While the holiday season can be an exciting time for the human members of our family, it can cause stress for our pets. As dog trainers, we need to understand and counsel our clients—and sometimes our own families—on how to successfully mitigate stress in a household with multiple species!
While we at the CCPDT absolutely advocate for operant-based training and behavior modification practices throughout the year, the hustle and bustle of the holidays may not be the time to enter into a new training plan with a dog. With that in mind, we’d like to help you and your clients identify some of the most common problems that dogs can have during the holidays, and what you can do to manage them.
First, let’s have a quick discussion about management vs. modification.
Management is a less intensive version of behavior therapy, involving the creation of a safe environment when an animal responds to a trigger. This usually involves giving the dog something else to do, or confining the dog out of harm’s way during a stressful situation. Management is a great immediate strategy, when time or circumstances may prohibit you from working through an intricate modification plan.
Modification is the changing of an animal’s emotional response to a trigger through conditioning, training, or desensitization. Modification is generally a more complex process than management, and comes with a greater responsibility to keep the animal under threshold while working through a systematic plan.
Knowing that the holidays can be full of parties, cocktails, people, and food, it can be exponentially easier to think ahead to what may go wrong and practice good management techniques, instead of embarking on a modification plan while in the midst of trying to host twenty people for Christmas dinner. With that said, the CCPDT would like to present our top five holiday stressors for your dog, and how to properly manage them.
5. Door Drama.
Raise your hand if you have a dog who can sit calmly when the doorbell rings. Even if you’re a professional dog trainer, we bet that this is still a challenge.
Polite greetings can be tough for dogs. While it may be exciting the first or second time the doorbell rings, by the third or fourth ding-dong you may have an overstimulated pup on your hands. Overstimulated dogs are one ringing doorbell away from making a mistake.
Avoid altercations at the door by either confining your dog in a quiet room until all of the guests arrive and have settled in, or by giving your dog something to do (like a special chew toy) to keep paws on the floor while the guests arrive.
4. Food, Glorious Food!
Holidays are a time of overindulgence, and it can be tempting for your guests to sneak your pup a treat under the table. But, with a plethora of foods that can cause a stomachache (or worse) for your dog, you likely don’t want Fido to join the feast.
Keep food off of low lying surfaces such as coffee tables. Instead, put them on higher pieces of furniture like countertops or buffets. Educate your guests about the dangers of feeding your dog under the table. And, if necessary, tether or confine your dog away from the table with a high-value chew toy at dinnertime.
3. Stockings Are Stuffed.
Holidays are a time for gifts, and the human kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from our generosity (and maxed out credit cards)! Resource sharing can be a huge source of conflict for the family dog. If there are multiple dogs in one home, or other dogs are visiting temporarily, an altercation can happen if one dog finds a toy or treat and doesn’t want to share.
If you have visiting dogs in the same household, be sure to have enough resources for each dog. If there isn’t enough for everyone, wait until you are on your home turf to give gifts. If the dogs have a history of fighting, or are not members of the same household, consider confining them to separate rooms or to crates where they can enjoy toys or treats without the stress of competition.
When dealing with resources, if it’s new to your dog, it’s likely to be exciting! If you’re bringing your dog into the home of a friend or family member who has a dog, make sure you do a quick sweep of the home and pick up any toys or treats that may cause an altercation before bringing your dog inside.
2. Four-legged Friends.
Many people love to bring their dogs home for the holidays. For some, this means that their dogs will not only meet the parents, but the parents’ dogs as well.
Make sure that you’ve initiated a proper meet-and-greet protocol with family dogs, whether it’s the first or the thirtieth time they’ve met. This could include taking the dogs for a long walk together to drain everyone’s energy outside before going inside, doing a quick sweep of the house to make sure that high-value toys and chew items are put away before bringing the dogs together, and bringing along a crate so that you can separate the dogs if play is getting a little too rough.
1. Party People.
If you are anything like us at the CCPDT, your dog is the center of your universe; your best friend, your confidant, and your partner in crime. But, here’s a secret that you may not want to hear: not everyone loves your dog.
While you may not be one of them, lots of people fall somewhere on the scale of “apathetic” to “debilitatingly fearful” of dogs. Since holidays are a time of coming together, you’ve got to read your audience to ensure that you aren’t putting your guests in an uncomfortable situation, or putting your dog in a position to fail.
Find out ahead of time who likes dogs, and who doesn’t. If you have people coming over who are nervous around dogs, or who actively dislike them, think about confining your dog with a high-value chew toy away from guests. Or, if they’re up for it, assign a dog-loving partygoer to hold your dog on a leash away from guests who are uncomfortable.
From our homes to yours, happy holidays from the CCPDT!
Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, CPDT-KA has been working with animals in a professional capacity for over 15 years. She is internationally renowned as a speaker and teacher. Nicole’s specialty is working through canine anxieties, aggressions, and phobias; and instructing creative classes. Nicole currently sits on the board of the Certification Counsel for Professional Dog Trainers and owns Philly Unleashed, currently ranked “Best Dog Training company in Philadelphia”. Nicole just launched her newest project, Tricked Out Training last month. Tricked Out Training is geared towards teaching other animal professionals to think and teach creatively and offers seminars, curriculum development, and creative content for animal professionals.