November has arrived, the leaves are all falling and families are planning their seasonal gatherings. Holiday get-togethers can be a wonderful and joyous time for families to come together, celebrate and give thanks. However, it is important to remember that these gatherings can sometimes be quite stressful for our four-legged friends. Family gatherings can be overwhelming for dogs and may even result in your dog engaging in behaviors they may not otherwise. Being savvy and practicing management techniques can help our furry companions navigate this time of year. Adding some training and additional enrichment into the mix to occupy our dogs can play a vital role in their success as well.
During holiday get-togethers, dogs may experience heightened stress levels due to so many factors. While some family and friends your dog may be well acquainted with, the influx of unfamiliar faces, loud noises, and changes in routine can sometimes prove to be overwhelming for them. Some dogs are very reliant on routine and predictability in their lives. Deviating from this can cause a tremendous amount of stress in these dogs. Some common signs of stress in dogs include rigid movements, pinned ears and dilated pupils, panting, pacing, excessive barking or hiding. Recognizing these signs is crucial to ensure the well-being of our furry friends. Be familiar with your dog’s normal body language throughout a regular day, it’ll then be easier to notice the changes during more stressful times.
Practicing proper and safe management techniques during gatherings can offer our dogs some peace in times where there is heightened stress, especially during the holiday season. The following are techniques you can use to help dogs during gatherings.
Create a Safe Space: Designate a quiet and comfortable area in your home where your dog can retreat to when feeling overwhelmed. This can be a separate room or a cozy, blocked off corner with their bed and favorite toys. It may be more advisable to just keep your dog in that space if it doesn’t stress them out too much to be away from people entirely. This would be best if your visitors were only there for an hour or two, for a meal, etc. You can opt to use calming sprays like Adaptil, on blankets or even offer your pet a calming treat, like Composure, during this time. Play some quiet soft piano music or spa music for them. Music or even a white noise machine or box fan can help block out some of the sounds of many people there. Be sure to check in on your canine companion as needed during that time and do not allow your guests or visitors into this space – it is strictly for your dog!
Controlled Introductions: If you are having a relatively small gathering with only a couple of new people, you can try to gradually introduce your dog to the new guests, giving them time to adjust and become comfortable. Avoid overwhelming them with too many new people at once. If you are having a large gathering, there are many young children or your dog is hesitant of strangers, this is not advised. Make sure that your guests do not approach or call your dog, but instead allow your dog to initiate any contact. This will give your dog some added confidence about the new people, spark potential curiosity and allow the dog to move at their own pace. This is an extremely important step in controlling an introduction. You never want to push your dog or make your dog approach strangers for treats (especially if your dog is hesitant). Keep the pressure on your dog low, and your rewards high and often (including gaining space away from people if needed). Remember if there are many people there or if your dog is hesitant at all, this is not the time to do introductions.
Provide Adequate Exercise: Before the gathering, make sure to engage your dog in plenty of physical exercise. Take them for a long walk, giving them plenty of time to sniff the world as much as they’d like. Do not underestimate the power of brainwork as well. Engaging them in some thinking games and puzzles can help to tire their minds a little bit. They say a tired dog is a good dog, but it is important to not just focus on the physical exercise or to over-exert them physically but ignore their minds. It is vital that their minds be just as exercised as their bodies, or they can become an overtired (but mentally restless) dog. End your exercise sessions with a little mind work each time to bring them down from the physical exertion. This will help them calm faster too!
Meet Needs: While we are used to meeting the needs of our dogs during our everyday lives, when there is a lot of commotion, the household is very busy or we are entertaining guests, we can sometimes overlook some of the very basic things our dogs may require. Make sure your dog’s mealtimes are on time or as close to normal as possible and that potty breaks are still frequent enough for your dog. During stressful times, adding an unmet simple need can sometimes cause a dog to overreact. If you do not feel that you will be able to keep up with your dog’s needs during this time, make arrangements and plan ahead of time to assure their needs are well taken care of.
Boarding: If your dog is very hesitant with any company coming over or if you are leaving for an extended time, consider having your dog go to a sitter or to boarding. While this can cause some level of stress for your dog, if you choose a well-established and reputable company to work with (paying close attention to if they are insured, etc. – not just someone who ‘loves dogs’ and wants to watch your dog in their home for you) and they are familiar with your dog, this can be the least stressful situation for them. Forcing a dog that doesn’t enjoy company or people visiting to deal with multiple overnight visitors in your home will not work as exposure therapy and is often how accidents happen. Keep your dog’s individual preferences and personality at the forefront. Big gatherings are not the time to try to convince a dog who is people-wary that people are just fine.
In addition to management techniques, some training may be able to help our dogs during gatherings too. You must remember that if your dog has not practiced their behaviors and cues in the same situation, they may not be able to suddenly master them during the level of distraction company provides but having some basics down prior to can help them a little during these times.
Basic Cues: Practice and reinforce some of the basic cues often such as "sit," "stay," and "leave it" to redirect your dog's attention. If your dog does not have any practice doing cues with distractions, begin adding in some mild distraction in. Your dog may not be able to perform perfectly with all the holiday stress and guests present, but with practice they will be better than without. Consistent training will help your dog feel more secure and confident during gatherings as they learn what is expected at these times. If you have a guest that your dog likes, you can practice this when your guest or guests visit outside of the holiday season even. Prepping for things like this are something we should constantly be aware of and working towards. Training doesn’t ever end. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Desensitization: Gradually expose your dog to holiday-specific stimuli, such as festive decorations or sounds, to help them become accustomed to these new experiences. Start with low-intensity exposure and gradually increase the level of stimuli over time. If all the new things arrived with your guests, this could overstimulate any dog. For those eager for the holidays right after Halloween, this gives you an excuse to start decorating (slowly) early in the season!
Supplemental enrichment is essential for keeping your dog mentally stimulated and engaged and can truly be a blessing during the holiday season. Consider providing interactive toys, puzzle feeders, or treat-dispensing toys to keep your dog occupied and mentally challenged. This may help redirect any potential anxiety or boredom your dog may experience during family gatherings – it can also help to tire their minds, which can alleviate some overthinking and stress for them.
While holiday get-togethers can be a stressful time for our canine companions, implementing effective management techniques and some training strategies and preparations ahead of time can significantly reduce their anxiety and ensure their safety as well as the safety of your guests. By creating a safe space, introducing guests gradually, providing adequate exercise, reinforcing training, and incorporating more supplemental enrichment, we can make the holiday season enjoyable and safe for both our human and furry family members.