Some people fly through the holidays with the greatest of ease. Others need more than a little help from friends and family to navigate a big, jolly party, or even a small get-together. The good news is that humans have the ability to express what they need to fellow humans, both verbally and with body language. People may ask outright, but can also reasonably expect others to pick up on at least some of the more subtle communications of need.
People are people, and dogs are dogs. But analogies between the two species can help people empathize with their pets. If you understand how tough it is to be a human in the human world sometimes, imagine how tough it can be for a dog.
Counter-surf for a quick snack? Nope, I am
being called for training and play time instead.
The role of canine communication
Are you a person who prefers a bit of personal space? What do you do about the work colleague who leans in so close you can feel her breath on your face, or the aunt who insists on frequent hugs? You may step back a foot or two, raise your eyebrow ever so slightly, walk into another room, or leave the party altogether. People have that choice. But, frequently dogs are pressured into interactions they find uncomfortable or scary. "Oh, Fluffy is just fine. The kids really want to meet her. You should see them wrestle with our dog at home!" It is likely Fluffy was not given a vote on this plan. Sure, she may be fine with it. However, in order to know for sure, Fluffy's family needs to observe and interpret her body language and vocalizations.
What does it mean if Fluffy runs to hide under the bed? What about if she yawns, turns her head away, rolls belly–up, and urinates a small amount? What if she freezes and offers a direct stare at the toddler who grabs her paw? What if she offers the slightest lip lift, showing her teeth? To the family, all of this could seem like fun and games. But, the truth is that Fluffy is yelling louder and louder for help. If she doesn't receive any help, she may learn that the best way to get the personal space she wants is to growl and bite.
Sometimes the loudest, most urgent messages from pets can be the hardest for owners to read. A dog that is stiff and silent is a dog that may be on the verge of defending himself or his property. What about the socially excited dogs—the super-friendly, all-paws-blazing, social butterflies? Do they benefit from the same amount of close observation, management, play, affection, and positive training? Absolutely!
It would be ideal if every prospective owner were required to learn about canine body language before bringing a puppy or dog into the home—much as drivers are required to pass a test before earning a driver's license. (A gal can dream, right?) In the meantime, there are many excellent resources that are readily available to owners who want to educate themselves about animal communication.
A bad time for a bad experience
Some dogs will experience their first holiday season this winter. If your puppy or dog is between the ages of 8 and 10 weeks, or 4 and 12 months, this busy and hectic holiday time may coincide with one of your dog's "fear periods." This timing can make the holiday season more stressful. Even more importantly, it can have long-term implications for your dog's behavior and quality of life.
The first fear period for dogs, between 8 and 10 weeks of age, is a normal developmental stage during which puppies are more likely to respond fearfully to "traumatic" events. What may seem routine to you—something as common as dropping a metal pot lid on the floor—may be perceived by your puppy as traumatic. A second fear period occurs between 4 and 12 months of age, and can last up to three weeks. If your dog's age falls into the 4-12 month range, your dog already is, or is about to become, an adolescent—a developmental stage that has its own challenges (even when it's not the "most wonderful time of the year"). During this time, your dog may exhibit fear of both familiar objects and novel environmental stimuli. During both fear periods, it's especially important to protect your puppy or adolescent dog from scary experiences, and to work to create positive associations for him. When this developmental/holiday combination comes along, owners reach out more frequently for professional help. Good for them!
Canine adolescence: what to expect
Owners often get frustrated during canine adolescence. What happened to that sweet puppy they worked so hard to raise? Where did that quiet and subdued rescue dog disappear to? When adolescence coincides with a busy or stressful season, it can be even more frustrating. Setting expectations may help owners take adolescence in stride.
Expect regression. Some pups breeze right through adolescence with no notable concerns. Some do not breeze through. Some seem like they've forgotten everything they learned in puppy class.
When my Rhodesian ridgeback, Santino, was about 7 months old, he started showing avoidance behaviors at the veterinary clinic where he'd practically grown up as a young puppy, and where I teach classes. We worked through this together with the vet staff, keeping Santino's training positive and moving at his pace. It was an excellent learning experience for me to help him navigate through this. (Read more about it that experience.
Expect noise. Your dog may be finding his voice. You may have had a quiet puppy and dog for a few months, but as he moves toward social maturity, he may become more talkative.
Expect a Velcro dog. You are your dog's safe haven. Staying closer to you as they assess their surroundings provides security. Provide your dogs the comfort they are seeking.
