Look After Your Dogs During the Holidays!
This goes for any holiday, not just Christmas. However, with the run up to Christmas almost having come to an end, and New Year fast approaching, I felt I should get this out there.
All and any holiday seasons can be really stressful for our dogs. Their routines are turned upside down, there are strange and interesting decorations around the house, people both whole they know and who are new are coming and going, and the food just keeps being cooked - smells, temptation may create an attempt at taking something.
Breaking all of these down into individual situations might be very manageable for a lot of dogs. It isn’t too stressful if your dog’s stress hormone and excitement hormone levels have time to reduce back to their basal (normal) level.
But, during Christmas, New Year, Chinese New Year or any other wonderful holiday where people get together and celebrate, these single stresses, both positive and negative, are stacked on top of each other over the period of a few days. This can push even the most relaxed dog to build up stress hormone to the point of overwhelm and eventually past their threshold.
When a dog passes its threshold, the stress levels are beyond what they can control easily, leading to a freeze, flight, or fight response. Being that you are likely going to be in your own home, freezing and running aren’t very realistic options in the dog’s mind, as such your dog will potentially move into a fight response. This means your dog is more likely to be reactive and possibly growl, snap, bark, or even bite.
This would really put a challenging spin on the holidays if a guest child was nipped. And 9 times out of 10, people blame the dog.
So, what can we do to help our dogs in these situations?
There is a lot we can do. There is also a lot of preparation we can do with regards to training and behavioural shaping to make these situations a lot more stress-free, or at least reduced. However, to do this, I would advise reaching out to a behavioural trainer to guide you through the journey.
For now, we need to understand that if there isn’t much time to prepare your dog for this, hence we have to rely on management and communication which you would also be doing with a prepared dog.
I’ll give an overview of a few typical situations where it is important to ensure your dog is ok.
For 1 or 2 days before the gathering and the morning of, allow your dog to have a calm environment. No shouting or fast activities in the home, calm music, engagement items like puzzle feeders and stuffed Kongs, low arousal exercise like a steady jog or calming training games. Nothing too exciting. Both positive excitement and negative stress go into the same stack. As such, no beach days or dog runs the day before a holiday party.
Even if your dog is a social butterfly, the stress stacking is real. If you have multiple people coming in and out over a period of days, introductions are best done positively and as calmly as possible.
For introductions, it’s important to ensure your guest know what to do and to be patient when entering your house. This can be a challenge with children, because of this it is paramount that both parents and dog handler pay attention and act calmly and confidently in any situation which may arise.
As soon as your guests arrive, the doorbell or the knock will inevitably happen, bring your dog away from the door to another room or their bed, reward with praise and food for moving away from the door (even if they are on leash). If your dog is reactive to the bell or knock, and is barking, wait for them to stop before rewarding. With your dog either on leash or on their bed if boundary training has been achieved, let the guest enter calmly, asking the guest to ignore the dog. When your dog is more calm and the guests are ready, you can release your dog or introduce on leash, keeping the handling very loose to avoid any leash tension. The guest either standing or sitting calmly, will continue to ignore your dog and drop a number of small treats (or food from the dogs daily food allowance) as the dog explores them. Once your dog is calm around them, your guest can greet them. Knowing that it was a calm interaction. It is important to understand that this will not be suitable for reactive dogs.
During the gathering your dog will need space, whether your dog knows it or not. Periodically (approximately every 1.5 hours) throughout the day, bring your dog into another room, behind a gate and give them an engagement item like a marrow bone, stuffed kong or scatter feeder. This will help them decompress from the continual social aspect. If your dog doesn’t want it, that’s ok. They are likely overly aroused and unable to think about food. If this is the case it is even more important that you give them a good 30 minutes of alone time.
In addition to the alone time, it is a good idea to take them a calm walk in the middle of the day. This completely removes them from the noises and busy situation. With this in mind, make sure you take the walk somewhere more relaxing.
There should be a few hard ground rules for you and your guests.
a) Set your dog up for success. To do this make sure all items which you don’t want your dog getting to are out of reach.
Pile coats on the bed which you don’t want them sleeping on or close the room door. Don’t want your dog taking food from the kitchen counter? Make sure the food isn’t within reach.
Christmas decorations that are delicate and potentially broken, move them out of reach.
Basically if your dog does something they aren’t meant to, it’s because you haven’t prepared.
b) The dog bed is out of bounds. No one touches the bed or the dog. This gives your dog a safe zone, preferably in a quieter area of the house if practical. Make sure the children know this as well as they will likely be the high stressors. Even if the dog loves children, this age spec makes for a far happier situation for all.
c) All guests, regardless of how well the dog knows them, should only pet or show affection to the dog if the dog approaches first. If they want to initiate affection, they should call the dog over. This gives the dog the option to decline if they are starting to feel overwhelmed.
d) Set one member of the family as the dog watcher. This person should pay attention and take action with the dog as if it were a toddler running around the house. This means that any guest being too rough or close when the dog isn’t happy, can be corrected by this family member correctly. They will also be in charge of the walk(s) and separated time throughout the day. This person should take note of what your dog is trying to communicate throughout the day. To review this, you can take a read of this article about dog calming signals.
After your gathering, both you and your dog will need some time to relax. Treat this similarly as we do the days before the event. Low arousal activities and calming environments.
Most importantly, understand where your dog is coming from. A lot of big animals who they may or may not know are coming and going into their home. It can trigger a lot of different stress within our dogs, so we need to respect that and look after our dog to the best of our ability.
Many people reading this might think that these steps for keeping your dog safe and happier during the holidays are excessive. But, I guarantee that for every reader thinking that this is excessive and that their dog doesn’t need it, there is another thinking that it’s not enough and they need more support.
This advise is how you should do it with a fairly well adjusted dog. If you have issues with aggression or extreme fear, reach out to a behavioural trainer and put in the work you need to, to get the results.