Christmas can be a stressful time of year for humans and it can be even worse for reactive and anxious dogs. Changes to routine, lots of well meaning human visitors, busier walks with the appearance of dogs that you never see the rest of the year can all combine causing rocketing levels of anxiety in sensitive dogs (and can even be trying for ‘normal’ dogs).
We have lots of queries from people who want to know how to help their dogs cope over the Christmas period. The most common question is how they can help their dog cope with other dogs in the house on Christmas Day. This needs careful mnagement in dogs without aggression and anxiety issues but needs even more thought for reactive dogs. Quite simply, if you have a dog who is dog reactive then Christmas, when you want to be able to relax and spend time with family and friends, is not the time to try and start new dog intros. It’s often better to leave your dog at home with a stuffed Kong and if that’s not possible then separation of space in the house is essential. As always, introductions between new dogs should always start on neutral turf (never in the house) and should begin by parallel walking (people on the inside and dogs on the outside). If your dog is not at the stage where they can make new friends by parallel walking and some counter conditioning yet then don’t try it on Christmas Day when time is limited and people’s patience often short! Don’t risk falling out with your family (or an OOH vets trip on Christmas Day!) by doing introductions too soon. Wait until a quieter time and involve your trainer or behaviourist if possible- we regularly help clients manage first meeting sessions between family dogs to ensure it goes well.
Separate space in the home is essential if you have dogs that aren’t yet comfortable together sharing the house. Tall stair gates are best (take your own if you are visiting) but crates can work for some dogs but only if they are happy and comfortable in crate and see it as a ‘safe space’. Some dogs may need visual barriers too so that they can relax, blankets over stair gates and crates can help.
Even if your dog mixes well with other dogs and you don’t anticipate problems with them sharing Christmas with new doggy pals, make sure you have options in place to keep dogs separate if you need to. Use common sense about high value resources, your dog may not want to share toys, favoured beds or food with other dogs so put things away that could cause them to fall out. What your dog considers to be high value enough to guard may vary, in our house we put the Antlers away when we have doggy friends visiting as these are really special to one of our dogs. Provide multiple water bowls and beds so that dogs have choice of a few and don’t need to worry about sharing.
Be careful about dogs under the table at dinner time. We normally have at least two calls a year that involve an issue with the dinner table. Dogs may lie down under tables (normally poised to grab dropped food), this can then cause issues if other dogs go under the table or children reach under. If your dog isn’t used to visitors or sharing space then being in a different room or behind a stairgate and eating a stuffed Kong or chew is a better option.
Make sure everyone knows the rules! Put notices up by stair gates or on doors to make sure dogs aren’t let out into places they shouldn’t be. It can often work best to have dogs in rooms that aren’t a busy thoroughfare, especially if they are worried about new people. Being in an upstairs bedroom can be less stressful than the kitchen for example.
Remember that not everyone will read your dog as well as you, other people are unlikely to notice the early signs of stress that dog owners are often aware of. Your dogs subtle communication that they need more space and want to be left alone by head turning, yawning, lip licking and frowning may be totally missed by other people (and especially children) so make sure you are always actively supervising interactions. Real active supervision where you are fully focused on your dog is really hard when you have visitors and are distracted so it is often safest and kinder on your dog to have them separate from visitors until a quieter time of day when you can concentrate on your dog without distractions.
Make sure your dog gets enough sleep. It sounds simple but it’s often forgotten, just like people dogs need good quality restful sleep and they need enough of it. Lots of visitors and changes to routine can result in a lack of sleep and some dogs are very sensitive and don’t cope well with being overtired. Just like tired humans, overtired dogs can be grumpy as their tolerance is lower.
Remember the effect of trigger stacking. It often isn’t the ‘thing’ that your dog reacts to that is causing the issue, it’s the other things that happened that day or in the preceding day(s) that causes stress levels to climb so high that the dog can start to react to things they would normally cope with. If your dog has been exposed to lots of visitors, walks have been busier and you had fireworks next door last night then your dog is way less likely to react well to stuff and may react to things they normally cope with.
Stressful times mean you need to make walks quieter and easier for your dog and also really increase your rate of reward too. Walks with loads of sniffing opportunities are ideal to help encourage. Remember you may need more space from things they find difficult as they may already be stacking stress.
Provide lots of chewing time, fill the freezer with frozen Kongs and get your dog a new activity toy for Christmas. You might want to warn your visitors before they look for ice in your freezer if you stuff your Kongs with chicken feet or other animal parts!
Enjoy your break with your dogs and don’t worry, it will all be over soon. If in doubt go for a long walk in a quiet place (with a bottle of gin)!
Laura McAuliffe, photos by Penel Malby (Penelope Malby Photography).
© Dog Communication 2016