It’s the most wonderful time of the year, between all the delicious food, the visitors, and holiday cheer. This season is bursting at the seams with excitement, energy and let’s be real, stress. The holidays are over stimulating for the majority of us, and this includes our dogs. There are a lot of new (or rare) experiences our dogs need to navigate through and when our minds are so preoccupied with getting everything just right. We can easily overlook the fact that our dog may be struggling with the season.
Here are some tips for working through the holidays, and what you can do to set, not just yourself up with success, but also your dog. I’ll even add a couple of tips for if you are hosting the holiday dinner this year and what you can do to keep the peace through out the night – for everybody’s sanity!
Firstly, it is important to manage our expectations with our dogs. The holidays are just stressful in general. If you are usually a quiet household, but this year are choosing (or have been chosen) to host dinner for the family. That is a huge change and that change comes with a whole bunch of excitement. Between the stress in the air of trying to get everything to be perfect, the influx of people in the house and the energy shifts through out the night, it’s important to keep an eye out on your dog and ensure they are handling all the excitement or if they need a little (or a lot) of help from you. Some social butterflies flourish and take each change with stride but, the majority of dogs, don’t weather this storm very well. To help them out, try the following:
Prepare a quiet spot for your dog, if needed
If your dog is not having a good time, seems stressed out, or just needs a break. Make sure, prior to company arriving, you have set up a spot that they will be able to go for a break. I usually recommend your bedroom, as company rarely makes their way in that direction. But, any quiet spot away from the hustle and bustle works well. Depending on your dog, you may want to set up an x-pen, close off an area via a baby gate (like an ensuite or closet) or use a crate.
How can we help our dog decompress and relax?
You can place your dog in their quiet spot at anytime, even before the visitors come. There is no obligation for your dog to socialize or engage with guests. If you have a dog who, you know from past history, will not enjoy visiting or being social. Make sure you allow them plenty of time out and about prior to guests arriving, take them for a walk (or hire a dog walker) to get some of their energy out and offer them some mental enrichment to help tire their brains. Then, take them to their quiet spot before anyone arrives. Some dogs are not as social as others and just remember that is fine.
Now, if you do have a social butterfly, and you have the time, resources and confidence to weather the storm, here are some tips! Just remember though, even the best dog can’t be perfect – so don’t forget to keep managing your expectations, reward your dog when they are trying and don’t forget to advocate for your dog at anytime if they need it!
Leash your dog when visitors arrive. It’s not uncommon for our dogs to get excited and potentially jump up when guests arrive. To help your guests enter the house and get their coat off without being bombarded, it is best to leash or confine your dog behind an x-pen until they are able to calm themselves down a bit. This makes initial greetings much easier.
Teach your dog a solid sit cue. Polite greetings are so important, one thing I learned many years ago, is don’t allow other people the opportunity to ‘train’ your dog. There is so many myths around training and many people are just not aware how their actions are affecting the dog’s behaviour. (see this post about jumping!) It’s our responsibility to teach our dog what the expectation is for a polite greeting rather it be ‘4 on the floor’ or ‘their butt on the ground’. This prevents any frustration from guests, you or your dog. If your dog doesn’t get the opportunity to greet people often, feel free to follow up their sit not only with some pets, but also with their favourite treat!
Settle or Relax can be a life saver. Some dogs are unable to settle or relax on their own when there is a lot of excitement going on. I swear some dogs suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out) and they need to pace the house to ensure they are not missing out on any of the fun. Unfortunately, this pacing can increase their stress levels and cause them to get anxious and worked up. To help combat this, I teach my dogs a settle/off switch from the first day they are home. It is beneficial in so many ways, that one day, I’ll write a blog post about it. But for now, a quick run through to get you started.
Step 1) Get a handful of tasty treats, put your dog on a leash (if they are likely to get up and leave) and go relax. Yes, you read that right. Go relax. Watch a movie, read a book, chill on your phone.
Step 2) Wait for your dog to settle at your feet, a settle is when they lay down on their hip. This is new for most dogs, usually provide guidance when training. This time, we let them try and figure it out. This is what we call capturing. No matter what your dog does. Ignore them.
Step 3) When you dog finally settles into the behaviour, cue them with “Relax, settle, chill, lounge, rest”, chose a cue you like
Training Tip: You do not need to mark this behaviour, just name and feed while being calm ourselves.
Step 4) Calmly reinforce between their feet, after multiple treats release your dog and toss the treat so they need to get up to grab the treat
Step 5) Repeat until your dog is settling quickly on their own
When you see your dog going into the settle, say your cue. This the start of being able to ask your dog to get into the behaviour
Step 6) As your dog gets better and better, space out the treats they get for staying in the settle. Eventually they will stay settled for no treats at all, but to keep the behavior strong, thank them occasionally for a job well done
Training Tip: Do not ask your dog to settle if they do not know the behaviour on cue, we want the dog in position when we name the action of laying on their hip
Lastly, If you have a drop cue, brush up on it prior to your dinner. If you don't have a drop yet, or your drop is not strong enough, have treats available for a trade. No matter how good your dog’s self control is, sometimes they will take the opportunity presented or a well-meaning guest may offer something that is dangerous to our dogs. In order to get it back, especially if your dog does not have a decent drop yet, is to trade.
If you need any help implementing the above tips, or require any additional help. Feel free to reach out to set up some training session. But until them, Have a Happy Holiday Season!