Doggie Decompression Training
How to Train aN anxious Dog or over-stimulated Puppy to settle down
Doggie Decompression is a way of using restraint or confinement to induce a dog or puppy to settle down in a variety of settings and circumstances.
When applied within the context of treating separation anxiety, it can also act as a step towards "cutting the umbilical cord" for dogs and puppies who can only derive a feeling of comfort and security from being nearby or within sight of their guardians.
Since dogs and puppies with these types of disorders have trouble calming down once they’ve gone over-threshold, inducing them to practice settling down is the key component of Step 1 of this training (over-threshold refers to the point at which a dog goes into a primal state of over-arousal and no longer has conscious control over their actions).
This simple, yet highly effective process deactivates the limbic system (the primal or autonomic side of a dog’s brain) and activates the cerebral cortex (the conscious or “thinking” side of a dog’s brain) by allowing a dog or puppy to go through the self-soothing process naturally on their own.
Once this is achieved, it’s then possible via counter-conditioning to change how a dog or puppy responds to being confined or restrained, replacing over-excitement, anxiety, and even panic with the ability to relax and settle down. This approach can also help a dog or puppy adapt to the new environment in which it finds itself when the training is applied (counter-conditioning is a technique employed in animal training and the treatment of phobias and similar conditions in humans, in which behavior incompatible with a habitual undesirable pattern is induced).
For dogs and puppies suffering from separation anxiety, the ultimate goal of the training is to help them acclimate to being separated from a guardian and/or spending time alone; however, this method can also be applied in any circumstance where a dog guardian or pet care professional needs to assist an anxious or overly-excited dog or puppy to settle down.
Negative Reinforcement: Training a Dog or Puppy to Relax in Response to Stress
Doggie Decompression is a form of desensitization and counter-conditioning that begins by applying the training principle of negative reinforcement to condition a dog or puppy to respond to confinement or restricted movement by relaxing (negative reinforcement refers to the cessation of something unpleasant to encourage a targeted behavior).
The cessation of being confined or restricted on a tether, therefore, acts as the reinforcer for the self-soothing process that precedes it (a reinforcer increases the likelihood of a behavior happening again).
Since a dog or puppy derives a feeling of relief from being released from a crate, from behind a gate, or from off a tether, regaining their freedom becomes the environmental reward for settling down (an environmental reward refers to granting a dog permission to do or access something they enjoy—like sitting on the couch or sniffing on a walk—as a reward for good behavior).
Once the principles behind it are understood, this step of the training has many practical applications for both dog guardians and pet care professionals alike, since a dog or puppy who can learn to relax in response to the stress of confinement or restricted movement can also learn to relax in other situations where it may be necessary—like when spending time at home alone, visiting the vet, being left behind at a daycare or boarding facility, or simply when an overly-excited or panicked dog or puppy needs help calming down.
Desensitization: Finding the Tolerable Intensity
Desensitization within the context of dog training refers to finding the tolerable intensity for a dog or puppy to experience a trigger while remaining at or under threshold (the threshold is the point where a stimulus is at a strong enough intensity to cause a reaction).
If a dog or puppy goes too far over-threshold and enters a state of escalating distress or panic, the training will not take effect. Finding the proper desensitization level, therefore, is an essential aspect of having success with this training.
For dogs and puppies with separation anxiety, this initially means placing them in a situation where they can experience separation from their guardian at a low-level intensity.
This can be achieved by ensuring the guardian stays nearby and within sight of their dog or puppy, but refrains from all engagement with them including making eye contact, talking, and touching, so that the calming process can take place.
It may also mean that a quiet space—away from distracting stimuli that might interfere with the training—must be used.
For veterinarians or daycare and boarding professionals working with distressed dogs and puppies, using a private room to do the training or working with clients outside the facility—either in their car (by waiting for a
dog or puppy to calm down in the car and using the opening of the car door as a reinforcer) or a nearby park (using a leash tethered to a pole or tree or simply by stepping on the leash to restrict a dog’s movement)—may be necessary.
If these options are not available or do not work because the intensity of the experience is too high—like when a dog has abandonment trauma and has trouble being left behind at a vet’s office or daycare and boarding facility—making arrangements to provide private training in a dog or puppy’s home environment is highly recommended (abandonment trauma occurs when a rescue dog or puppy has negative associations with being left behind by their guardians in places where dogs congregate and/or kennels are present because they’ve been abandoned in a similar setting in the past).
Triggers: Separation from Guardian & Not Being Able to Follow
Triggers are stimuli that cause a dog or puppy to be flooded with strong emotions that, if strong enough, can activate the primal or autonomic side of the canine brain.
