Chill Out! Decompression Tips For New Foster Dogs

Shelters are stressful environments full of strange noises and smells. All of that can be overstimulating for a dog, causing them to act out in ways that they might not normally. Your new foster is going to need quiet time in your house. Basically, the dog needs to CHILL OUT.
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(Animal Cruelty Task Force of Ohio foster and sanctuary dogs playing in the morning)

Congratulations, you've decided to join the world of altruistic fosters! You are opening up your house, your life, your kids and your other pets to a new dog that might otherwise be put down at your local shelter. You are literally, becoming a life saver.

Now what???

The first three weeks after bringing a foster dog into your home are the most critical weeks to set your new dog up for success, and ensure a successful and peaceful integration into your home.

Each dog you take in, is an individual with its own needs. Each dog will have its own past/history to overcome with your guidance.

But the following, is a general "how to" guideline on the basic steps every foster should take as they bring a new dog into their home. Some of these steps may seem unnecessary but we only take in dogs that are victims of cruelty or have behavior problems. The extra steps and the extra time ensure a smooth transition for us to the tune of hundreds of dogs each year.

(Jitterbug and Jersey were both euthanasia listed and not supposed to be good around other dogs, Jitterbug says ttthhhpppttttt to all that noise, though!)

Step 1: Chill Out!

Shelters are stressful environments full of strange noises and smells. All of that can be overstimulating for a dog, causing them to act out in ways that they might not normally.

Your new foster is going to need quiet time in your house, before anything else. Basically, the dog needs to CHILL OUT, which we call "decompression time." Skipping this step is a sure-fire way to make sure you have problems.

You should have a quiet, crated area for your new foster to decompress in. Get it out of your head that a crate is a form of punishment. Every tool can be used properly or improperly, properly used a crate gives a dog a safe, "den like" area which is very natural to them. Make sure the foster dog is provided with lots of ways to be stimulated mentally (Kongs with frozen peanut butter, interactive toy games, etc). I also have music playing 24/7 in the room. Specifically, classical music, since the piano tempos slow down the racing heart-beat of a stressed dog.

Stressed dogs destroy crates and act out. Calm dogs do not.

(Rescued Ohio foster dog in a 2-week, crate and rotate system)

(This sweet dog came from an abusive environment and is very scared. She will need even more time, and even more patience but Buckeye Bulldog Rescue is giving her all of that, and then some in a safe and appropriate environment.)

Step 2: Smell Before See. See Before Touch. Repeat. Smell Before See. See Before Touch.

Dogs can learn a lot about the world through their nose. In fact, it is their most powerful sense.

A dog's nose is thousands of time stronger than ours, which is why some dogs can detect oncoming seizures and other medical emergencies with their owners, before they happen.

(oh hi, nice to meet you! Letting dogs learn about other dogs in a natural way, with The Backyard Dog Project)

We also already know that our foster dog is coming into our house already overstimulated from too many people, dogs noises and sounds at the shelter, and we need to help the dog decompress. Not only does this alone time let the dog relax, it also allows the dog to explore your house with his nose, while crated and secure but still learning about your other pets, children, etc without the stress of a face-to-face meeting where body language might be misunderstood.

This will probably be one of the most time-consuming but most important parts of the fostering process. But if you do this step properly, life will resume to a certain degree of normalcy soon.

Here's how it works at my house: My dogs all go out the back to potty in the yard. The new foster dog comes out of his crate and immediately goes out the front door to potty.

The new foster is then allowed to come inside and explore the larger part of the house, and typically they will go right to where my dogs hang out and start rolling around and exploring those scents. After a minute or two, the foster gets a delicious treat and goes to enjoy it in his crate.

My dogs come back inside and they immediately start rolling around too, smelling the new dog and getting used to him. Then they all get rewarded with delicious treats, too.

New dog smell=GOOD.

I will never put a time frame on how long the "smell before see phase" lasts. Each dog is unique and will need more, or less time. I gauge it more on the body reaction of all the dogs in the house.

If you're unsure about reading dog body language, you should probably learn a little more before bringing in a new dog to foster since missing or misunderstanding their cues causes most problems with new dog greetings.

Now, you open up another sense for the dog which is the sense of sight. The dog's position in the house remains relatively the same but the door is opened up and then baby gated shut.

