Tips to help make your holidays a wonderful experience for both you and your furry family members.
Published: October 31, 2019
By: Rebecca Mason, CPDT-KA, CTDI, M.Ed.
Before you know it, the holidays will be upon us! Where does that leave Fido?
I recently polled some of my students about their dogs’ behavior on holidays (or things relatives do that worsen that behavior!). Twelve students mentioned jumping, three mentioned trying to escape, four mentioned stealing food, six mentioned relatives giving their dogs human food without their permission, and seven mentioned both adults and children either poking fun at, or causing, aggressive or fearful behavior.
Whenever I have a student who says, “I just want my dogs to stop _______!” I try to help them rethink things. Instead of thinking of it as stopping a behavior, I say, “What do you want your dogs to do instead?” Then we start training them to do that. However, depending on what you’re training them to do, it can take weeks or even months, and sometimes the goal isn’t realistic (i.e., be perfectly calm and show zero curiosity while 20-plus kids, moms, dads, and grandparents walk back and forth, go inside and out, cook, eat, open gifts, play with toys, etc.).
Throw your dog a bone here, folks! There are reasonable expectations and there are unreasonable expectations. Whenever you teach a dog a new behavior, it should be taught in a quiet environment. If the dog can master the skill with no distractions, then you can start adding distractions gradually. A dog who has only been taught to sit and stay for 30 seconds in a quiet room shouldn’t be expected to stay longer in a busy, bustling kitchen with the aroma of Grandma’s pumpkin pie cooking! Is it doable? Probably, with time and practice. But most people skip the baby steps in the middle, expecting their dog to go from a very basic form of a behavior to an advanced one too quickly. They set their dogs up to fail and then get mad when the dog doesn’t perform.
It will take time, but you can start now, working on teaching some good “uh-oh, the guests are coming” behaviors. Waiting at doorways instead of dashing through, settling on their bed when people are eating, having a solid “leave it” when food is dropped on the floor, and coming when called are all important commands to have. Seek out a certified trainer who is well-versed in positive reinforcement methods and they can show you how.
More than likely though, you need something immediate! That’s where management comes into play. Management simply means setting dogs up to succeed by preventing them from practicing undesirable behaviors and finding a way to keep them happily occupied when needed.
First, exercise your dog before guests arrive. A tired dog is a good dog! Second, buy a waist leash and tether your dog to you so she can’t jump on everyone. With her attached to you, Uncle Rob can’t sneak her fatty foods that can make her sick, and she won’t be running out the door or counter-surfing either. You’ll also be right there to supervise, so kids won’t be able to provoke her.
If all else fails, crate your dog in another room with a special treat. If you want her to be a part of the festivities, you can put her crate in the den, so she’s present but contained. Lastly, I recommend posting some rules for interactions with your dog on your fridge. Show it to all guests, and if they break the rules, they don’t get to interact, even if this means putting your dog up. You are the only advocate your dog has, the only one who can speak for her. Your dog’s safety, from both table scraps and the busy street that’s just on the other side of your door, is what’s most important. Happy holidays!
Rebecca Mason is a certified dog trainer and owner of Love Them Train Them LLC in Birmingham. She is a former elementary school teacher and is passionate about working with families to channel their dogs’ energy positively.