For dogs and puppies suffering from separation anxiety, the stressors of being confined and separated from a guardian, or having their movement restricted from being on a tether—making it so a dog or puppy can no longer choose to be nearby their guardian or follow them around—will trigger them to feel distress or panic.
Triggers, in other instances, that may lead to a dog or puppy getting over-stimulated or panicked can be anything in the environment that captures their attention and activates a canine drive mode.
When drive modes are activated, biochemical processes take place in a dog or puppy’s body that prepare them for action that they cannot fulfill when confined or restrained—like chasing after something exciting or avoiding something worrisome—and the resulting frustration leads to over-arousal.
Over-Arousal: When A Dog Or Puppy Goes Over-Threshold
If a dog or puppy becomes stressed or over-stimulated by triggers in the environment, they have received impulses that they cannot act out while confined or restrained, and the resulting frustration prompts them to go into a state of over-arousal—also commonly referred to as “going over-threshold.”
The biochemical reactions that then take place in a dog or puppy’s body flood them with heightened energy with no outlet, leading to a dog or puppy displaying obvious and often explosive signs of over-excitement, distress or panic (like non-stop barking, lunging and whining and/or excessive panting, shaking, and pacing), from which they may have difficulty calming down afterwards.
Signs A Dog Or Puppy Is Over-Threshold
A dog or puppy should be able to go through the entire calming process within 15-20 minutes of starting these exercises.
If a dog or puppy does go over-threshold—meaning that the limbic system has been activated and they no longer have control over their actions anymore—the signs are obvious:
distress vocalizations persist at a fever pitch and do not subside;
excessive panting, shaking, pacing or drooling kick in and do not subside;
pupils dilate and whale eye sets in (when you can see the whites of a dog or puppy’s eyes almost as if they are bulging out of the sockets);
frantic escape attempts persist and do not subside.
For this training to be effective, it’s essential to find a way to reduce the intensity of the experience in order for the self-soothing process to take place, so finding the proper desensitization level is of primary concern during Step 1 and may take some trouble-shooting to achieve.
As a general rule, the initial trial should result in a dog or puppy showing signs of being able to calm down within 10-12 minutes. If it takes much longer than that, it’s probably safe to assume that the training is not going in the right direction, so changes in the desensitization level will have to be made to help a dog or puppy to successfully calm down (a trial refers to each application of a training).
Pet care professionals working at a vet’s office or daycare and boarding facility may want to work with clients outside the facility, initially, by calming their dog or puppy down in a car or nearby park, if the calming process cannot be achieved inside the facility.
Sometimes, it’s most advisable that a dog or puppy guardian work with a professional dog trainer in their home before attempting to carry this training over in a place where the stakes will feel much higher to a dog or puppy (like at a vet’s office or daycare or boarding facility).
Counter-Conditioning: Shifting a Dog or Puppy’s Mindset
Once a dog or puppy has calmed down and is in a conscious state of mind—meaning the cerebral cortex has been activated—the counter-conditioning process can begin.
Step 2 of the process, therefore, is about assisting a dog or puppy to acclimate to the decompression area, or being restricted on a tether, by creating positive associations with being confined or restrained.
This is done by giving them something enjoyable to do like chewing on a digestible chew, searching for food rewards in a snuffle mat, or extracting treats from an enrichment toy like a food-stuffable Kong.
In the case of helping a dog or puppy acclimate to a vet’s office or daycare and boarding facility, it’s very important to work on both shifting a dog or puppy’s mindset about being confined or restricted, as well as about where they are and whom they will be interacting with, during the course of their visit or stay.
In these instances, playing training games using treats or toys can help facilitate that a dog or puppy bonds with staff members and feels better about their surrounding environment (rather than focusing on getting them to spend more time in confinement or on a tether).
3 Steps to Training a Dog or Puppy to Relax
Step 1: Put your dog or puppy in a crate, behind a gate or on a tether
Step 1 of Doggie Decompression teaches a dog or puppy that, the quicker they calm down, the sooner they will be let out from a crate, from behind a gate, or from off a tether.
It's a good idea to have high-value treats ready to give a dog or puppy whenever they are put in a crate, behind a gate, or on a tether. This creates positive associations with the process of being confined or restrained, which will make it easier to confine or tether them again for subsequent repetitions of this exercise.
It's also important to pick up toys or chews from the floor so that there's little else for your dog or puppy to do besides settle down.
If you are using a tether, make sure that the tether is short— about as long as your dog or puppy's spine—to ensure their movement is restricted enough that they can only comfortably stand up or lay down.
