Managing Holiday Dog Stress

SarahAnxiety Issues, SeasonalLeave a Comment

holiday dog stress_st louis dog trainer
Photo courtesy of Oszkár Dániel Gáti Photography via

Well, well, well… You made it to the holiday season! Gone is the pressure of having to maintain that bathing suit body and perfect pedicure. Along with the holidays, of course, comes holiday parties and oh-so-much tasty food. Bring on the love handles and oversized sweaters, yeah! And just as you need to prep yourself and your home for your holiday parties, now is also a good time to check in with your pup to think about how they are going to handle the holiday season. Here are some things to consider…

Is your dog nervous or tense around company?

If you have a fearful or anxious dog, this is something that you are probably used to asking yourself. But if your dog is usually happy-go-lucky and what we trainers refer to as “bomb-proof,” signals of stress may be more subtle. Signals of stress can include “calming signals” like lip licking, scratching, shaking off, or yawning. All of these signals (and others) could be your dog trying to relieve tension, but they also must be taken in context. For example, if your dog just got done working on a peanut butter Kong, of course, you might see some lip licking. That doesn’t mean your pup is stressed, it just mean there’s peanut butter schmeared on his muzzle!

But if this isn’t the case, consider what you can do to help your pup feel safer and more at ease in the environment. This might mean providing your dog with a safe space like his or her own comfy bed, chair or crate space to escape to. Another solution might be to give your dog a food puzzle toy, delicious long-lasting chew toy or bone as a distraction. If you feel like one or more of your guests might be inadvertently doing something to make your dog uneasy, the easiest solution is to put your dog in a separate room altogether. The more we “listen” to what our dogs are telling us, the more proactive we can be in preventing unwanted situations, like bites.

Is your dog rambunctious and out of control around company?

So you have the opposite problem, eh? Your Thanksgiving Day living nightmare might look something like this… Your dog goes wild when the doorbell rings, ambushes the front door planning for the perfect escape, but decides that jumping on Aunt Mary and sending sweet potato casserole flying to the floor seems like a better and tastier option than stirring up the neighborhood like a Tasmanian devil. Yep, been there.

Would you be surprised to hear that a lot of the same simple solutions for the Nervous Nelly can also be the solutions for your devilish dog? Things like asking your dog to go to their space and stay, providing a long-lasting chew toy or food-stuffed toy as a distraction, and even choosing to avoid the chaos altogether by putting your dog in a separate room are all perfectly acceptable strategies for managing your dog’s behavior.

Five easy ways to prep your dog for the holidays:

So you might ask what can you do right now to prepare your dog for the excitement of having holiday guests? I’m glad you asked! Here are a few tips…

  1. Familiarize yourself with these Fear Signals (aka calming signals or stress signals) in dogs by reviewing this great illustration from Dr. Sophia Yin, and how to interpret them when you see them.
  1. Brush up on the basics: Teach (or review) your dog’s basic obedience skills before company comes like Sit, Down, Stay, Leave It and come when called. If your dog has solid skills before company comes the more likely they’ll be to retain the info amidst a bit of distraction. (Obedience Class Information)
  1. Teach or practice your “Go to Mat” or “Go to Bed” behavior. It’s always great to have a place to send your dog to lay down and chill. Here’s a great video by awesome trainer, Emily Larlham, to illustrate how to teach this useful behavior!
  1. Practice putting your dog in another room. If the first time your dog is isolated from everyone is when you have a house full of guests, you’ll get an ear full of protest in the form of barking, howling and sad puppy whining. But if you practice beforehand and pop in frequently with a tasty treat when your dog is being quiet, he’ll quickly learn that being in the “quiet treat room” rocks!
  1. Prepare your distractors! What will keep your dog quiet and busy for an extended period of time? Is it a stuffed and frozen Kong, a beef bone, bully stick, deer antler or Himalayan chew? Whatever it might be, be sure to prepare it or purchase it ahead of time and have it on hand when the time comes. A tired (and full) pup is one that is likely to be more relaxed and generally better-behaved.
The holidays are about enjoying time with your loved ones… not about feeling guilty.

If you do decide that putting your dog in another room is the best option, put any feelings of guilt aside. Although you may feel like your dog and your guests deserve the opportunity to socialize with each other, many times the stress of managing these interactions is overwhelming for you, and uncomfortable and awkward for your guests. Trust me, your loved ones will understand if putting the dog away is your best option, and your dog will absolutely forgive you when the leash comes out for that long, peaceful walk you’ll have together once it’s all over.

This holiday season, be fair to yourself, your friends, your family and your pup and don’t hesitate for one second to simplify your life for the benefit of all. The time you have with your loved ones is precious, so balance it well.

Much love, gratitude, good eats, sweet melodies and a very peaceful and happy holiday season to you, my friends!… Sarah

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