What is a decompression period and how can you support your dog through it?

If you are considering adopting or fostering a dog, you will hear the word “decompression”. What is it and why is it so important?

Many dogs who end up in shelters or with rescues may have been homeless for a variety of reasons. They may have gone through trauma before that we will never fully know, and may have been fending for themselves for a while, only to find themselves in an unknown environment with numerous stressors (even if it’s a loving foster home!), such as new sounds, smells, people. This sort of upheaval and change can lead to stress and anxiety. Imagine a spring being coiled under pressure – that’s how many dogs may feel.

Once they are in a safe, secure and loving home, the spring slowly starts to uncoil and the dog starts to realize that they are safe. However, this process takes time which varies from dog to dog. This period of adjustment is called “decompression” and it is very important for fosters and adopters to be patient during this time. You may have signed a contract to officially call the dog yours, but the dog doesn’t know that and you are still a new person to them. The dog will still go through a decompression period any time they are in a new environment.

There is no specific length of time that this process lasts. In the rescue world, a general rule is that of 3s: milestones that occur after 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months in a new home which have different management techniques. 

Chart for The 333 Rule of Adoption, describing the milestones that occur after 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months in a new home.

Here are some tips to help your dog during the decompression period:

  • Do not push your new dog too much by expecting them to start behaving a certain way. They may show normal but undesirable behaviours during the decompression period, such as having accidents in the home, not engaging with people, preferring to be on their own, seeking too much attention, unwanted vocalizations, separation anxiety etc. 
  • Give your dog time to come to you on its own terms.
  • Avoid meeting new people or dogs – as much as you want to share your new friend with the world, you have to advocate for your dog first and give them time to decompress.
  • All members of the household should treat and interact with the dog the same way. You can start establishing a routine which everyone should follow.
  • You can start to bond with your dog right away, but remember that you’re new to the dog, just like the dog is new to you. You don’t know how the dog will react – we recommend leaving a leash on them for the first few weeks so you can safely move the dog should the need arise (e.g., a dog guarding their food bowl).
  • Avoid placing your dog in a situation where it may have to use a flight or fight response. Always give your dog a means to remove itself from a situation it may be uncomfortable in, such as retreating to a quiet room, its crate, or even to the other side of the couch.
  • Establish a routine and provide structure to your dog’s day. When dogs know what to expect next, they feel more confident and secure, just like us!
  • Enjoy the experience of unlocking your dog’s real personality once they have gone through the decompression process!

The 333 rule is a general guideline – every dog is unique and will adjust at their own pace.

Give your dog space and let them go at their own pace.

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