The holidays can be a blissful time filled with warmth, joy, family, and friends. But when dogs come into contact with people who aren’t part of the household, it can be stressful both for the dog and the dog’s family.
Noise, movement, strangers, children (who can dart and make unusual noises), food smells, a change in routine, can all be stressful for dogs. This is even more true when your dog has issue, though even behaviorally solid dogs can be stressed by holiday activity.
Here are some tips to keep your dog happy, keep your serenity and do so all while entertaining guests.
1. Prepare in advance!
While you’re shopping for hams and turkeys and pumpkin pie, you can also shop for long lasting chews to keep your dog occupied. If you have a Kong, there are ways to stuff them for beginner dogs and other ways to stuff them for experienced dogs. There are many articles online describing how to stuff Kongs and what to put in them. For the longest lasting Kong, you can put them in the freezer. Food puzzle toys can keep a dog busy, as can Himalayan cheese, bully sticks, and other long lasting chews.
Keeping your dog occupied can help keep stress down.
If your dog ever resource guards or growls at people trying to take his stuff, let him chew in privacy away from your guests.
2. Be your dog’s advocate.
This is the most important tip, not just during the holidays but every single day. Your dog has no voice and relies on you to speak up for him. If your dog doesn’t like to be petted by people he doesn’t know, it’s ok to say, “please don’t pet him.” And when Uncle Jim insists on petting your dog, it’s ok to insist right back!
3. Carefully manage introductions (or avoid them).
One of my own dogs is wary of new people. But he’s more comfortable with them if they’re sitting down when he meets them. And he’s even more comfortable if the stranger has delicious treats and drops them for him.
What your dog needs in order to feel comfortable meeting people, may vary. Though common things that scare or upset dogs include people moving, making eye contact with the dog, the human voice (especially deeper voices), and anything that different than how the dog expects humans to be shaped. This can include hats, sunglasses, and big bushy beards.
Years ago, someone walked into my house who was cold. He had his hands up inside of his hoodie sleeves. My dog that loved everyone, freaked out and wouldn’t stop barking!
When he took his hands out of his hoodie, the dog was fine.
It might seem odd that dogs have an expectation of how humans are shaped, but many really do!
4. Notice if your dog is uncomfortable (even slightly!)
When a dog is growling or barking aggressively, it’s easy for owners to notice that something needs to change. But many dogs show more subtle signs of being uncomfortable. When people don’t heed them, bites can result. And even if you’re not worried about a bite, keeping your dog feeling safe and comfortable during the holidays is a win.
Subtle signals can include:
- weight shifting away from the guest
- lip licking when food isn’t nearby
- whale eye (where you can see the whites of the dog’s eyes – many people think this is funny but it’s actually a sign of stress
- yawning when the dog isn’t tired
- a unusual amount of scratching or sniffing can indicate displacement behaviors because your dog is uncomfortable
If your dog is showing any signs of stress, help him find a place to hang out alone.
Photo credit: Believe In Your Dog
5. Don’t make your dog say hi to people.
Your dog should be able to make choices about who to approach and when. If a guest is forcing a dog to say hi to them, it’s okay to intervene and let them know your dog will come say hi when ready.
6. Don’t worry about guests untraining your dog.
Sometimes it can seem like guests are working overtime to untrain your dog from all of the good behaviors you’ve worked so hard to install! The big ones tend to be manners like jumping on people or begging at the dinner table.
Dogs aren’t great at generalizing and they are very capable of learning that they can jump on Auntie Mary but not anyone else. They can also learn that it’s not effective to beg at the table unless your sister is dining with you.
While you can try to coach your guests, sometimes it’s easier to just not worry about it. You won’t have months of training undone by some naughty guests encouraging bad behavior!
7. Provide a safe space for your dog.
If your dog is comfortable in a crate, sometimes it’s best to just put them in there away from all of the activity. You can cover the crate with a blanket to let them feel like they’re in their comfy cave. If you do crate your dog when you have guests over, don’t let anyone approach to say hi. A dog in a cage is effectively trapped and has no escape route if they’re uncomfortable.
It can be helpful to give your dog something to occupy him. Long form chews like stuffed Kongs can help keep them busy and feeling happy.
8. Supervise interactions with children
Kids love dogs and dogs often love kids! But it’s best to supervise interactions, especially when the kids are under 10 years old. Children are bitten 2-3x more often than their population would predict. That’s not a coincidence. Children don’t have the ability to read a dog’s body language as well as adults do. They’re also more likely to try to take food or toys away from dogs. And children are more likely to hug dogs, climb on them, and pet them in ways that scare or hurt the dog. Don’t let children hug your dog or climb on him! Even the most tolerant dog may snap if the child hurts or scares them.
9. Don’t let anyone corner your dog.
If your dog isn’t completely comfortable with people, your dog should always have an escape route.
10. Consider boarding your dog
If it’s too much to supervise your dog, or if your dog is scared of strangers, or aggressive to people he doesn’t know, it may be best to board your dog. This may help your stress levels and your dog’s too!
If you’re in the Sacramento area, and need help with your dog, let’s talk!
Kayla Block, MA, CTC