The dog still spends more time in their crate than the other dogs, and you offset that by spending more time out of your day exercising the dog individually; ensuring that all of their physical and mental stimulation needs are met.

Now, when your dogs go to the bathroom, if your fence is more open and visible on both sides (like a chain-link fence), you can bring your foster dog around from the front yard so everyone can see each other while they go to the bathroom.

Keep your foster dog moving around the house and reward positive body language while redirecting unwanted body language. Don't let them sit in one spot and stare at each other, and gauge their reaction to seeing the other dogs.

If you need to start off at 50 ft away, start off at 50 ft away. If you can be a few arm's lengths from the fence without any problems, then start there.

(Molly, from Sheltered Paws, in the "see but don't touch" phase as she integrates into a multi dog household after being rescued from a shelter.)

Did you just decide to foster a 9 month old puppy? I hope you're a runner! Or a longboarder, like me. Because your dog is going to need A LOT of physical stimulation and it's not going to come from playing with your other dogs just yet.

It's going to come from you, the committed foster who goes to bed a little earlier and wakes up a little earlier to give their foster dog what they need to thrive.

(This is me, and I practice what I preach. I happen to love active, high energy dogs and I have an active, high energy life style to match. Different strokes for different folks but finding the right match between their needs and your abilities is key to being a responsible rescuer.)

The Greeting

I don't put a timeline on the steps above. But two weeks is the standard amount of time it takes and about how long you should plan to spend before moving on to letting your dogs meet.

Some dogs will need more time. I've stayed in the, "see but don't touch" phase for several months, with some more extreme cases.

Every time, with positive reinforcement and a focus on mental and physical stimulation and the positive projection of my own energy, the dogs have eventually advanced to the next stage.

When you're ready to get your dogs to meet each other, you have to think like a dog if you want a good interaction. Humans like to stand in one spot, make eye contact, and talk.

Dogs like to run around and move, they avoid too much direct eye contact, and they'd rather smell than talk.

So, take your dogs for a walk. A nice, long walk. Have your spouse or a friend help you and spread it out. Dog-Person-Person-Dog.

Keep everyone moving forward and remember the 5-second rule. No, not about dropping your food on the floor. If you have dogs in your house that food shouldn't last 5 seconds on the floor. The 5-second rule about eye contact. Nothing good ever comes from more than 5 seconds of two new dogs locking eyes.

Watch them, count silently in your head, and around the 3 to 5 second mark, take the lead and redirect the dogs BEFORE any negative body language, growls, or snaps happen. Reward them positively for the good, short interaction.

Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Always short interactions, always ending on a positive note.

(The Backyard Dog Project working on introducing a new dog with a good, long walk)

Dogs are wonderful, loving creatures and we've enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with them for thousands of years.

Not all dogs know how to be dogs but many are willing to learn if we help them, and if we can just slow the process down and give them time to learn.

Dogs learn through experiences, both good and bad ones. Through those experiences, they shape their understanding of the world and how to react to certain things.

(Zack was adopted and returned in less than an hour for "nipping." Rushing a greeting almost cost him his life until he was rescued by the Animal Cruelty Task Force of Ohio.)

Your dog's way of thinking can be summed up by a sequence of "If/Then" statements. If I see a dog, then I need to do this. If I see a cat, then I need to do this. If someone rings the doorbell, then I need to do this. The more we shape those experiences with positivity, and the more positive experiences we provide, the more we can do for misunderstood, abused, unwanted and neglected shelter animals that might not otherwise make it out the front door.

Everything is about being realistic with your abilities, your time and your other obligations. It's the only way to set your dogs and your foster dogs up for success. Not to mention the rescue you are helping.

Many of them will only take a dog in because someone offers to foster. If you're unprepared, you're going to place a big burden on that rescue soon as you force them to quickly find another foster while you deal with unexpected behavior problems you're ill-equipped to handle.

You, as the foster, are on the front lines of deciding the final outcome for the dog you're taking into your house. Take that responsibility seriously, and you will experience one of the most rewarding feelings ever.

(Working with the Animal Cruelty Task Force of Ohio dogs who have all been slowly integrated into my household together)

(Foster and rescue dogs from the Wisconsin Rottweiler Rescue all integrated together.)

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