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Decompression is the process of relieving stress on your dog. Most of the time when you hear about decompression it is in regard to new rescue or puppy adoptions. There are so many articles and processes meant to guide you on how to reduce stress when you bring a new dog into your house. But what are we actually talking about when we talk about reducing the stress rate on dogs, what actually allows dogs to lower their stress level, and how do we use that in our training to ensure that when we are teaching skills we are also offering appropriate processing and relaxing?
Decompression is not “free time”. Decompression for dogs does not mean that you are letting the dog do whatever it wants- or doing a completely unstructured walk. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of how dogs think, and what it requires to settle anxiety or overstimulation in dogs.
Recently, I have seen the resurfacing of a concept that I keep hoping will die, the idea of “dog led decompression” on walks or in other environments. The concept is that dogs need time to “lead” their handlers exploring scents etc. This isn’t a new idea, and may even be useful in certain contexts- but it’s also not decompression.
Free time for dogs is fine, but it should always come with ample handler check-ins and boundaries. Why? Because it’s completely unsafe to give your dog free reign. We have a tendency to assume that decompressing for a dog is synonymous with what we may want as some humans- increased freedom. It is unwise to think that a lack of structure will somehow translate to the absolution of unwanted behaviors. At the end of the day, dogs are still animals, and frankly- shit happens.
So what is "decompression" when used properly?
Decompression is a training tool to increase a dog’s coping skills while also providing appropriate biological release of the pressure that comes with living in the human world. But much like if you were rising from a deep dive, and rose too quickly- you would suffer consequences, you are going to have a nervous or highly excited dog if you remove all structure. For example, if you are teaching a dog to have impulse control around prey animals or small dogs- you may have them hold place while presenting a distraction that mimics a prey animal (think like a squeaker toy) and offer rewards for holding position. At Ruff Translating, we would also correct any mistakes through guiding with a leash. The biggest reward is the release of earning the toy, that is what takes the pressure all the way off the dog. That, versus letting the dog just go ham on a toy with no boundaries- is the difference between teaching decompression, and overstimulating a dog.
Controlled play is an excellent method of decompression. Again, we aren't talking just free for all ball chasing or tug (which also has it's place) but play as a release from structure. A huge component of relieving stress on your dog is channeling their natural energy and interest (drive) into a focused activity as a reward for impulse control.
Here is a sample exercise you can do as part of a decompression protocol:
While practicing going into a crate, and waiting for a release to exit, use your crate door to set a boundary if your dog tries to exit before you have given your release marker. Once your dog is holding position, give your release marker (most of our clients use "break") and guide your dog into a game of food chase, ball chase, or toy chase. Repeat this exercise until your dog has a light pant, then put them into a longer period of crate rest (2-3 hours of nap time). This can be done with dogs of all stages of crate training- because it is not solely about the crate. While of course you are adding value to the crate by playing a game- you are actually getting your dog into the right state of mind to use their crate properly.
We crate train not only because we want to prevent damage to our homes or injuries/illness to our dogs, but because we want to teach them how to be still, and relax.
Decompression activities can also include puzzles, snuffle mats, high value/long lasting chewing activities, conditioned relaxation massage, conditioned relaxation positions, and working for meals.
When should you be thinking about decompression for your dog?
Whenever your dog is exhibiting stress behaviors, or you are increasing the challenge of training substantially (either for rehabilitation purposes, or not), or there are big life changes. If a member of our community adopts a dog, we generally recommend focusing exclusively on decompression for 3-4 weeks before starting any time of focused training aside from leash manners and crate training. When we are teaching e-collar, we do a lot of decompression work as the process of learning this tool involves teaching complex markers as well as practicing object permanence. Decompression is useful when you move, add a member to your household, have a new baby... the list goes on.
Many trainers and rescues will also talk about a "decompression protocol" which is just putting together exercises and boundaries meant to create a lower stress response and higher coping capability for your dog within a period of time. The key to making this a successful use of your time and energy is structure. Creating easy routines for your dog to anticipate, even if those routines vary in time-frame creates stability and predictability for your pup. This is important because the human world is scary and confusing. If you want your dog to be reliable, you need to be equally as predictable for them.
Here is a sample of what a day may look like for a dog needing decompression:
Morning: Potty Break, 1/2 breakfast fed in a slow feeder in crate
Late Morning: Structured walk 25 minute walk (in heel, no marking), 1/2 breakfast fed for offering "look" outside
Post Walk: Any remaining breakfast put into crate, 1-2 hour nap post walk
Early Afternoon: Potty Break, Practice place holds for 45 minutes in increasing durations. Periodic place releases into play.
Late Afternoon: Structured walk 25-30 minutes
Early Evening: Wobble kong, puzzle, snuffle mat (any food game) solved inside of crate, Crate rest for 1-2 hours.
Later Evening: Umbilical cord leash practice (for those unfamiliar, speak to a trainer about this) 30-40 minutes.
Bedtime Routine: Last potty break, 15 minutes of conditioned relaxation massage, high value long lasting chew in the crate, goodnight pup!
Additional Recommended Guidelines for Decompression
This may seem like a highly structured day, and it is- intentionally. One of the major reasons we see increasing or unresolved anxiety is from dogs who are unclear about the expectations before they are given freedom. Dogs tend to show a substantial increase in anxiety when there is a lack of structure. While my dogs do not need to follow this protocol all the time, we revert back into it when we travel to help establish some boundaries, or anytime we see the development of problem behavior. Training is a lifelong relationship, and there are always going to be periods where you need to refresh things to improve behavior, especially when you have a pack. This is a tool in the kit to bring your dog back down to a baseline expectation of behavior. It is the place we build off of to create dogs that are capable and comfortable with both boundaries and their doggie free time.
A tip for creating a decompression protocol for your own dog is to consider your dog's natural biology, and work with it. For an easy example- we now know that sniffing lowers the stress rate in dogs by lessening their pulse rate. One could hypothesize (and some do) that this means we should meander and allow a dog to dodge every which way to sniff. This isn't exactly capitalizing fully on this amazing discovery to reach our training goals. I find deep stress relief in cooking a very elaborate meal- but I don't have time to make a 7 course dinner every night. Instead, I make time and space for cooking as a hobby. You can kind of create the same expectation for your dog, while still utilizing this valuable biological trick. You can use a snuffle mat or ball as a higher value reward during your decompression "place" practice. We find that if we include scent-work-like exercises with our dogs we can work with them for a longer period of time with better results. You can also pick a "sniff break" spot on your structured walks. The key is to make it a conversation between you and your pup- just because they like to sniff doesn't mean that is all our walk is for, or that you will never allow them to send that desperate pee-mail they have been drafting- just that the choices are not solely up to them. It is a partnership.
If your dog is demonstrating any "back sliding" or resisting training sessions, or just generally overtired from a long ass year- integrate some decompression. Put yourselves on an accountable schedule, and stick to it for 2 weeks. Then slowly start reintroducing privileges. Your dog will thank you, and so will your trainers. Keep those pups cool, calm, collected, and engaged!