Keeping your dog stress free during the holidays

Holidays are usually an exciting departure from the everyday routine that dominates the year - they bring hustle, bustle, and out-of-the-ordinary experiences and people into the home, and, for many people, holidays include traveling near or far to visit family and friends.  While the holidays often bring excitement and fun, they also bring stress levels higher for people and their pets.  During these special times of year, our pets feel the increased buzz of energy along with the stress and anxiety that we may be projecting.  As we move forward through the holiday season, it's crucial to remain aware of our dogs' needs.  Dogs feel the stresses of the season keenly and rarely understand what the fuss is all about, but there are a number of ways we can help them stay happy and calm in the face of so much chaos and novelty.

Maintain a Normal Schedule

During the holidays, stick as close to your normal schedule as possible. With the inevitable surge in activities that flood our calendars during these times, it's easy to intrude on our dogs' regular routine.  Dogs are less stressed when they know what to expect and when, so keeping up with your dogs' normal eating, walking, playing, and sleeping schedules will help them feel grounded.  If you're traveling during the holiday, keep the timing of your dogs' daily activities as close as possible to your home schedule.

Prepare for People

People come and go during holiday happenings, but not all dogs are comfortable with guests and the excitement they bring.  Many dogs get wound-up and jump and bark because the presence of new people and new noises can be very stressful. If your dogs become anxious when strangers enter the house or when the doorbell rings, one solution is to keep the dogs in a quieter part of the house where they can be shielded from the hubbub.  

The best approach when strangers enter the home is to apply some classical conditioning techniques with your dogs by having the visitor give them a treat or toy so that they associate that person with something good.  Teaching your dogs what to expect when someone comes over is important.  A dog that learns to sit with four paws on the ground when visitors appear is crucial because a dog that jumps can be disastrous, especially with big dogs and/or small people.  Keeping stress triggers to a minimum lowers the dogs' stress and keeps everyone safe.

Say No to Scraps

It's tempting to let family members and friends treat your dogs with table scraps or tasty morsels during the holidays - after all, it is a special time.  If feeding your dogs table scraps or free-feeding is not the norm in your home, however, allowing it to happen sets the dogs up for learning poor manners, like begging, and it can cause GI issues.  A dog with an upset tummy is a stressed dog.

Take Away the Triggers

Senior dogs or dogs who are young and inexperienced tend to be more afraid of novel experiences or additions to their environment such as decorations, Christmas trees, a wreath on a door, candles, and new or rearranged furniture.  Even if your dogs were fine the year before with the decorative changes that holidays bring, our pets can go through imprinting periods or have cognitive variations when they age that make them more uncomfortable with "new stuff."

If your dogs cower away, bark, avoid, or show any sign of stress when in the presence of holiday novelties, it is best to remove the items or keep the dogs away from whatever triggers their stress response. If this is not possible, try to desensitize and counter-condition the dogs by giving them something good (like a treat or toy) in the presence of the novel object.

When Travel Plans Don't Include Pets

Unfortunately, our dogs may not always be able to accompany us on our holiday travels.  If travel is required during the holidays and you are unable to bring your best friends with you, then be sure your dogs are given enough opportunity to get accustomed to the person and/or environment where they will be cared for while you are away.  Initiate some trust building activities between your dogs and the caregiver, and help desensitize them to the new environment.   

Call In the Reinforcements

Sometimes the best way to help your dogs cope with the added stresses of the holidays is to seek a professional trainer who can work with them and you to find solutions that will keep everyone calm and happy.

It's Your Turn to Take a Breath and Relax

Dogs are particularly sensitive to the emotional state of their people, so it's just as important for you to take time and relax during the holidays as it is for your dogs.  Be sure to spend one-on-one quiet time every day with your dogs.  Relax with some deep breathing and gently stroke your dogs with intent and love. When you relax, they relax.  Sometimes this is all they need in order to know that everything is ok.

Sara May