INAPPROPRIATE DOG BEHAVIOR AT HOLIDAY PARTIES
Last Christmas I attended a party thrown by a family friend. I don’t remember climbing the stairs, nor do I remember the weather or the color of the house. I was blissfully relaxed and ready to get my festive on. I was dog and kid-free.
The door opened. It was warm inside, smelled of rich Fraser fir, light flickered from candles tastefully placed throughout the house. It was packed with people in cozy sweaters, sipping eggnog, delight as far as the…<record scratch> ear-bleeding cacophony of four jingle-bell gilded collars worn by the four dogs in attendance, each moving about the room aimlessly, except when a visitor arrived at which point the unsuspecting new arrival was met with a German Shepherd nose forcefully to the crotch, who was then pulled back by said jingle collar by his embarrassed owner, clearly to get a running start at the next hapless victim daring to join our soirée. I watched this cycle repeat four times.
The following week, I stopped into a neighborhood open house. The setting was similar but more casual. In this home, three small dogs politely and happily milled about, in and out of the legs of visitors, calmly and happily. Alerted by a sudden raucous by the hors-devours table, all eyes turned to all three dogs tangled in a knot of spit and fur tearing apart a paper plate of something brownie-ish. Crumbs were flung among flailing paws and it was growly and loud and crashy.
Several guests dove in, one of whom sustained a minor bite to the thumb. All three dogs were separated and the party took on an awkward tone thereafter.
Finally, at Christmas dinner at an extended family’s home, I was sent to gather children for the meal. I discovered one of our six-year-old cousins of gentle nature pinned against the edge of the coat-heaped bed being humped by the family standard poodle. The boy was stone-faced. The poodle, enthusiastic. I gathered the child, informed his parents, and left the poodle to chill among the coats.
In each of these instances, I focused not on the naughtiness of the dogs, but the struggle of the owners. Their embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment. Because I get it. I know why this happened. And it’s the most wonderful reason of all; they want their dogs to be a part of their holiday celebration. Goodness, what a beautiful thing.
And, really, have you seen a dog in an ugly Christmas sweater or Santa scarf? ADORABLE!
So I set about asking owners and party-goers alike their biggest frustrations with dogs around the holidays. Below is a sampling of the most common answers along with suggested solutions that spare the embarrassment, keep guests and dogs safe, and still allow shared enjoyment of a wonderful time of celebration and kinship.
FACTS ABOUT DOG BEHAVIOR
Before I get to the Q&A though, here are a few things to remember about dogs in general is to allow you to be gentle with yourself and your dog when considering each of these solutions:
1. Most dogs are not terribly social with people outside of their immediate family, especially when those people are coming onto the dog’s property. It’s wise to relax your expectations around his extroversion (most dogs are arguably selective introverts), embrace who he is socially, and work with that.
2. We also need to give nod to the importance of a dog’s individual temperament, as this is something we are realizing is absolutely paramount with regard to how he faces new events. Regardless of what his temperament predisposes him for, it’s safe to assume that all dogs experience a heightened level of stress, good or bad, as the holidays approach, and it’s common for owners to simply miss the signs.
The best thing you can do for your dog is to see him for who he really is, not for who you want him to be. An honest starting point is the only place from which good behavior can come.
3. It’s tempting to assume that the house dog, who normally moves with the flow of weekly schedules, regular mealtimes, morning squirrel watch, afternoon UPS guard, and various naps and lounging episodes through the day could roll with holiday events in his home with little adjustment. But this is far from the truth.
He’s built to be highly sensitive to changes in his environment (his existence as a species depends on it) such that contrast between his usual home life and the assault of smells, trees, decorations, rearranged furniture, and his person’s stress around such events is finely tuned. He’s highly sensitive to it all, often reflecting the very moods of his owner.
While little can be done to lessen this, other than being mindful and actively trying to mitigate human stress during the holidays, please just keep it in mind and practice forgiveness and kindness to your dog.
4. Whether you’re attending an event where there is a resident dog or three, or if the event is at your home with your own dog, we can no longer focus only on a dog’s behavior as an acceptable measure of his party success or failure. We have to consider the dog’s emotional well being during said event, and whether or not he’s having a good experience or a stressful (bad) one.
