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Tips for a Stress-Free Holiday with Your Pet

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Originally published 11/03/2015.

Animal lovers find great joy including their animals in as many holiday celebrations as possible. As Christmas and New Year's approaches, it’s time for a reminder of how these holiday activities can be stressful for household pets. To understand more about the holiday stresses pets experience, and how to help them enjoy this time of year, we interviewed Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) and ClickerExpo faculty member Sarah Owings. 

In this interview, Sarah explains that even holiday decorating and the addition of holiday-specific scents can be unsettling for household pets. She provides unique training and management solutions for animals, particularly for dogs, as they are often most impacted by the holidays.

Which holiday activities are most challenging for pets?

Many pets experience more stress around the holidays than people realize—particularly when the home environment changes.

Humans have a different view of the holidays. We enjoy seeing our homes transformed with lights and decorations. We welcome the arrival of friends and family, and relish sharing food and good cheer. That is not always the same for pets in the home. Many pets experience more stress around the holidays than people realize—particularly when the home environment changes. Decorations, lights, costumes, new people coming and going, extra cleaning and vacuuming, new smells, sights, and sounds—to a dog it can all be very unsettling. Furniture gets rearranged, dog beds or crates are often put away to accommodate guests, packages get delivered more often, and, of course, each ring of the doorbell can seem like a home invasion.

During this busy time, pet owners frequently see a resurgence of problem behaviors such as house-soiling, counter-surfing, jumping up, hiding, barking, or destructiveness. Holiday food temptations are more plentiful as well (a normal scavenging behavior that often results in confusing and stressful interactions between dog and human, such as scolding, punishment, and resource guarding).

There are many more hazards to be careful of during the holidays, as well: exposed wires, choking hazards, cleaning supplies, packing materials, dangerous foods (like chocolate), and poisonous plants (like Poinsettia). As I remind my clients often, ex-pens, gates, tethers, and crates are your friends! Many people feel bad about restricting their dogs’ movements, but it is a kindness to block access to areas of the house where a dog is likely to get into trouble or injure himself.

What can we do to help our dogs through the holidays?

The best thing pet owners can do to prepare their dogs for the holidays is, before anything else, to assess the pet.

The best thing pet owners can do to prepare their dogs for the holidays is, before anything else, to assess the pet. Make an honest assessment of how well-socialized your dog really is, as well as how much time and effort you will be able to devote to helping him learn the skills he is going to need to be successful. A dog that barks like crazy when the doorbell rings, but can then relax in a few minutes after guests arrive will require very different training and management strategies than a dog that shows clear discomfort, fear, or aggression around strangers all the time.

If your dog responds to new people by slinking away to hide under a bed, or by lunging and barking aggressively, and you only have a few months to prepare for a large family gathering, the best thing to do is hire a certified training professional right away, someone who specializes in positive reinforcement (Find a Great Trainer here). Ask that person to help you come up with some workable management options. Trying to “train away” these more serious behavior issues in such a short amount of time may not be realistic.

In more extreme cases, however, the best option may be to get your dog out of the house altogether. Some people enlist the help of a friend or a family member with this plan, or board the dog at a vet’s office or kennel. If these are not feasible options, a qualified trainer can at least help your dog learn to be comfortable in a crate, or confined in a back room of the house. White noise apps, classical music, long-lasting chews and puzzle toys, calming supplements, and soothing scents can all be used to help create a peaceful retreat as far away from the party hubbub as possible. If the dog is stressed when left alone, a pet sitter can be hired to provide comfort, and to ensure that the dog gets undivided attention while the hosts are busy. IMPORTANT: If there is any risk of your dog biting or scaring guests, don’t take any chances. Crating and double-gating the confinement area is a must.

What if your dog is friendly but just gets a little over-excited around visitors? 

In this situation, one of the easiest training solutions is to teach him that the doorbell is a cue to run to another room, where you can then contain him behind a gate until he settles down. I call this game “Party in the Kitchen,” and it is honestly one of the simplest and most helpful things I have ever taught my own rowdy pack of dogs. Read about teaching the “Party in the Kitchen” behavior.

