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Holiday Manners 101

Originally posted 11/01/2012

Holidays are fun, right?

The holidays are nearly here. Visitors, music, food… what could be better?

"Well," you may be saying, "the holidays are great for people whose dogs are well-behaved, but the holidays always seem to bring out the worst in my Fido." Don't worry. You are not alone. We've all had dogs that jump on guests as they enter, or steal food from guests (or the counter).

Dog begging at a table

Photo by Ramsey Beyer (CC BY 2.0)

Taking the time to deal with a few of the behaviors that create problems during the holidays can make your celebrations more relaxed and enjoyable. If you are worried about counter-surfing, stealing food from the table, or charging people on the stairs (or elsewhere), there is help ahead.


The first time I heard the phrase "counter-surfing," I pictured a dog hanging ten (or is it twenty?) on the counter as a big ocean wave broke around him. Alas, the reality is nowhere near that engaging. Dogs that are tall or athletic enough to reach a counter often learn that good stuff is left up there. All they need to do is check the counters periodically to find food. Counter-surfing is particularly problematic during the holidays, when a lot of goodies can appear on the counter. To help your dog learn better habits:

Eliminate temptation by blocking off the kitchen or keeping the counters clear. Managing the environment is the easiest way to change a dog's behavior. If your dog can't enter the kitchen unsupervised, your dog can't surf the counters for goodies. Similarly, if you keep counters clear of goodies, your dog will soon learn that the counter is not that exciting a place.

Teach your dog that good stuff in the kitchen is on the floor.

More Tips for Safe and Happy Holidays with Your Pets

1. Set up a "safe zone" where your pet can escape from the hustle and bustle of holiday celebrations. The safe zone can be a crate or bed in an out-of-the-way part of the house. Alternatively, it might be an entire room where the door is propped open but marked "Keep Out," so that only you and your family (human and otherwise) enter that room.

2. Your pet may be attracted to paper "turkeys," streamers, tinsel, lights, ribbons, and other holiday decorations. Consider putting decorations inside an X-pen. At the very least, keep decorations up high and out of your pet's reach. Decorations can cause intestinal blockages if eaten, and the dyes and materials they are made from may be toxic to animals. Use a tree skirt to keep your pet from drinking the Christmas tree water (the water itself shouldn't be toxic, but the fertilizers added to the water may be dangerous).

3. Keep decorative plants such as mistletoe, holly, and poinsettias out of reach, since they can be poisonous to your pet. If you discover that your pet has eaten part of a plant, call your veterinarian or a poison hotline immediately. The ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 888-426-4435. You may be charged for their services.

4. Be extra careful with holiday food around your pet. Chocolate is highly toxic to dogs (as well as to cats), and rich, fatty foods can lead to painful bouts of pancreatitis. Uncooked dough is another not-so-obvious threat (it can expand in the stomach after being eaten). Even the wrappers from candy and chocolate can create problems (foil wrappers can literally cut internal organs), so make sure to keep those well out of reach, too.

5. Reserve the wine, beer, and other drinks for yourself and other human guests. Most pets weigh significantly less than people, so it's much easier for them to get alcohol poisoning. For some pets, such as birds, ingesting any alcohol at all can be fatal.

6. Make sure your trash is secure so your pet can't get into discarded decorations, food, or alcohol.

To keep your pet safe from food and drink hazards, remember the tips about counter-surfing and food stealing. Holidays always pose greater challenges since there are so many people around. Remember that management is often the best option.

7. Think twice before "decorating" your pet with a ribbon, antlers, or similar accessories, especially if your pet will be left unsupervised. Like decorations, these items may contain toxic chemicals and can cause internal damage if ingested.

8. Use baby gates and other management tools to limit your pet's access to areas that may contain hazards such as the ones listed above.

9. Make sure your pet wears a collar and ID, in case he manages to slip out the door while guests are coming in and out. If your pet is microchipped, make sure the microchip is registered and that the information in the microchip registration database is up-to-date. If your pet isn't microchipped, consider changing that before the holidays.

