It may be the time of year when the world falls in love, but the holidays stretching from Halloween to New Year’s can be a particularly tough time on household pets, especially with parties, house guests, and distracted owners. This stress can manifest in a variety of unpleasant ways, from house-training accidents to chewing to even fearfulness or fear-aggression.
Fortunately there are a number of things we can do to mitigate the stresses and dangers to our pets. Read on, and with a little preparation, you and your pets can be full of good cheer.
Halloween is the worst — some little monster rings that doorbell every few minutes! But even Thanksgiving and parties can be stressful for animals, particularly if they’re not used to house guests.
Prepare your Pets
- If your dog doesn’t have stellar door manners, crate or confine him in another room as guests arrive. The repeated door entries will only successively add to his arousal. (What? Your dog doesn’t have great manners at the front door yet? Check out this article.)
- Once everyone’s present, bring the dog out to meet — but rather than letting him run frantically to everyone (and probably jumping, slurping, and otherwise making himself a nuisance), this is a great place to use his targeting behavior to create calm, predictable, routine greetings with each person.
- Some dogs benefit from having an additional outlet for their stress or energy. My low-threshold Laevatein, for example, does much better greeting people at the door if she has a toy to hold, letting her focus on squeezing that instead of jumping.
- A puzzle toy or long-lasting (safe) chew item is a great idea for while guests are present or while staying in an unfamiliar place, as it occupies the dog both physically and mentally while simultaneously providing stress relief in the repetitive behavior and eating.
- Keep your routine (dog’s meal times, walks, etc.) as much as possible; this will help to mitigate the dog’s stress.
- And it goes without saying that matwork is splendid for painlessly parking the dog in one place while guests socialize or dine. Train in advance, so his skills are ready for that level of distraction, and be prepared for compliments on your dog’s wonderful behavior!
Prepare your Guests
Not everyone expects the same behavior from dogs, or knows how to ask for it, or knows what to do if they’re not getting it. I once caught a guest in the act of striking my dog who “hadn’t obeyed” a “command” the dog didn’t know. (The dog did know another cue for that behavior, which she performed upon request. And that guest, for the time she remained in the house, was under constant supervision and I kept the dogs away from her.)
It’s better to prevent problems than to solve them, so be sure your guests know how to handle your pets as well.
- If your dog is expected to sit for greeting or petting, prompt your guests, “Wait for him to sit so you can pet him.” Use positive phrasing instead of negative, just as with the dogs; saying, “Don’t pet him until he sits” is usually heard only as “don’t pet him” and often ignored except for the feeling that you’re unsocial with your dog.
- Be clear about feeding or petting the dog. My dogs routinely display dazzling theatrics of pitiable neglect and starvation, lying down within easy sight of the table with adorably wide eyes — but my guests know that any dog standing, or near a table, or touching a human cannot be fed. Treats go only to dogs who are quiet and well-mannered. This perpetuates quiet and well-mannered instead of rude behavior! Your rules are your own to set, but they must be consistent and clear to guests, so your dog will display consistent behavior.
- Your pets, dog, cat, or other, need a place they can retreat and relax without interference from guests. This can be their crate, a safe room, or anywhere they know is their own. Be sure they are not disturbed; if they choose to retreat, they probably need the break. (My Doberman Shakespeare used to be quite social during gatherings, but now that he is 12, he prefers to greet people and then retreat to a quieter space in my bedroom. That’s his call, and if he’s happier that way, so be it!)
- Be sure your guests know they can have dog-free time as well, whether by asking the dog (mine know the cue “shoo” means no further attention) or you (and you will put the dog another place).
- Obviously if there is a special need, alert your guests to any special considerations. While we had Inky, the blind Rottweiler, we cautioned guests to keep the gate at the top of the stairs closed, and to be aware that Inky might bump them without ill intent. Deaf dogs, senior dogs, fearful dogs, etc. all might benefit with informed guests.
- If you’re the one who is a guest, be sure your dog is already comfortable with his crate and regards it as his home away from home, so it’s familiar and safe in the new environment.
- Again, be sure your dog is trained in advance, so a cue to leave a guest alone or a period of confinement is neither new or confusing. Trying to crate-train a stressed dog and keep the green beans from burning while keeping Aunt Maude and Cousin Howard from talking politics is a hopeless task!
