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Holiday Season Considerations With Your Dog

The holidays are upon us! While spending time with friends, family, and getting to participate in all the fun activities that come with this season are definitely something to look forward to, they can also bring along some concerns and considerations that we need to be mindful of when living with dogs. There are plenty of ways that we can still have the celebrations and gatherings we look forward to, but we just need to be smart, safe, and considerate to make sure that we don’t experience any mishaps or accidents.

Getting a Pet Sitter?

If you are planning on heading out of town for the holidays, you may be hiring a pet sitter or asking a friend to watch your dog(s) for you. Make sure that you are setting your sitter and your pup up for success by trying to structure as much of your daily routine into the sitter’s instructions as you can. Be specific on any management setups or specific routines you’d like them to keep up with as you are gone. For example, If your dog specifically goes on a walk or gets other exercise opportunities at certain times of day, try to communicate this with your sitter so that your dog is still able to expect those outlets they normally get even when you’re not home. It may also be beneficial to prepare additional enrichment activities for your sitter to give your dog while you are gone. Even with a sitter around the house, your dog will likely be getting less activity opportunities while you’re out of town, and making sure that pre-packed food puzzles are available in your freezer for your sitter to give will allow your dog extra outlets to use their brain and work for their food to keep them occupied and reduce the likelihood of undesirable boredom behaviors.

Going to Boarding?

If you’re planning on using a boarding facility for your dog over the holidays, be sure to do your homework! It’s best to look out for a facility that will accommodate your requests when it comes to how much activity the dog should get throughout the day (hint: most dogs, even high energy dogs, do not actually enjoy or need to play for 8-10 hours straight!), allowing you to bring familiar items to make the space more comfortable and will ensure that your dog has a nice balance of individualized attention as well as opportunities to rest and relax. Some boarding facilities will even offer enrichment services, and will allow you to either bring stuffable enrichment toys of your own for your dog or will have their own available (like Kongs) to provide at your request! Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or even request a tour of the facility to give you a little additional peace of mind about your facility choice.

If You Plan on Involving Your Dog in Your Holiday Activities

Whether you are hosting a holiday celebration at your home or bringing your pet with you to celebrate elsewhere, making sure that you set your dog up for successful behavior and safety is going to be key! Large gatherings in your home or traveling to someone else’s unfamiliar home can be very overstimulating even for very calm and sociable dogs, so we need to make sure that we help them through these experiences so everyone can enjoy themselves.

Start off the day by getting up a little bit earlier and allowing your dog some decompression time in the morning. This can be through taking your dog on a long walk and allowing them to fully sniff and explore their surroundings (as opposed to a regular march down the street). You can even use a long line at the park or on a nature trail to allow your dog additional freedom of movement and really let them take everything in around them. These types of “choice” walks are really great for their mental health, burn a lot of mental energy, and allow our dogs to express natural behavior which in turn means you’ll have a more relaxed dog through the rest of the day when you’re with friends and family.

If your dog is going to be put away for the day while you have friends over, it will likely be beneficial to leave them with food enrichment so that they have something to occupy their mind while everything is going on nearby. This can be in the form of a stuffed Kong, a lick mat, or any other durable stuffed item that your dog enjoys (and that you have tested before and can confirm isn’t easy for them to destroy/consume). Putting your enrichment in the freezer before giving it to your dog can make them last longer as well! It is also helpful to provide a comfortable resting place or bed for your dog in the area they’re being left in, and play some classical music or a playlist specifically curated for dogs to make sure that some of the noise is drowned out to promote relaxation.

If your dog will be a part of the fun, we need to make sure that they do not have opportunities to get into anything that may be harmful! This is where using management will come in handy. Try setting up baby gates around to divide up the house if you have guests who may not want the dog all over them, or if you have children moving about the house. If your dog is inclined to jump on guests or get over-excited, it may be best to keep them attached to you with a leash so you can manage their behavior and ensure they don’t get that opportunity to practice unwanted behavior. If your dog may be inclined to counter surf or steal something off the eating spaces, keeping them out of the kitchen with a barrier or by crating them when the food is out will keep your dog from having a chance to sneakily steal anything they shouldn’t have. If several people will be going in and out of your house while you’re not supervising, it may also benefit you to block off your dog’s access to the door so no opportunities for them to slip out the door arise throughout the day.

