For many of us, that special time of year — from sometime in early November thru the first of January — is a magical time. It’s the holiday season. But if we are dog owners, this time of year may be a real cause for concern. How will our dogs behave around lots of people ringing our doorbell and coming into our home? What will our dog do when we put up the gloriously decorated Christmas tree with beautifully wrapped presents underneath? What about all the special food laid out for our “human” guests to enjoy? How will he handle all the hustle and bustle and comings and goings?
It’s scary to imagine that in less time than it takes to say, “Happy Holidays,” the dogs have torn open packages, chewed the collector’s ornaments, bowled over a guest, unplugged the flashing lights, pulled the roasting pan from the trash, eaten the cookies, sent Grandma’s good china shattering to the floor and vomited on the rug. Instead of listening to carols, you’re busy looking up the phone number for the emergency vet clinic or profusely apologizing to guests because they need to “leave early” because of your dog’s relentless jumping up, or barking at them.
This is a good time to remind ourselves that all dogs are different. They have different personalities. While one dog may revel in the change of pace, another may find it a confusing, stressful time. Your normally placid dog may suddenly begin to exhibit unusual behaviors, such as stealing food, jumping up on people, or growling or snapping at visitors. As owners and “pack leaders”, we need to communicate and demonstrate to our dogs that while their world may be different during these times, we will continue to keep them safe, well managed and secure.
So what can we do now to help prepare ourselves and our pets for these holiday season challenges? Fortunately there are a lot of good answers to this question. To get you started, we will explore just some of them.
Begin working NOW on your dog’s greeting manners if you plan to have guests. Have a friend help by knocking on the door while you practice SIT and STAY with your dog. Teaching your dog what to do when guests arrive will save you and your dog stress from constant correction. Some people teach their dog to “go to your mat” as soon as the doorbell rings.
Keep feeding and exercise routines the same before and during the holidays. Changes to these routines might make your dog feel uncomfortable and anxious. This could bring out unwanted behavior issues. If you cannot be available to care for the dog at times during the holidays, designate a friend or family member or your local doggy daycare center to provide meals, walks and continued companionship.
Provide your dog with a good “safe zone” place where he feels safe and comfortable. Let your elderly or very shy dog, for example, decide if things are too stressful to remain with the group. Your dog should be able to “escape” to some place away from all the hustle and bustle. It could be a crate or a laundry room or perhaps a basement area. Be sure to give your dog lots of interesting things to do while he is alone – Kongs, toys, food dispensing toys, pigs ears, etc.
Put the food bowl away for a while and feed all of your dog’s meals from Kongs stuffed with his kibble. This takes time and energy to consume breakfast and dinner while you’re busy doing other things. For larger dogs, it might take 4-5 large Kongs to hold all of a meal.
Anticipate your guest’s arrivals and confine your dog to prevent it from escaping or, worse yet, “soiling” your guest’s clothes with an unwanted jump.
Before your guests arrive, take your dog on a long walk or stimulating doggie adventure. It will take the edge off your dog (and you!) and give you a calorie deficit in preparation for all those gourmet hors d’oeuvres that will be passed around.
Try your best to include your dog, don’t exclude. It can be frustrating to be kept alone and away from al the fun! Don’t banish your dog during holiday activities, but do encourage good manners by requiring that he or she stay on the dog bed, in the crate, behind the baby gate or tethered during the holiday meal.
If overnight guests are joining you for the holidays, orient them with a list of your dog’s rules and etiquette to ensure your training efforts are consistently reinforced. For example: no feeding from the table, no approaching the dog when he or she is sleeping or eating, feeding only “approved” treats, etc.
Happy New Year! Your dog has sensitive hearing and thus the fireworks, bells and whistles of New Year’s revelers can be very frightening. Be sure your dog is in a safe place away from the noise and that he or she can’t escape from your home, yard or auto. Microchip your dog so that both of you can get reunited quickly!
Holiday gatherings can be very over-stimulating for dogs and kids alike, so never leave the dog alone with any little people, even his own kids. Interactions between the dog and kids should be strictly supervised by an adult who’s dog-savvy enough to know when your dog needs a break. Apply the same rule to dogs and children that you would use for managing children around swimming pools in the back yard!
If your dog is the excitable or anxious type, he might benefit from an over-the-counter remedy, such as Rescue Remedy, to help keep him calm down and relax. Ask your veterinarian about his or her recommendations as well as how much you should use and how often. Comfort Zone or DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) is another good homeopathic option that can also help to maintain your dog’s calm demeanor.
During holiday gatherings, keep a watchful eye for plates and cocktails left at dog level. Since good intentions are prone to fail with so much going on, consider confining your dog to his crate or another room while your guests are bustling about (make sure he has something wonderful to do while he’s there) just to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.
Be always mindful about heath and safety concerns during the holiday season. Be vigilant about things like: Turkey bones can pose a choking hazard for dogs; Keep things like holly, mistletoe and poinsettia plants out of reach from your dog because they are poisonous to dogs; Avoid glass ornaments, which break easily and may cut a dog’s feet or mouth; Keep burning candles on high tables or mantels and well out of the way of your dog’s wagging tail; and the list goes on.
Much of this is just common sense that we would use around young children during this joyous and festive time of year. With that in mind, we wish all of you a joyous, happy and safe holiday season. And we extend to all of our furry friends, many holiday woofs and lots of joyous wags.
Written by Skip Daiger & Kay Lampe
Professional Dog Trainers and Volunteers at Wayside Waifs