Once a dog or puppy is in a crate, behind a gate, or on a tether, it's important for a guardian to withdraw all interactive engagement with them including direct eye contact, talking, and touching, while remaining close-by.
This means that a guardian will sit on the other side of a crate door, stand on the other side of a gate, or hover nearby a dog or puppy on a tether—remaining in full sight and in very close proximity to them—while completely and totally ignoring them (except when “side-eyeing” them to periodically to check on their progress).
Remember, it’s a guardian’s presence nearby and in full sight that gives a dog or puppy enough comfort and security to be able to go through the self-soothing process naturally on their own.
A good gauge for whether or not the calming process is going well or not is how long it takes for a dog or puppy to calm down. If it takes them more than 5-10 minutes to calm down on the first round, the intensity is probably too high and adjustments to the desensitization level that lower the intensity of the experience for the dog or puppy will need to be made.
For instance—when using a gate for training—a particularly anxious dog or puppy may, upon realizing they’ve lost access to their guardian, have a hard time calming down. When this happens, a guardian CAN and MAY stand on the inside of the gate to provide their dog or puppy with the comfort of their presence, but would continue to completely ignore their dog or puppy until they’ve calmed down.
Once a dog or puppy has gone through the self-soothing process and has completely settled down—meaning that they are no longer showing signs of distress, but are instead quietly laying down—let them out of a crate, out from behind a gate, or off a tether for a brief break (from 30 seconds up to 2 minutes, depending on the energy level of the dog or puppy).
Remember, it’s the actual physical release from confinement and regaining of their freedom that becomes the reinforcer for settling down, plus this gives your dog or puppy a chance to stretch their legs for a minute and shake off some stress before returning back for another round of going through the self-soothing process again.
It’s also totally fine to play with a dog or puppy when they are on break, since playing in between training trials helps to create positive associations with their overall experience with this training.
Repeat 3-5 times until your dog or puppy can remain calm on their own.
Step 2: Creating positive associations with being restrained or confined
Once a dog or puppy has gone through the calming process 3-5 times and can remain relatively calm on their own, move on to Step 2.
Step 2 of the process is about creating positive associations with being confined or restrained while separated from a guardian in whatever environment a dog or puppy finds itself (i.e., while in a crate, behind a gate, or on a tether, whether in the context of being at home or in an unfamiliar setting).
This is easily done by giving a dog or puppy a variety of high-value food rewards (perhaps stuffed inside a snuffle mat or treat tower), digestible chews, marrow bones, or Kongs stuffed with something yummy (anything spreadable like peanut butter, cream cheese, liverwurst, or wet dog food works well) to keep them occupied while they are confined or restrained.
The act of eating, in and of itself, aids in the calming process because it sends a signal to the dog or puppy’s brain that the digestion process has begun, which immediately lowers their heart rate.
Pairing food with confinement and restraint also helps to change a dog or puppy’s perception of these events from negative to positive, a process referred to as counter-conditioning, which can also facilitate that a dog or puppy develops positive associations with the people and events occurring in the same vicinity when the training takes place.
Something to keep in mind is that the food rewards must be of high enough value to the dog or puppy to override their initial stress response and overall reluctance about being restrained and confined.
We recommend using anything from string cheese, hot dogs, and high-quality wet dog food, to Sojo’s freeze-dried raw treats or real meat chunks of boiled chicken, beef, or lamb, to help foster positive associations with the training process.
Step 3: Going incrementally farther away and out of sight
A dog or puppy guardian should then work toward moving about their home or office normally, going in and out of sight in brief increments, to help their dog or puppy to get used to seeing them disappear periodically while not being able to follow them, and still remain calm.
If a dog or puppy does show signs of distress, a guardian simply needs to return back in sight or nearby, but continue to not engage with them, to prompt them to go through the self-soothing process again. Once calm, a guardian should then try moving around and going out of sight again, but perhaps for even briefer moments, to ensure their dog or puppy stays under threshold.
The goal with this leg of the training is to help a dog or puppy remain calm while confined or restrained, so it’s important to proceed in increments that a dog or puppy can tolerate, backtracking if they show signs of distress.
When doing the training in a vet office or daycare and boarding facility, a guardian will step away or out of sight—perhaps out the front door, and then return back in sight and nearby—in very short increments, literally disappearing for only a second at first, before returning.
Dog training expert, Alexandra Bassett, CPDT-KA, is the owner and lead trainer at Dog Savvy Los Angeles, a Los Angeles dog training company that specializes in positive dog training and solving problem dog behaviors like dog separation anxiety, leash reactivity, and dog aggression. She is certified as Knowledge Assessed by the Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) and is available for online dog training sessions via Skype.