Our Dogs Have Limits

Our dogs are family, and that means we want to include them in our celebrations. However, we also need to be sure that we are considering what our dogs want as well when it comes to including them in our large gatherings. Think about how your dog normally is in social situations with other people around. Are they timid? Reactive? Easily overexcitable? If your dog commonly displays behavior concerns that come with being around groups of people, keep in mind that you will likely see this behavior when you have guests over (even if they are well known to your dog!) and ask yourself if your dog REALLY wants to be included in all the “fun.” While we may feel guilty putting our dogs away during gatherings, for dogs who are less social or on the shy side, it may be a welcome relief to get away from the chaos. For easily excitable dogs, it isn’t healthy for their mental wellbeing to spend the whole day overly amped up. It may benefit your dog to bring them out to participate for short spurts of social time, broken up by quiet time away to bring their arousal levels down and have an opportunity to relax. If you have a puppy or elderly dog, keep their energy levels in mind and remember that they will need frequent opportunities to rest throughout the day despite the excitement going on around them.

Additionally, you need to consider the guests you are planning to have over and ask yourself how your dog typically does around them. Dogs who do not typically live with children or who are in the process of working on their manners training may not do well around small kids or around the elderly if they are prone to jump or become mouthy/overly excitable. If you know you will have guests over who may not do well with dogs or who you know may not be capable of keeping up with any instructions you ask them to follow when interacting with your dog (ignore my dog when he jumps, don’t feed from the table, leave my dog alone when he’s resting, etc etc), then it may also benefit your dog to be put away during the celebration to ensure no mishaps or regressions in your training occur. We never want to put our dogs in a position where they feel like they need to defend themselves from our guests!

Foods to Avoid

It’s a special occasion. You may be feeling inclined to share some of your holiday meal with your dog and let them in on the fun! This is okay as a special treat, BUT only so long as the food is safe for dogs! Here is a list of foods that are commonly associated with holiday dinners that should be left off your dog’s plate:

  • Anything heavily seasoned

  • Onions, scallions, and garlic

  • Cooked animal bones

  • Fatty meats/foods

  • Alcohol

  • Sugary foods

  • Casseroles

  • Raisins and grapes

  • Chocolate

  • Yeast dough

This is NOT an exhaustive list; if you are in doubt please err on the side of caution and find something you know to be safe to feed instead. The best rule of thumb for sharing holiday meals with your dog is to set aside some food before eating that has not been seasoned or mixed with fatty ingredients like butter, cream or oil. You can make your dog a small serving of plain cooked green beans, some pureed pumpkin, unseasoned turkey meat, apple slices, etc. Additionally, make sure you aren’t feeding your dog in excess, especially if you are offering them something they have not had before to avoid stomach upset.

“Worst Case Scenario” Preparation

Hosting or attending gatherings with your dog typically means you won’t be spending the entirety of the time paying full close attention to what they’re doing. Because of this, we want to make sure that we have emergency preparations in place, just in case something goes wrong. Make sure your dog’s microchip (if they have one) has updated information on it, if your dog wears a collar make sure they have a tag with accurate contact information attached. Keeping a canine first aid kit around the house will be beneficial as well in case of any minor mishaps or accidents. Giving our dogs a quiet “off limits” place they can retreat to will be helpful in preventing any incidents with guests if the dog has had enough. Typically, dog bites do not come “out of nowhere” like it may appear, but instead come from a dog who was not given space and who’s more subtle communications that they were not comfortable were not listened to. So, giving our dogs a quiet place to go to when they are stressed will alleviate this issue by allowing them quiet relief when they are feeling overwhelmed by guests. Open trash receptacles and counters should be cleared before our dogs have access to the area so that they do not accidentally get a hold of anything that may be dangerous for them to consume and warrants an emergency vet visit. If your dog is inclined to chew inappropriate items, decorations that pose a choking or consumption hazard should be off limits.

Keep Consistent With Your Training!

Having guests over gives us an opportunity to put our training to practice! Try setting up “treat stations” (sealed jars of shelf-stable treats) around your house before your celebrations start so that you have reinforcement available to reward appropriate behavior from your dog. Keep an eye on your dog as the day goes on, and reinforce desirable behaviors as you see them. This can include:

  • All four feet on the floor over jumping

  • Staying quiet over barking

  • Chewing appropriate items

  • Going to lay in their bed/crate/settle mat

  • Anything you see that you want them to continue doing!

We want to make sure that we’re staying consistent with training even during holidays and special occasions. Dogs will do more of what pays off for them, so if we are rewarding appropriate behaviors and using management to prevent inappropriate behaviors, we will see improvement! The more you train in these scenarios, the stronger the behaviors will get for your dog over time. Always be on the lookout for behavior you can reward!

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