Canine Decompression: What It Is and Why It’s Important

As of this writing (Sept 15,2019) my wife and I have fostered 95 dogs. Some were here for only a week, some for nearly a year.  Of those 95 dogs there have been 12 to 15 people who contacted me wanting to know why the dog they got from me is not behaving as advertised: getting aggressive, peeing in the house, and generally acting out.  Of the cases where I was able to ask questions of them – and got honest answers – I found that this family almost always did just what they should not do with a new dog.  This is to toss the new dog into the midst of the family and proceed to lavish love and permissiveness on them, thinking that this will make the dog feel welcomed and loved, so it will (of course) show it’s love for them by being well behaved and obedient. This almost never works.  There are several reasons for this:

  • Dogs are not short, furry people who walk on all fours.  Their psychology differs from ours in several key ways.
  • Entering a new home with new people and new dog siblings can be a scary proposition.  Your new family member needs a little time to get his bearings.
  • If arrival at your place was preceded by a many-hours-long rescue ride, she will probably be quite stressed and maybe a little nauseated.
  • Once she is settled, he will need to decide where he fits into the social order of your home.  It’s up to you to help him do that.

What Is Decompression?

Decompression is a combination of acclimatization and recovery. An uncomfortable experience: a rescue run or incarceration in a shelter, will take a little time to get over. Recovery refers more to physical well being.  It is a necessary step in helping your new family member (adopted or foster) settle successfully into your home.

How Is Decompression Done?

I strongly recommend using a crate in a quiet part of your home.  Not in isolation – unless that turns out to be needed, just not in the center of your traffic flow.

Some people view crating a dog as cruelty.  When done properly it is not.  When done properly a dog will view his crate as his “room”, his personal space and a safe place to go when he’s feeling stressed.  A crate should never be used as punishment.

By crating the newcomer, you can safely introduce the rest of your pack (four-legged and two legged) with reduced discomfort for the new dog and in perfect safety for you.

Make the crate as comfortable as possible with a cushion or blankets, add a couple of toys, and a bowl of water.  Make sure the crate is located for easy access to an exterior door for regular walking. And check on the newbie often, preferably not en masse. Do this gently and softly.  If she wants to come out and cuddle with you, fine.  If not, then sit on the floor a short distance away and talk to her.

Feed him in his crate to start with. He will feel safer in there.  Have ONE person do the feedings for the first week or so.  This helps to establish who the top dog is, even if it’s a person.  Whoever is going to be responsible for this dog needs to do these initial feedings, and needs to spend the most time with him.

Once you know all the other family pets will be tolerant of the newbie, she may come out to explore the house under supervision.

Like people, dogs have differing personalities.  How much time it takes to fit into a new home will vary from dog to dog, but generally speaking, give it at least a couple of days – longer if the new dog seems nervous or frightened.  The former home may have had dogs, cats, and children just like your home, but they were different dogs, cats, and children.  And a different home.  It’s a different lay-out, different smells and sounds.  Everything here is new to this dog.  Give her time to adjust and accept the changes.

The Worst Things You Can Do

Sudden Immersion Do not toss the new dog into the middle of your family without decompression time.  Imagine if you were abducted from your life, everyone you know and care about, and suddenly found yourself among strangers in a strange place who act as though you should be just fine with it all.  Even in a shelter, dogs form bonds with their caretakers.  They know the dogs in the kennels near them. They know the smells and sounds of the place, they may not like it, but it’s what they know.  Being swept away to a new life, even a life of luxury, is change and change takes time to adjust to.

Mobbed by Clowns  Keep initial “getting to know you” sessions short and positive.  Limit the number of visitors (human and otherwise).  Mobbing the newcomer, especially if you’re all giggling and squealing with delight, will most likely be frightening.

Alone and Ignored  On the other hand being lonely and ignored is counter productive.

Reward Bad Behavior  If you rush in and release the dog every time she paws on the crate door or cries, you are teaching her that these bad behaviors are the means to freedom.  If you think it likely that she needs to go out to potty, get her to calm down before you open the door.  Reward the good behavior.