10. Monitor interactions between pets and your guests, especially when children are present. Well-meaning children and even adults can miss the signs that indicate a pet would like to be left alone. Be your pet's advocate, and remove your pet from uncomfortable situations promptly (this is a good time to use the safe zone from Tip #1).

Armed with a clicker and treats, walk into the kitchen with your dog. Before your dog has a chance to look up toward the counter, click and toss a treat on the ground between your dog's feet. Then, as he looks up from the first treat, click and toss another treat between his feet or nearby. Move around the kitchen, clicking and tossing treats as you go, and then exit the kitchen with your dog.

"Preload" the kitchen with treats.

After the first training session, toss a few treats ahead of you as you begin your next session, so that as soon as you enter the kitchen your dog finds treats on the floor. Proceed to click and treat your way around the kitchen, and then leave again. In time your dog will learn to look down for treats, instead of up, as soon as you walk into the kitchen together.

Strengthen the association of floor = food.

It can be helpful to "seed" the kitchen floor with treats once in a while, so that your dog learns to look down for food, rather than on the counters, even when you are not there. Be sure to keep the counters clean just in case, though!

Stealing food from the table

It may sound unbelievable, but there are dogs that steal food right off their humans' plates. If you are one of these unfortunate humans, you know that there is no way for you to match the speed and dexterity these dogs demonstrate. There is a solution, though, and it's quite easy to implement.

Set up a mat for your dog to use during meals, in a "tetherable" spot.

I suggest that my training clients set up a mat in the room where meals take place, so the dog feels more included. The mat should be positioned at least four or five feet from the table where you will be eating, and near a door or a heavy piece of furniture. Use something as simple as a towel or as fancy as a dog bed as the mat. The mat needs to be comfortable enough for the dog to lie on for extended periods. It should be positioned so that you can tether the dog to something stationary while he lies on it.

Before the meal starts, take your dog to the mat and tether him.

Use a leash or, better yet, a chew-proof tether to tie your dog securely to a doorknob or piece of furniture. If your dog tends to pull on leashes, it's a good idea to attach the tether to a harness, rather than to your dog's collar. Whether you tether the dog to a doorknob or to a heavy armchair, make sure the tether is set up so that the dog can stand, sit, and lie down on the mat—but cannot reach the table where you are eating.

As you start the meal, feed your dog a treat on the mat.

Be very matter-of-fact about this action, and pay no attention to what your dog is doing (unless your dog is barking or whining, in which case you should wait for a quiet moment). Simply walk over to the mat, drop a treat onto it, and then walk back to the table.

During the meal, drop treats on the mat periodically.

Every few minutes, repeat the process of walking over, dropping a treat on the mat, and then walking away.

Keep an eye out for calm behavior, and when you see it, feed the dog an extra treat.

Any time you see your dog do something calm, such as going into a sit, or settling into a down, feed your dog another treat. You can keep a clicker nearby and click just before feeding the treat. If you find the clicker seems to amp up your dog, though, skip the clicking.

When your dog has begun to lie down for extended periods during meals, only drop treats when the dog is lying down. At this point you are teaching your dog that lying quietly on the mat earns treats.

At least once a meal, drop some of your own food on the mat (choose dog-safe food, of course).

What your dog wanted all along was the food on your plate. By giving your dog food from your plate once or more during the meal, you are teaching the dog that there's an easier way—simply lying quietly on the mat will do the job.

When your dog remains lying down for an entire meal for several meals in a row, remove the tether.

Continue to drop treats, including food from your plate, every few minutes during the meal. Your dog already has an established habit of staying on the mat, and will most likely continue to stay there even without the tether. If the dog does not remain on the mat, go back to using the tether for a few more meals.

Gradually reduce the frequency and number of treats you provide during meals, but not down to zero.

Never entirely stop feeding the dog treats for lying on the mat during meals. With most dogs, you can reduce the number of treats to just one or two per meal and still maintain the behavior.

