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Written by Cara Wehmhoefer
In my past year of teaching private lessons, the subject I most often run into first is decompression. We trainers see it too often: A dog gets adopted, gets thrown into a handful of overstimulating situations too soon, then becomes fearful and reactive. The same goes for a dog and family that has recently relocated. Many of these behavioral issues they face could have been managed or prevented with proper decompression.
We often hear from clients, friends, and family who are moving soon or are getting a new rescue, and the most frequently asked question we receive is, “How do I get them settled into their new space?” There are a number of answers, but what we always say is make sure they have proper decompression.
The word is very simple: to release from pressure. In the context of our dogs, it is to release them from any and all excess stress and stimuli during a time that is challenging and stressful. We use a decompression protocol mainly in two instances: when a family is relocating to a new house or when a family acquires a new dog.
Many of our dogs have struggled with behavioral challenges in the past that we are still working through and continuing to manage. Many of us also will be working through them for the rest of their lives. We do this, with the help of our trainers, by creating an established routine with a training and exercise regimen that best fits our dog. When life happens, and we move, it is important that we stick to these very same routines, but add in another layer that we call a decompression protocol.
What would this look like? It can vary depending on the dog, but the principle is the same. A decompression routine is mainly lots of time in a confined space, with short bursts of structured walks, quick training and play sessions, and supervised yard time. If your dog is not crate or space trained, make sure their downtime is in the quietest part of the house. The dog does not get very much freedom at all during this time to minimize their need to make more decisions during a heightened period of stress. This is the main purpose of decompression: to release the dog from pressure during a stressful time.
Let’s talk about moving houses. It is easy to imagine that dogs can sense a routine change. If they see suitcases, they know something is about to change. That may be a known pattern for some. However, it is very important to note that there is no way for them to know what actually is coming next. The furniture starts to disappear, boxes start to pile up, and their humans are extra stressed all the time. That is very anxiety-inducing in a dog! This is something many people miss amid the craziness of their own routine changes. Everything starts to change for your dog before the biggest change, putting them in an increased state of anxiety already.
In order to manage this, we have to keep their routine as consistent as possible leading up to the move, adding in some decompression time as we go. Supplement extra crate time, especially during the busier moments, like movers and family members coming and going. Keep things quiet on the training front with low-stimulation walks and avoid any new or harder concepts until after everyone has settled into the new place.
Another option to consider is boarding your dog with a trusted friend or dog sitter who can keep your dog in a quiet, steady routine during the busiest parts of your move. I made this choice with my personal dog, Jonas. I sent him to my trusted friend at South Shore Dog Squad in Abington, Mass., where he got daily structured pack walks, downtime in a crate, and lots of yard play. While it mainly kept Jonas from absorbing the chaos and anxiety that is moving, it also took the weight of maintaining his routine completely off my shoulders! All I had to worry about was packing and getting myself to the new spot in one piece. I got settled in, then I brought him into our new established space. His crate already was set up and ready, and I had plenty of stuffed Kongs ready to go for his crate time.
After your move is complete, make sure your dog has their own quiet space where their crate will be. Set up a noise machine or radio, a crate cover (not all dogs enjoy this), an Adaptil plug-in, or anything else you feel would enhance the space. As soon as your dog arrives, begin your decompression phase.
Here is an example of what decompression would look like in a single day. We normally suggest implementing this for about two weeks. After that two-week mark, you can slowly start to add in more freedom and privileges over time. Please understand that these are approximations and we acknowledge that every dog is different and needs will vary!
7:30 a.m.: Wake up and potty/20-minute morning walk
8 a.m.: Breakfast in a Kong or Toppl in crate
12 p.m.: Midday walk/training session/yard play
12:30 p.m.: Back in crate with snack
5 p.m.: Evening walk/training session/yard play
5:30 p.m.: Dinner in Kong or Toppl in crate
7 p.m.: Supervised free/cuddle time, on leash (This is a great time to work on conditioned relaxation!)
8:30 p.m.: Nighttime potty
9 p.m.: Bedtime
If your dog is not crate or space trained, dedicating conditioning exercises to your training time will help them to learn more settling and coping skills!
This same routine can be applied to a newly adopted dog or puppy. These dogs too often come from backgrounds of very little stability from being bounced around or living in a shelter environment. The best gift you can provide for them is that stability they never had.
Think of your decompression protocol as a clean slate for not only your dog but for you as a human. It is a chance for you to leave behind old patterns that didn’t serve you and start fresh. You never know, you may have needed it more than your own dog!