The Decompression Phase

Bound Angels Blog

There was a study not too long ago that stated that the average pit bull has had more than 3 homes in the first year of his life.  In no way should this be a breed specific comment, but since the pit bull is oftentimes the dog that is singled out at shelters, this comment cut me to the core.   So many other breeds will be a part of a similar fate and many will fail.  The more a dog fails the more likely he is to fail again.  Whether the dog is a pit, a lab, a shepherd, collie or whatever – dogs need structure.  I feel that owning, or should I say acquiring a dog is far too easy for irresponsible people.  We require a license, but there is nothing to that procedure.  At least with a drivers license you need to be able to prove that you can handle a car.  With a dog license no such requirement exists.  Now, I’m not asking for that, but I want to focus on an issue that causes dogs to land back into the shelter over and over again.  These dogs are at the highest risk of being killed and this is my greatest concern.

The less structure a dog has in his early, formative period, the more likely that dog is to develop behavioral problems.  This has been proven in unsocialized dogs over and over.  Dogs need to be taught to fit into our society and they need to learn it in a way that makes sense to them.

Most people acquire dogs at the shelter based on the way they look, taking no consideration on the dogs overall behavior or history.  Most dogs will end up being just fine, but those that don’t -WON’T!  As I always say in my private practice, if you work hard you’ve got a great chance at having the perfect life-long companion, if you don’t it’s a roll of the dice.

The most important phase that dogs go through when initially getting out of the shelter is what I refer to as the “decompression phase.”  That is the first few weeks, days or sometimes months in your home.  People want the dog to fit in and often make the biggest mistakes during this period.  They will give the dog too much love, too much training, too much attention..  everything that’s too much is TOO MUCH.  After the experience of living at the shelter the best thing a dog can get upon getting out is space.  Space that will allow the dog to decompress from the emotional stress that dogs incur at our shelters.  During that phase they should not be bothered too much, not be engaged too much and not too much should be expected of them.  Especially for the first few days… allow the dog to SEE what his new life will be without expecting him to LIVE this LIFE!  Most people lack the ability to give this life-saving space to the dog and often times the dog will fail.  The more the dogs fails, or the more severely his failures are, the more likely he is to end up back at the shelter.

The best thing to avoid this is to give the dog space by using a crate or even an XPen.  Meeting new dogs, all the neighbors and their dogs and too much freedom is the last thing the dog needs for the first few days.  A nice bed to lay his head upon (a dog bed, not yours….  not yet) and some good meals will help him learn what he’s in for – a life of happiness and love.  If you already have a dog and are bringing another dog in, give them plenty of time to meet, today is not that day.

One of the most important things that the rescue community can do is provide dogs for adopters that have been worked through this phase with qualified trainers and fosters.  In particular breeds that have issues with people and other dogs, including pits, shepherds, mastiffs and terriers would best be served by the structure phase upon exiting the shelter.  It is not  the job of a rescue to take dogs out of the shelter and offer them up for adoptions.  Rescues should not be seen as the retail arm of the wholesale shelter industry.  Rescues should be seen as the lifesaving arm of the pets at the greatest risk in our nations shelters.  Rescues can work with trainers and provide the groundwork that these dogs need to succeed in their new homes.

Again, it’s important to stress the importance of allowing dogs to see the world as a safe place with little or expectations when they first arrive out of the shelter.  This decompression phase allows these dogs to see the world as a good place, no matter how bad their experience was prior to meeting you.  I sincerely believe that almost every type of behavioral problem can be overcome with some simple interaction.  And in the initial phases that interaction may just be not interacting.