NOTE: Dogs will still bark from the other room though, so it is a good idea to keep them busy by scattering a large handful of treats on the floor, or to hand out delectable, long-lasting chews or Kongs while you go greet your guests. Once you have everyone seated, you can bring the dog out, on leash if need be, remembering to use high-value treats proactively to redirect wildness, and to reinforce calm behavior until the initial excitement has passed.

Tell us more about the “On Your Spot” game. Why it is so useful? 

Being able to cue your dog to go to a mat or bed is useful for many reasons. For example, a dog on a bed is not able to steal food off the counters, beg for food at the dinner table, or offend your great-aunt Tilly with slobbery kisses while she’s trying to enjoy her pumpkin pie.

What makes “On Your Spot” particularly effective is the way it turns the simple go to mat behavior into a game...

What makes “On Your Spot” particularly effective for over-zealous door greetings is the way it turns the simple go to mat behavior into a game, pumping up the dog’s motivation with a conditioned jackpot signal—a much more powerful reinforcer than a single treat. With a jackpot-reward to look forward to, racing to the mat has a much greater chance of trumping the thrill of racing to see who is at the door.

Once the dog is happily running from the door to his spot, the next thing to teach is how to wait there until you release him to say hi. This second behavior will allow your guests to enter the house, and will give you time to prep them on how you’d like them to greet your dog (gently ignoring, with lots of treats tossed on the floor to draw the dog’s attention down instead of jump, is usually what I recommend).

Do you have any specific recommendations for puppies/younger dogs? 

Careful socialization should be a top priority for all owners of young dogs—especially during a puppy’s first year.

Above and beyond all the fancy training and games that I personally love so much, in terms of holiday prep the most important thing to remember is that careful socialization should be a top priority for all owners of young dogs—especially during a puppy’s first year. The time and effort you invest now teaching that a houseful of noisy strangers, weird reindeer lawn ornaments, or men dressed up in Santa suits are nothing to be worried about, can set you and your dog up for much happier and less stressful holidays for the remainder of that dog’s life. 

Are there some holiday activities that most pets can enjoy?

Dogs without dietary restrictions for health reasons can enjoy their own special holiday meals. In my house the dogs get extra large raw marrow bones, or Kongs stuffed with plain pumpkin, plus small amounts of mashed potatoes and white turkey meat or giblets added for flavor. Do not feed cooked bones (which can splinter) or overwhelm your dog’s digestive system with too many rich, fatty foods such as large amounts of dark meat or turkey skin. Onions, sugar, and chocolate are “no- no’s” as well.

Many dogs love opening up their own presents!

Many dogs love ripping open their own presents. My dogs get new toys and treats every Christmas, goodies that I triple-wrap with paper bags underneath the wrapping paper, or that I have sealed in boxes. Gleefully shredding the cardboard and paper and sending the treats flying around in all directions (treats they’ll have to go find amid all the mess) is part of the fun!

What other holiday activities do you enjoy with your dogs?

We have a nice tradition of taking the dogs on a family hike New Year’s morning. My husband and I get up as early as possible so we can drive someplace beautiful and quiet where the dogs can run free off-leash without bothering anybody. It’s a great way to reconnect and feel like we are all getting a fresh start on the year ahead.

Do you have any funny stories about celebrating the holidays with your own animals?

When I was a girl, I remember we had a cat that would always try to climb to the top of the Christmas tree. It was our tradition to hang a bell in the upper branches. If it started to ring, we knew a cat attack was in progress. Mom had to drop everything and run as fast as she could to prevent the tree from toppling over with the cat clinging on for dear life. I also have strong memories of this same cat pouncing through all the crumpled piles of wrapping paper after we opened all the presents, attacking bits of ribbon, and just having a great old time.

Sarah, thank you for your help as we enter the holiday season with our animals!

About the author
Sarah Owings, KPA CTP, is passionate about reaching the difficult dog, and specializes in using clicker training principles to help transform the lives of fearful or shy dogs. As the owner of Bridges Dog Training, co-creator of Cyber Dog Online, and a regular contributor to online training forums, she is known for her innovative approaches to tough behavior problems and her compassionate and insightful teaching.
A speaker at ClickerExpo for the past three years, Sarah was invited to serve as both a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) faculty member and a ClickerExpo faculty member in 2015. Sarah’s next project will focus on special-needs dogs.

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