Tis' the season! For family gatherings, parties with friends and co-workers, food food and MORE food, Christmas trees, decorations and presents piled up on the floor! It is a time of the year we love, but for our dogs it can be a season of temptation and stress.
For many dogs they rarely experience these situations. Sure you may have friends over on occasion, a party here or there but rarely so many people, so many gatherings over such a short period. We rarely decorate the house in the way we do at this time of the year with streamers, tinsel and lights adorning the walls. Christmas trees and their decorations (BAUBLES!) look like a lot of fun to many dogs, as do presents wrapped and placed on the floor. Then there is the delicious smell of foods often placed in tempting locations.
Unfortunately because our dogs rarely experience these varying stressors and temptations we do not spend time preparing them for these situations. This can lead to unwanted behaviour from your dog/s. Common Christmas complaints can include anything from counter surfing/stealing food, destroying presents or decorations right up to aggressive behaviour including bites.
It is unfair to expect our companion dogs to be able to cope with this exciting / stressful environment when we have not done anything in order to prepare them for it. Not to mention it can ruin your Christmas dealing with an unruly dog instead of enjoying the time with family and friends.
So what can you do to help your dog cope with the Christmas period and make it a pleasant time for everyone?
Start now (today!) on teaching your dog behaviours which you can use to help keep them settled, out of the way and out of trouble. We would recommend teaching the following
a) A reliable 'leave it' cue - for dropped food, screaming children and fun looking toys and decorations.
b) A mat/station cue - great for keeping them from jumping on visitors, out from under your feet, and generally settled amongst the excitement.
c) Crate / Confinement training - so that when needed you can put your dog away elsewhere in the house without them barking, scratching or otherwise becoming disruptive.
Remember you should always set your dog up for success. This means setting their environment up so they are unable to practice behaviours you do not like.
Do not leave food on counters or do not give your dog access to areas of the house where food is available. This isn't just to prevent them ruining your hours of slaving over a hot stove, but can also protect them from the dangers of eating too much fatty food or ingesting cooked bones!
Utilise play pens or baby gates to keep your dog in or out of areas of the house ie: away from food, away from the Christmas tree/presents, out of guest rooms.
Provide your dog with a 'quiet zone' an area they can retreat to if they are feeling tired or overwhelmed this is especially important if you have lots of guests, lots of ongoing gatherings or children present - the dogs quiet place should be somewhere they are happy, comfortable and where guests (inc children) know not to bother them. Laundries or a bedroom are often good locations for their quiet zone. In some cases you may need to take your dog to their quiet zone for a rest. Like toddlers some dogs won't take themselves away for a rest when they need it.
3) Ensure your dog gets adequate physical AND mental exercise
With the busyness and excitement that comes at this time of the year we can sometimes neglect providing our dog with exercise and enrichment. This can lead to problems as our dogs become bored, frustrated and have excess energy, so they start looking to entertain themselves. It should be top priority to ensure your dog is still receiving as much exercise and enrichment as usual. In fact, if you are having family/friends around during this period then providing more mental enrichment than usual is beneficial.
We recommend you check out the 'Canine Enrichment' facebook group for loads of great enrichment ideas - https://www.facebook.com/groups/canineenrichment/
If finding time to walk/exercise your dog is difficult then you should look into hiring a dog walker to help you out over the Christmas break, we recommend Kris Hanckel from Hedland Pet Sitting - https://www.facebook.com/hedlandpetsitting/
4) Know your Dog
It is extremely important to understand your dog and their limitations. If your dog is nervous of strangers, large groups of people, children, loud noises or busy environments, if your dog becomes easily over aroused/excited in these situations or your dog is even just generally anxious then it is best for your dog to be kept separate. Setting up a space for them and confining them to this area at times or during situations when they are likely to get overwhelmed keeps everyone safe and relaxed.
In almost all situations where bites are inflicted by a dog under these circumstance the owner says 'It was out of the blue' or 'the dog has never shown any aggression before' - this is because they did not recognise the signs that their dog was uncomfortable or they thought that their dog would never bite.
Don't risk it, if you have any concerns or reservations at all, remove your dog from the situation altogether. They will be happier for it and you can relax and enjoy yourself.
We strongly recommend that you spend some time learning about body language so you are able to accurately read how your dog is coping with a situation, all to often I see dogs who are stressed and overwhelmed being referred to as 'excited' or 'friendly' because people misinterpret their frantic behaviour.
Here are some great resources on dog body language:
Zoom Room Guide to Dog Body Language
Understanding Dog Body Language Part 1
Understanding Dog Body Language Part 2
5) Hire a Professional
If you need help preparing your dog for Christmas then hiring a professional trainer to attend your home and assist you with training helpful behaviours, show you how to set your dog up for success and implement management is money well spent.
Please always ensure you research a trainer/consultant before hiring them. Search for a positive reinforcement based trainer who has a focus on reinforcing the dog for the right behaviours, replacing unwanted behaviours with alternatives and setting the dog up for success rather than focusing on punishing unwanted behaviour. Always ask 'What will happen if my dog gets it right?' and 'What will happen if my dog gets it wrong?' and ensure you are comfortable with the answer.
If you are in the Port Hedland region and need assistance with your dog prior to the Christmas break then please get in touch with us to set up a session.
Phone: 08 9140 2640