Let Him Make the Rules  If you allow the new dog to set his own boundaries you are telling him that he is the boss and you are subservient.  That is a horrible idea, for this will lead to aggressive behavior as he tries to fill the roll of pack leader that you set up for him.  Establish your house pet rules then stick to them. Everyone in the house needs to adhere to the same rules.  If Dad says “No dogs on the sofa” but Mom lets the dog sit with her while dad is gone, she’s confusing the dog and setting him up for failure.  Your dog will be only as reliable as you are consistent with his training.

Award Unearned Privilege  You will not bribe a dog into good behavior by offering treats or privilege.  That’s one of the differences between dogs and people.  Provide your dog with treats and privilege only as it is earned through the choices they make.  When good choices yield a good thing (treat or privilege), good behavior is reinforced.  When bad behavior results in the same rewards, bad behavior is reinforced.


Give your new house guest a safe, comfortable place to stay while she adapts to her new environment.  Be patient, let her progress at her speed.  Reward only good behavior.  Be her new pack leader.  Do this and you will have a rewarding relationship with your new dog.

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Why Good Dogs Develop Bad Behavior

Originally published March 31, 2016

The dogtor is in

Jasper has been with us for a week now. He came to us from the local animal shelter because he had been returned to them from a rescue because his bad behavior was deemed “unmanageable”. I was told this meant that he is extremely energetic, jumps on people and cannot be dissuaded from this. This is bad behavior in a small dog.  In one that is around 70 pounds it can prove terrifying to an unsuspecting recipient of such affection. And he does mean it as affection or play.

Jasper exhibiting good behavior not bad behavior
Jasper doesn’t look like a terrorist does he?

This description immediately popped a couple of presupposition flags in my mind:

1) It seems this behavior is often the result of a family adopting a puppy but making no attempt to train it. While it’s an adorable ball of fluff, jumping up on your legs eager for attention is cute. When it becomes a 30 pound dog, it’s less endearing. When it’s 50 or more pounds, the poor dog ends up at the local shelter because it’s a major nuisance and “they can’t do anything with it”. So of course this bad behavior is the dog’s fault. The truth is that no one took the effort to teach it good behavior.

A Trick for (giving) Treats

When training a dog, I find that giving SMALL treats as a reward for proper responses speeds the learning process and makes the session far more enjoyable for the dog and for myself.  But what do you do when you have a dog that is so eager to get that treat that she’ll take your thumb and finger with the treat if you hold it between them?  Here’s my Trick for Treats:

When a dog is gentle about taking treats, this is not an issue — like Ugg:

When giving larger treats (not training treats) presenting them sideways to the dog helps prevent the dog from taking your hand along with the treat:

When NOT to use treats in training

When I first start training a dog that has been living on the streets for a while, I don’t use treats at all.  These dogs are often so food-centric that as soon as they discover I’m carrying food they will do anything — including knocking me over and tearing open the pocket or pouch — to get it.  They have no idea about doing what I want them to do to get the food doled out to them a morsel at a time.  They want the food, they want all of it, they want it NOW.  That can be dangerous.

So instead I reward these dogs’ good behavior with head scratches and neck rubs.  And that may take some work too.  Dogs that have been abused or neglected for a long time are not accustomed to being touched except in violence and will be skittish about it.  Be patient.  Take it slow.  Earn his trust. Use a soft voice, and stay as low as possible so you are not towering over the dog.  That’s intimidating to them.  Also avoid staring at her eyes: her instincts tell her this is a challenge and hostility.

Once he’s adjusted to the idea that touching is pleasant, petting will serve as reward enough until you’ve gained enough respect that he will trust you to give out the food treats as they are earned.

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Progress Notes: Oct 7, 2018

We’ve taken in two new pack members this week, and are planning another facilities upgrade.

Low Rider

Seriously? Don’t you have a harness that fits?

I picked up Low Rider on Tuesday.  She went straight into a crate in the bunkhouse for several reasons.

  • She was infested with fleas.  We work hard to keep fleas out of our facility, so that has to be dealt with before she can come anywhere near our other dogs.
  • She is fearful.  She’s obviously been abused and is frightened of new people, insects, falling leaves, and the outdoors in general.  But not dogs: she ran right up to Ugg and Lady and said howdy to each.  She’s only comfortable in a crate and prefers a quiet environment to herself.  The bunkhouse is perfect now that it’s not so hot every day.  I can run my big turbo fan in front of a window and keep it tolerable in there.
  • She would not walk on a leash.  If used with a collar, she’d drop and gator-roll trying to get away from it.  A harness works better, but it has to be removed when she goes back into her crate or she’ll chew it up.  We lost a $30 Walk-Rite harness learning that lesson.  The next smallest harness I had was a poor fit, but it served the purpose while I ordered more harnesses.