The reasons for this may seem obvious; we want our fuzzy family member to be happy and healthy. But it’s actually much more involved than that. We are learning that one of the biggest factors in bringing about good behavior, whether serious or basic, is the connection and partnership a dog has with his primary family. I cannot stress this last sentence enough.
NEWS FLASH: NOT ALL DOGS BEHAVE LIKE GOLDEN RETRIEVERS
Too often we shuttle our dogs through life holding them to the ACME dog standard—the Golden Retreiver who is friendly, social, resilient, benevolent, tolerant, etc.–instead of being aware and supportive of the fact that your dog, this dog, is different. Because he really is!
He is not a prop or novelty; he’s a resident, family member, and honorary host when any new person comes to visit. And he’s probably weird in all kinds of annoying and wonderful ways, just like the rest of your family and you. And he can be lovely and he can be naughty, funny or a nitwit. He can be curmudgeonly or cheerful. Ah, the joy! Truly!
The little effort it takes to step back and regard him as the amazing individual he is, and conscious effort to advocate for him in ways he understands and appreciates, pays off exponentially when planning a peaceful, enjoyable season for everyone.
PROBLEM #1: DOGS UNDERFOOT
This is my own personal pet peeve during non-holiday times, amplified ten fold during social events in my home and others’. It was, by far, the most common complaint among the people I spoke to.
Dogs moving underfoot though a party are both stimulated by the events and at a loss for what they “should” be doing. They are too amped up to settle and they simply don’t know that it may be expected they give guests space.
There are two ways to accomplish this, depending on your dog:
- Management. I am a huge fan of management in every home, including mine. Management is used in place of, or concurrent with, training. It simply means managing your dog’s environment so he’s not able to do the things you want him not to do. My all time favorite is a people-free space away from the festivities in which he can chill. This area should be fiercely guarded by you to limit access from all people. Seriously. Not even the dog-lover who wants to meet the dog. Your promise to your dog is that this space is as peaceful as possible while the rest of his home is being invaded. It’s not about carving out ownership—this is his, that’s theirs—it’s about preserving his emotional balance and upholding the promise to him that you’ll respect his need for peace, too.
Use gates, doors, crates, whatever necessary to make his area secure, and deck it out in comfort; a cozy bed, water, food if it’s time, toys, and chewies. Make it bright and consider some sort of gentle music to blur the chaos beyond his area. Visit him from time to time and check on him. It is good and kind and merciful to keep the underfoot dog in this space for the duration of the party.
- Train a “place”. This takes a little forethought and out-of-context training, but it’s one of my go-to skills for all dogs. It teaches them where to be. Period. In training “place,” it’s easiest to choose a mat or simple bed to which you can direct your dog when he’s underfoot (in any situation). I use a circle cut from neoprene mat about the size of a medium pizza. The benefit to this versus a bed is just that it can later be used to direct a dog to multiple places that are then named. Training to the bed is perfectly acceptable and is the easiest route to a quick solution for parties.
Step by step directions on how to train a “go to mat” (place), can be found in my book, Good Dog 101, on page 96 (Available on Amazon, also in Kindle format). There are also several examples on YouTube if you search for “go to mat, dog”. Just be sure to follow the methods which use food and/or happy praise, and avoid any physical manipulation or intimidation.
PROBLEM #2: MISCHIEF UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE
There are few things more enticing to a dog than a tree in the house, made even more irresistible by tucking wrapped treasures under it. Even if there is no tree, imagine the delight of fancy dissectibles appearing sporadically in your home at nose level, sometimes reeking of confections or perfumes. It is a bonafide miracle for dogs to behave in any civilized manner around such a spread, so let’s not set them up to fail. Instead, there are three options to employ to keep gifts safe, and dogs out of trouble:
- Management. In this case, rather than banishing your dog to his party confinement area for the entire holiday season, it’s the gifts that are going to be managed.
