By Jessica Kochmer, CPDT-KA
Trainer, Philly Unleashed
The holidays are upon us, and as we all know, things can get a little crazy at this time of year. There’s hustle and bustle as we pull out the decorations and put up the tree. Visitors arrive from out of town, parties and delicious eating extravaganzas are regular occurrences, and we spend hours scavenging at the mall for the best deals.
If this scenario sounds hectic to you, imagine how crazy it looks from the dog’s perspective. A giant tree moves into the living room, strangers come over and drink too much wine, there’s food everywhere, boxes of presents are stacked high and the house is decorated with (often literal) bells and whistles. It can be easy for the sleigh to veer off the tracks; the excitement can cause dogs to lose control.
So at this time of year, get ready for calls from people whose dogs have budding behavior problems, and from your existing clients who may need a little extra TLC to guide them through the holiday season.
Around the holidays, I tend to focus on 4 specific aspects of training: focus, greetings, impulse control and enrichment.
Sad but true, if our dogs aren’t looking at us, they probably aren’t listening to us. This is a very distracting time of year, especially for dogs! From the twinkling lights to the sounds — and all the hustle and bustle in between — it can be hard for anyone to stay on track.
A great way to work through these real-life distractions is to first practice isolating them in a controlled setting. Instead of bombarding the client and dog with everything at once, slowly introduce them to visual and verbal distractions that you know they will be sensitive to. With lots of practice (and treats), these once overwhelming sights and sounds will just become background noise.
The holidays are a great time to reconnect with family, like 90 year-old great-aunt Mildred. And Sparky the dog is eagerly waiting to give a big, enthusiastic greeting the way a 70 pound labrador puppy is famous for (you know. . . jumping and licking!) At this point, Sparky’s owners are wishing they conquered greetings a little sooner rather than letting things slide by for so long. Who they gonna call? Their trusty dog trainer of course!
Although it may seem obvious to trainers, clients don’t always realize just how overstimulating new faces can be for their dogs, and how advanced the behavior may have gotten. Although Sparky is excited to see everyone, visitors may be fearful and the greeting may not end so well.
Whether you’re dealing with a fearful or fearless dog, one of my favorite ways to practice greetings is targeting. I begin by having them target the palm of my hand while using the cue “hello”. For our fearful dogs, targeting to greet people is a safe way for them to say hello on their terms without the dreaded over-the-head pet. For jumpers, this is a much more appropriate way to say hello, whether the human is 2 or 92.
This also may be the time to discuss realistic expectations with your clients. If Sparky has had a couple of rounds of puppy class, and his owners generally have great control over him, then a few intensive private lessons may be all you need to clean up those greetings! However, if Sparky’s owners are looking for a quick fix before their party next weekend and have been lax about enforcing manners, your best bet may be to implement some environmental management strategies into the training plan and steer them into a group class for now, then more private lessons when things calm down in the new year. Suggest upping the dog’s exercise before visitors come over, and tethering or confining him out of paw-reach with a delicious chewie until everyone is settled in the house and the vibe is a little calmer.
Everyone has finally arrived and dinner is on the table. All of the guests take their seats, and just as they’re about to dig in, Sparky starts begging. It’s a difficult time to be a dog when there’s turkey on the table. With all of the guests, food is bound to end up on the floor, so it’s time to put some impulse control techniques under our belt.
By practicing “leave it” with low-value treats, the foundation can be built with less desirable food. Then, you can work your way up to high value items like turkey, mashed potatoes and chocolate cake.
Impulse control practice should also include inedible items, like those beautifully wrapped presents, shiny ornaments and those pesky fallen needles from that tree. With enough practice, these items will become less and less desirable, and the decorations can stay intact.
With seasonal distractions available at every turn, this time of year is optimal to practice every form of impulse control. I also like to include “recall”. Not only do we want our dogs to “leave it alone” but we want them to recall off of things. This works for inanimate objects, people and other dogs. Because this time of year is so exciting, even a dog with great recall can still be slowed down by the Salvation Army bell on the street corner. While walking through neighborhoods, admiring houses with blow-up snowmen and blinking twinkle lights, clients should seize the opportunity to practice recalling their dog off these distractions.
When all the mayhem starts to wind down and everyone travels back home, you see just how quickly the last few months have flown by. Remind your clients how important it is to set aside time in the holiday whirlwind for bonding with their dogs.
In that time, practice some new tricks, commit to group classes, head to the dog park, or go for a hike together. We can get so wrapped up in the holidays that we forget our dogs still need some TLC. We have to give our dogs some credit, as this time of year isn’t easy for them, so give them a few extra belly rubs when you have some down time. A quiet night by the fire with your best friend might be exactly what you both need.
Jessica Kochmer, CPDT-KA has been training dogs professionally since 2013. Her specialties include puppy development and social periods, basic manners, conquering nuisance behaviors, and running fast-paced and engaging group classes. Jessica currently works for Philly Unleashed, the premier dog training organization in and around Philadelphia, PA. Jessica is an AKC CGC evaluator.