Blue’s No Nip Tip

Blue is a terrier mix. As such he is naturally excitable and energetic. Blue was found as a starving stray, so he most likely was deprived of attention as well as food. As a result, he can be overly enthusiastic, even demanding, in his response to people who offer to interact with him. Telling him, “No” does no good. What can we do to redirect him from accosting his handler? Try this.

Blue is still young. As he matures he will settle down some. Once he get settled into a permanent home he will become more confident about his relationship with his People. He IS a terrier, so we cannot expect him to ever be as calm and laid back as a Basset, but he will learn better behavior.

My task with him is to help him learn to restrain the urge to jump on and nip at me as a way of expressing his pleasure at seeing me. Once we get him past that, he will be adoptable and will make someone a happy, fun-filled little companion.

For more about Blue, visit his page.

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Blue Takes Charge

Ugg and Blue got their baths and nail trimming this afternoon. I find that right after their bath is the best time to trim nails. Having been defeated by my making them all wet, even the toughest dog knuckles under and says, “Fine, do whatever you want to me.”

Afterwards I put a lead on each and took them out in the play yard together for the first time.

I kept hold of Ugg’s lead for a while because I figured if either was going to get out of control, it would be this big rowdy boy. But Ugg did fine and eventually I dropped his lead and let them play without my being an anchor, slowing Ugg down.

I’m the boss, come with me.

Blue immediately seized on the opportunity to mess with Ugg by grabbing up the lead that was dragging along behind him and attempted to force Ugg to go with him.

What a brazen little boy! Ugg weighs three times what he does.

Blue kept insisting on playing that little prank, so eventually I took the lead off Ugg. If Blue wanted to lead someone he’d have to lead himself … and he has done that (pick up his own lead and walk around with it in his mouth) quite a few times!

The two of them wandered off together. Neither showed any interest in playing, but they enjoyed one another’s company.

Eventually Blue found a ropey toy, showed it to Ugg and ran off. Ugg accepted the challenge, but when he got near Blue, Blue turned nasty and started snarling and snapping at Ugg. Ugg was shocked.

I snagged Blue and whisked him immediately and unceremoniously back to his kennel, where he stayed while Ugg and I finished up our play session. Dogs who can’t play together can’t play at all. He will get a solo play time later, but he’s done with group play for today. Tomorrow he may try again. When he learns to control that greediness he’ll be a happier, and better behaved, boy.

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Booker: No Longer the Bounding Basher

When Booker arrived here he was a 70 pound puppy with no training or discipline at all. He’s friendly and happy, and playful, but had no concept of how big he is. As a result, he’d jump up on me, inadvertently leaving claw marks, and knocking me off balance. Fortunately I am still able to stand up to that.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working with him to instill some basic dog/people etiquette. That is coming along well.

The Importance of Pack Order

The dogtor is in

We have been contacted by several families in the past year because they adopted a dog that we fostered and trained. We gave a good report on the dog as being non-aggressive. The rescue that handled the adoption also saw no sign of aggression. So why, all of a sudden, is the dog getting aggressive with the family that just wants to give it a great home and lavish love on him?

Good Dogs and Sharing

Cochise talks about sharing
Cochise explains

Many dogs are, by nature, possessive and sometimes aggressive about food. This can create problems in an otherwise peaceful home. While all dogs should have their own dish at feeding time – to control portions – treats and toys sometimes involve sharing.

If there are multiple dogs in the home, each needs to be able to accept small treats without getting grabby; trying to steal another dog’s treats. Durable treats like chew bones will last a long time, that means sharing them. People and dogs need to know who is alpha and behave accordingly.

Of course the Peoples are uber-alpha, but among us dogs we will have our social order as well. Once we all agree on that order, peace can be maintained. Problems come when more than one dog thinks it’s in charge. Being possessive about food is not so much about hunger as it is about control. Once we all agree that I’m the big dog, I can be magnanimous by sharing.

Of course, the fact that none of us is starving helps.