- If your dog is a present-ravager and you insist on having a traditional tree snuggled with presents, consider a folding fence around it. Years ago the only real option for fences were industrial strength expens used by dog folks. Happily, the choices of management fences have met consumer demand for better aesthetics and they are available in wood, various stains, and pleasant shapes. A quick browse of Amazon will do the trick.
- If you can part with the traditional floor-tree with floor-sitting presents, it’s an easy fix to set up a small table next to the tree on which presents can rest, or even a bench or shelf across the room. Festive, pretty, and peaceful.
- Lastly, some people opt to have the tree in an area of the house that’s simply never accessed by the dog. This is perfectly reasonable and safe for everyone.
PROBLEM #3: BEGGING AND STEALING FOOD
The holidays are especially difficult for dogs to manage, even if you’ve never seen your dog beg or steal food before in his life. Foods are novel, plentiful, and often available in all kinds of locations they wouldn’t normally be such as low-sitting tables, laps, and gesticulating hands.
1. Management. Honestly, the kindest thing you can do for your dog and to keep your guests safe is to manage him during parties using the people-free zone mentioned above. While this may feel like giving up, you may catch yourself saying, “he should be able to leave it,” this is where you can exercise kindness for yourself and your dog. It really isn’t reasonable to expect him to exercise restraint without a great deal of training head of time, and even then, it’s a gamble. Under these circumstances, I choose management regularly in my home even though I could choose leave-it or “place.”
2. Leave-it. Leave-it is an excellent skill to train your dog just as part of his normal behavior repertoire, and it can be used in this scenario if it’s been trained to proficiency before this. It’s common I see owners shouting, “leave it!” to their dogs when no prior training whatsoever has taken place. I’m not sure why this one (along with recall) is a skill people overlook as being preinstalled at the factory, but dogs don’t come having any idea what leave-it means if you don’t formally train it. A quick one-page step-by-step instruction guide can be found in my book, Good Dog 101, on page 94.
3. Place. If you’ve noticed that your dog is only browsing for food because he’s really got nothing better to do, consider training him a “place” cue. For the dog who is particularly food-motivated, this is not the best choice as you’ll be reminding him constantly, but for the pup who could take it or leave and just wants to know where he’s supposed to be, it’s a fine choice. See above.
PROBLEM #4: KIDS AND DOGS
The challenges expressed by hosts and party-goers alike were numerous in this area, so here are a few tips to address the most common challenges. As a mom of three myself, and an advocate for both dogs and people, I err conservatively when working with dogs and kids, and put responsibility on parents and owners alike to make sure everyone is safe and happy during events where dogs and kids commingle.
1. Management. When kids are part of a party, it’s essential to establish a people-free zone explained above. In no other situation can I think of is this more important. It keeps dogs calm and safe, kids safe, and avoids the real and unfortunate threat of litigation due to some unfortunate dog/child interaction that goes south. Management is, by far, my number one recommendation in a home in which children are visiting for any reason.
2. Supervised movement. Owners also have the option of supervising their dog around children. Unlike the casual supervision of normally living with a dog, this is active supervision meaning the dog needs to be followed around and each interaction with a child guided by the owner. Be honest with yourself and your ability and interest in doing this if supervised movement is the way you choose to go. Most owners overestimate their abilities to watch as carefully as is necessary, and that’s perfectly okay. Just opt for management instead.
3. Teach children. I am a firm believer that it is not acceptable to allow children to interact with dogs without doing so properly. I have worked with my own children, now ten, eight, and five, since birth to learn the appropriate way to behave around, and interact with, dogs. As young as 18 months, kids can learn simple consequences with doing so properly or improperly, but do not count on all visitors to your home to be prepared in the same way. If you are familiar with the children visiting and your dog has a history with them being appropriate with him, consider supervised movement. If not, choose management.
4. Lastly, if your dog has any history at all of growing, snarling, snapping, or biting at people either in public or on your property, choose management. Period.
While the approach to many of the usual complaints during this season may seem conservative compared to how we’ve commonly managed dogs during the holidays, these are solid, proven techniques that not only have good behavior in mind, but safety, liability, and strength of relationships in mind, too.
And your dog can still wear his ugly sweater in his people-free zone.
Happy Holidays to you and your 2-legged and 4-legged) family!
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.