We post pictures and get likes right away, we send a text message and expect an immediate response. We see all the awesome things people post on social media and think, I need to be like that.
These dogs need time and patience. On average, the rule is in threes. It takes three days for a dog to figure out a place and not be on edge. Three weeks for a dog to start getting into a routine and begin to come out of its shell (the decompression), and three months to figure out that “this is home”. It is important to note that the dog may display several different personalities within this time. Dogs handle this differently, depending on where they are from and what their story is.
Northern Canadian reserve dogs live outside year round. In the winter time everything is frozen. The dogs are scared and hungry and cold. They seek food and shelter. Being friendly is the only way to survive. It’s a survival skill. So when that dog comes into your home and has no idea what is going on it is going to be friendly, because that’s what works in this situation for the dog.
Caribbean stray dogs live outside in a much different environment. There are streets and houses and people everywhere and when they are scared they run away. When they are cornered they make themselves look scary to avoid a potential fight. When they first show up in your home they may go and hide somewhere. They are scared their first instinct is to run for it. Give them space in the home. They could very well be very loving friendly dogs but they need time.
Patience and structure are very important in the early stages of a dog coming home. Everything will be new to them and they do not know how to behave. This first three month time window is the most important period of patience and structure with your dog. It is important to manage our expectations to make sure we always are setting our dog up for success!
This is the most common battle I face with newly adopted rescue dogs. First things first. They are dogs. They are not humans. They do not have the same emotions, emotional requirements, or physical needs that humans do. This in no way is to say that they do not have physical needs and emotions, simply that they are different.
Dogs are often personified to the point where we have human expectations of them. A major example of this is what is called intake day. This is the day the dog is picked up and brought home. We know we are rescuing the dog and that it has won the metaphorical lottery to be rescued (11,000 dogs are euthanized in the United States everyday, how many do you think get adopted everyday?). We are so happy and excited and we want to introduce them to everyone and show them off.
In reality this has been a terrifying day for the dog. They have most likely travelled long distances by van or airline. They have been bathed and examed and handled by strangers. They are in a strange new place, possibly in a new climate, it is a very strange scary day for them. By the time the dog and adopter meet, the dog is scared, exhausted, and starving. It’s a terrible way to start a happily ever after, however, it’s better then not having a happily ever after.
The day has only just begun for the adopter though. They want to play and go for a walk and go meet the neighbours dog. All the dog wants to do is find a safe place to sleep and eat. The dog has just gone on yet another car ride to another place with more strangers. Because even though you’ve adopted the dog and have been looking at pictures of them ever since you signed the paperwork, you’re a stranger to the dog.
This can all be so very overwhelming. Many dogs get scared and run away. The first 2 days after arrival are the are the highest risk of losing a dog. We cannot simply say to the dog “you’re safe now” and expect the dog to respond with “oh okay thanks I’ll chill out”.
This is where managing our expectations and setting the dog up for success is key. Put yourself in the dogs shoes. The dog doesn’t know you. You’re a stranger. You also don’t know the dog. They are a stranger. Treat them as you would treat any other stranger. Especially if your dog has travelled a long distance. Can you imagine flying across the world on turbulent flights and then taking a 2 hour drive to the hotel and the first thing that happens when you get to your room is a stranger shows up and starts kissing you on the head. How would you feel or react?
Just expecting the dog to get that they are being rescued and then proceeding to treat them like you have known them their whole life can be extremely uncomfortable to the dog. We want the dog to feel comfortable. Again, you wouldn’t want a stranger walking up to you rubbing your body and kissing your head.
In that situation, how would a human react? Perhaps they would yell, perhaps they would use a small amount of physical force as well as yell, perhaps they could have a violent reaction. It is almost guaranteed that you know someone who would fit each reaction. Dogs are no different. They react differently. Kissing a strange dog on the forehead may result in that dog giving you kisses in return. Or it could result in a bite to the face. If you had a 50/50 chance of kisses or dog bite to the face, would you roll that dice? By eliminating opportunities for your dog to fail (ie remove the possibility of a bite to the face) you set them up for success.