If Children are Present
When children visit a home with animals, all of the above guidelines apply, and then some! Generally at holiday gatherings adults are distracted, not paying good attention when dogs and kids are together. Even if dogs and kids known each other — especially if dogs and kids know each other* — stay alert!
(*Why especially? The age group with the greatest number of dog bites is 5-9, and one explanation is that parents know to watch smaller children, but by the time kids are older, they and the dogs are expected to “know better,” and with this false sense of security adults feel free to divide their attention. But here dogs are usually already under stress with house guests, and kids are often more excited and active…. Don’t risk it!)
- If children are with a dog, an adult is watching — preferably with no other task or distraction. (Sorry, watching the kids and dogs while watching football is right out!)
- The dog must have a safe area he knows he can retreat to, and the child must not follow the dog there. I’m convinced this would prevent many problems!
- Just because it’s a family or holiday event doesn’t mean the rules have changed; hugging, kissing, reaching for the dog’s face, and other dangerous behaviors may not be practiced by the child, and should not be modeled by the adults. See Doggone Safe for information and resources.
- Remember, too, that just as we humans do, dogs can get tired or overwhelmed with guests who have outstayed their welcome! If your dog seems fine at first, but then begins to indicate he’s feeling less social, let him have a break in his safe area. (See the Guidelines for good socialization here; they apply equally in this situation.)
Someone told me recently this was unreasonable, because after all, “You can’t tell a kid not to mess with a dog.” Yes, yes, actually, I can. Is it unreasonable to keep a kid from sticking a fork into a power outlet or putting his tongue in the paper shredder? If the child can’t understand verbal instruction, we physically manage (with barriers and babysitters) both behavior and environments to keep kids safe.
If it is reasonable to expect that a dog not leap on and bulldoze a child (and it is!), then it is equally acceptable to expect the child to behave in a civilized and safe manner to a dog. Both will be the better for this exchange!
Occasionally people seek to prevent problems with well-intentioned methods which can backfire. If the dog is uncomfortable with children (or anyone), do not put the dog on leash or try to “correct” the behavior in the moment. Leashing the dog often only makes him feel more trapped, and therefore more defensive. Punishment only adds to the stress and can result in greater ill-feeling or redirected aggression later.
If the dog is uncomfortable, remove him to a quiet, confined space where he won’t be disturbed, and make a note to talk to a trainer later.
Visible Signs of Stress
Several times above we mentioned watching the dog for signs of stress, but these are often overlooked or misinterpreted. Watch for:
- panting, especially in a cool room or while still
- licking lips (this is not an invitation to “kiss”!)
- looking away, avoiding eye contact, turning away
- “whale eye,” or visible schlera (white of the eye)
- frantic behavior (often described as hyper)
- any abnormal behavior for that particular dog
Obviously sometimes you should look at the big picture. If the dog is licking his lips, but has just finished a peanut butter treat, he might not be licking out of stress! If a dog has been lying quietly for some time, but is panting, that dog probably needs a break.
Food, Drink, & Other Concerns
There are many, many online resources warning of common seasonal dangers to pets — antifreeze, tinsel, poisonous plants, unusual or excessive table scraps, and more. But knowing these isn’t enough; we need to be sure our guests know them as well.
I walked into the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner and found a relative handing the entire turkey carcass to Shakespeare. While I feed raw, there’s an enormous difference between a reasonable amount of raw fat and an entire carcass worth of cooked fats and cooked poultry bones. Fortunately I was early enough to intervene. (Incidentally, having a good “give/trade” behavior trained in advance can be helpful, too!)
Someone without a pet might think nothing of leaving the front door open while carrying in several loads of food or gifts, but in a house with a pet, this can be more than just an energy-conservation issue. If guests aren’t trustworthy with the door, add a second barrier to keep dogs and cats safely inside.And at New Year’s Eve or other parties where people might get a bit… effervescent, consider putting the pets away entirely. Drunk behavior can appear decidedly abnormal and therefore threatening to an animal, and interacting with a worried dog while one’s judgment is impaired is not the best choice. If there will be more than a few drinks, make sure the animals are out of it.
Overall, just keep an eye on things and try to think ahead — a dog in limbo is likely to make a poor decision, while a dog who is receiving consistent, predictable cues and feedback will display consistent, predictable behavior!
Can you think of other common stresses or dangers?