Expect confusion and curiosity. This may be your dog's first holiday season with you. He may be confused and curious about decorations, scented candles, lights, visitors, and loud music.
Here are some ways to make the transition easier on you and your dog.
Give time and space. As you learn more about how your dog communicates, give him time (and space) to take in new experiences. If he wants to leave the party, let him.
Be patient and consistent. Keep your training positive and plan quick sessions throughout your day. Grab a handful of treats or dog food and have fun. Pair special high-value treats with the locations or stimuli that cause hesitation or fear.
Learn to play. Play and petting are great ways to bond with your dog. Get a fun game of tug on, or take relaxing walks with reduced distractions as needed.
Ask for help. Contact a trainer who encourages positive training for you and your dog. If your dog's fear behaviors seem minor, moderate, or extreme, collaborate with your trainer and veterinarian.
Keep it positive. Adolescence is when many owners turn to aversive techniques to "get control" of unwanted behaviors such as jumping, barking, pulling on leash, or counter-surfing. Misguidedly, pet owners sometimes opt for aversive training to address fear responses that are perceived as "stubbornness" or "dominance," such as not wanting to approach a dog or person, or resistance to body handling, nail trims, or ear cleaning. However, punishment has many pitfalls. The use of punishment may increase the dog's frustration, anxiety, or fear, and suppress the healthy, normal body language that expresses your dog's needs. New unwanted behaviors often spring up as old ones are suppressed. An adolescent dog that may be in the second fear period may learn that his fears were warranted—and speak more loudly next time he is scared.
Special considerations for rescue dogs
Rescue dogs—many of whom are relinquished when their original owners grow frustrated with their adolescent antics—are settling into a new life of emotional security, good nutrition, and routine medical care. Even if he's not in a fear period, a dog that's new to the home requires some observation and extra protection. Help him out by starting fresh with positive protocols for teaching manners, housetraining, and accepting husbandry handling.
"Moving into a new home can be very stressful for dogs, so a consistent schedule of feeding, play, and exercise is important to help them adjust," says Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a behavior resident with Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants. "There is often a 'honeymoon' period that can last from days to weeks, where a newly adopted dogs may appear unusually calm and quiet. It's important to watch these dogs closely for subtle signs of stress, and prevent them from getting overwhelmed—especially when introducing them to new people and situations," which abound during the holidays.
Anticipation and preparation
For the holidays, plan and practice how and where your dog will be set up long before company arrives.
Teach your dog to enjoy confinement. Being safely gated or crated in another room means fun and engaging outcomes—such as treats stuffed into frozen KONG toys.
At your holiday party, show guests
fun behaviors like giving a paw.
Plan a day trip. Arrange a date at a place your dog enjoys and feels relaxed. Going to have a party or guests in your home? Ask a friend your dog adores to host your dog for the day.
Be your dog's advocate. Observe your dog's communication and provide space away from guests. A dog should never be left unattended with a baby or toddler.
Reinforce the good stuff. Notice when your dog is doing well on his own, and offer treats, play time, and attention in response. Reward behaviors and choices you'd like to see more often.
Put him to work. Cue simple behaviors that your guests can enjoy and be thrilled by. You and your dog have been working hard in school—show off your stuff!
Monitor the door. Especially if your dog is not yet trained to stay inside a doorway, manage exits and entrances to prevent chances of an escape.
Be proactive. As your holiday schedule affects the dog's routine, anticipate and prepare for changes in behavior.
Holidays and adolescence are challenging times on their own. In combination, they can overwhelm even the most positive pet or parent. With understanding and planning, they can be navigated safely and happily, in the true spirit of celebration.
Awareness of dogs' fear periods can add to the understanding and compassion owners hope to have in their relationships with teenaged pups. Be good to your dog. Be good to yourself. Balance empathy with education and enthusiasm. Remember that there are many great resources to help you and your canine buddy, including some fantastic dog trainers. Use them! Sending wishes for the best-ever holiday season for you, your family, the family dog, and guests.
Fox MW. 1978. Socialization patterns in wild and domesticated canids (ch. 8), Stages and periods in development: environmental influences and domestication (ch. 9), in The Dog; Its Domestication and Behavior, New York & London: Garland STPM Press, pp 141-152, 153-176). Reference from: Martin KM., Martin D. 2009, 2011. Fear and the fear response (ch. 4), Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog, pp 28.