Charging people on the stairs (or anywhere else)

Another holiday nightmare is when Fifi trips Aunt Sadie as she walks up or down the stairs (or down a hallway, or through a door). Here's a technique for teaching your dog to stay at one end of the stairs until cued to come to the other end.

Begin by using one of these excellent techniques from Karen Pryor Clicker Training to teach your dog to go to and stay on a mat. When that behavior has been learned, proceed with the following training steps.

Place one mat at the base of the stairs and another mat at the top.

The mats can be anything from a towel to a dog bed. If your dog rushes people in the hall, or when they go through a door, simply position the mats at either end of the hallway, or at a safe distance from the door.

When you are about to go up or down the stairs, cue the dog to lie on the closest mat.

Drop (or toss) a treat or two to the dog on the mat to reinforce the dog for lying on the mat.

Click and treat as you take the stairs.

Go up (or down) the stairs, clicking and tossing treats to the dog on the mat as long as the dog remains in place. In the beginning, it's best to click once for each step, to help the dog remain stationary. If your throwing arm isn't that great, consider using a Manners Minder, or give your dog a food toy on the mat instead of clicking repeatedly and using multiple treats. If you do click and treat, keep containers of treats at either end of the stairway to make it easier to practice each time you go up or down the stairs.

When you have finished going up (or down) the stairs, call the dog to you.

Dog at the top of the stairs

Photo by Ramsey Beyer (CC BY 2.0)

Dogs like to follow their people around, so being called to join you at the end of the stairs can be a powerful reinforcer. If the dog tends to be overly exuberant and jump up on people, feed the dog a treat or two on the ground as he reaches you. This teaches the dog to look down when he reaches the end of the stairs.

Gradually wean the dog off the treats.

Assuming the dog remains politely on his mat, gradually use fewer and fewer treats, until you are feeding just one treat for an entire passage of the stairs. After that, stop using treats altogether and let running up and down the stairs with permission be its own reinforcer.

A similar training plan can be used with dogs that charge people as they come through the front door, go down a hallway, or leave the bathroom, or in any other context.

Gifts of the season

Even the most annoying and worrisome pet behaviors can be managed or eliminated before the upcoming holidays, if you are willing to put in some training time. Be patient, set your pet up for continued success, and remain positive as you work to curb nuisance behaviors. Training success could wind up being the greatest gift and joy of the holiday season!

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About the author
User picture

Irith Bloom, Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP), Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer, and Certified Pet Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), has been training animals since the 1980s. She is the owner of The Sophisticated Dog, LLC in Los Angeles, as well as a volunteer for National English Shepherd Rescue.

Aaron B. Clayton's picture

Self Control

It is indeed a good idea to teach your job to leave it and that skill  compatible with the training above. Teaching leave it can mean "wait for permission before taking what's on the floor"  or "what is on the floor is fair game unless I say that is not".  Both of these are ways of  teaching your dog the skill of  self-contol and so very important and work nicely with the training recommended.

Irith Bloom's picture

Thank you for the comment, Aaron!

As you point out, different trainers expect different things from their pets. There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to training.

Irith Bloom's picture

These sounds like great policies for your home

Hi "furbrat,"

It sounds like you have thought very carefully about this issue, and have come up with great policies for you and your dogs.

Not every training technique is appropriate for every home.  I train dogs to lie down just outside the kitchen while cooking is going on (a topic which we did not address in this article) for these reasons, among others.  Countersurfing, though, seems to happen most often when nobody is around, and the method outlined in this article is designed to keep the dog from fixating on the counters every time he is near the kitchen, whether people are there or not.

Thank you so much for your comment! I hope that everyone who reads this article is as thoughtful as you!

Irith (Eereet)

re: Teach your dog that good stuff is on the floor

As a klutzy person who stores and takes her medication in the kitchen this teaching can be a hazard. I've dropped pills more than once and relied on A: a solid "leave it" and B: Dogs get fed in the kitchen only from hands. Both are also helpful when you drop things that are hazardous to dogs such as sauces in broken glass bottles and food that is toxic to dogs.

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