What happens if the dog does in fact bite the adopter in the face after a kiss on the head? Nine times out of ten, a hard bite within the first day or two will cause the dog to be returned. Back into the system and robbed of its first forever home. But not only do they go back into the system, they go back into the system with a bite history. This will severely limit interest in the dog and it will have to undergo serious assessments, all because it’s personal space was not respected and it was set up to fail.
Another common misconception people have is that when you adopt a dog you have to give it the world. This is not only untrue but it is extremely counterproductive. This is not to say not to ever give the dog the world, just as the above point does not mean you can never kiss your dog on the forehead. Give your dog the world. But give it to them slowly. Over exposure can lead to reactivity. And too many privileges without earning them can lead to big problems later on.
So to start, while you want to give the dog the world, it is important to remember that they do not need free reign of your house. They do not need all the treats and toys in the world. They do not need to be on your furniture. Again, this does NOT need to last forever! A dog belongs on the couch. But only once it has earned that spot on the couch! And it doesn’t take a week to earn that spot. It takes a long time to earn that spot. Months. Not days or weeks. Give them the world slowly and at their pace. We do not know all the horrors these animals have lived through. We must let them progress on their time and not on ours.
This being said, a dogs average life is 10-15 years if we are lucky. It does take months to train a dog to be a happy rule abiding member of the household. But if it takes eight or nine months, is that really a lot of time out of 10-15 years? That’s a small investment compared to the amazing return received.
Your new dog does not care for the comfort of your couch. A blanket on the floor of a quiet safe house is the lap of luxury for a rescue dog. You sit on the couch. Your dog should stay on the floor. Reasons for this include: boundaries, structure, and respect. The couch is a privilege and not a right. If your grandmother comes over and wants to sit down, the dog should allow her to sit. They should respect her personal space in the same way we respect the dogs personal space. There are things humans can do that dogs cannot. Dogs are not our equals. They are our dependents. This does not mean we love our dog less. My argument for this is going out. Humans go out without their dogs. Dogs don’t go out without humans. If your dog thinks it is your equal it will not understand why you have left without it. It will think it is being punished when you leave, or will be scared to be alone. This is commonly known as separation anxiety.
Children love dogs. Not all dogs understand children. If you do not have children, there really is no need for a newly rescued dog to meet small children. Children are both precious and eccentric. They run around, they scream, they get very excited. Do not set your dog up for failure. Let your dog fully decompress and adjust to life in your home before you think about letting kids in the park pet it. One bite to a child, and everyone loses. If you’re going to a place where there will be lots of strange children, leave the dog safely at home.
The same goes for large public gatherings. This is a lot for a new rescue to take in. We always need to ask ourselves, are we doing this for the dog, or are we doing this for ourselves? Is this large public gathering too much to soon? While socialization is important it is important to socialize the dog at its own pace.
Holidays are especially stressful times for rescue dogs. Prime example. A family adopts a dog and then two months later hosts thanksgiving dinner. The dog they adopted is a former stray dog. They had lived on the street for two years before coMing into their lives, and has been totally awesome the two months they have been together. But now there is a feast fit for royalty on the table. This dog has known what hunger feels like it’s whole life. The temptation becomes too much and the old stray dog comes out, jumping onto the table and ripping the leg right off the turkey. Table ruined in the process. The host family is embarrassed. A turkey is covered in dog slobber and paw prints. Set aside a safe place in your home for the dog to stay while you entertain. You can check in on the dog as often as you want, and it will allow everyone to have a little piece of mind, which will help everyone enjoy their evening.
To end this section, it is worth repeating that we always want to set our dogs up for success. This means working at their pace, and their comfort level. They are wonderfully adaptable animals. With consistency and time they will learn how to behave and then will be able to confidently navigate through events and holidays and such. If there is really no need for your dog to be somewhere that might not go well, leave your dog at home.