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The holiday season can be stressful for our pets. Anytime your plans will disrupt their normal routine, with guests coming and going, it’s important to set them up for success so everyone gets through the season seamlessly.
Some animals are easygoing, but if you live with dogs like my three hounds, you need some guidelines in place before guests arrive. My dogs are clingy and follow me around most of the day. If their schedules change even a little it causes a lot of stress and my beagle, especially, gets anxious.
As a Certified Vet Technician, I’ve heard a lot of stories from clients about what happened when Grandma came over last year and fed the labrador too many treats! There are easy ways to avoid these types of scenarios.
Dog behavior expert and author of “I’ll Be Home Soon,” Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., has great tips for dogs that are anxious. These also apply when schedules are temporarily disrupted by holiday guests, even if your dog isn’t typically anxious. “Decide where your dog will do best when you have to be gone for longer periods,” says McConnell.
With that in mind, when guests are coming over, have a predetermined area in the house where your animal is comfortable. Decide on it weeks before company arrives. This is savvy advice: dogs need a safe place when you can’t pay a lot of attention to them. The kitchen is not always the best choice!
Tools to help set up pets for success range from baby gates to calming music.
Baby Gates for Management
Most animals normally have free range of the house, but shouldn’t when you’re hosting. When you determine the section of the house that’s safe for them while you’re occupied with guests, use baby gates to mark it off.
The weeks leading up to the “big event” should be a training opportunity. Spend time with your dogs just hanging out in that section of the house, and use treats to let them know how much fun it is to be behind a baby gate in that area.
“Manage obsessively” is the best advice overall. McConnell recommends minimizing any potential problems in advance. Crates are an excellent tool when your dogs need a safe space away from guests and other dogs.
My pack is crate-trained and this is one of my most valuable tools during the holidays. All three dogs spend the first 30 minutes of a party in their crates before they greet guests calmly. These crates are kept in the safe area upstairs, away from guests and behind a baby gate.
KONGs, Buster Cubes, and most types of puzzle toy are a great way to keep dogs (and cats) occupied when guests are over. Stuff them with almond butter (find a brand with no salt and no sugar!) and freeze them before folks arrive. Dogs love this treat and it keeps them busy.
Train some basic commands, including “no jumping” and how to greet guests calmly, in the weeks and even months before they arrive. This article by a professional trainer walks you through how to do this using positive reinforcement techniques.
Find a pet sitter to drop by and take your dog for a walk or an adventure to a local park if you’re busy cooking and preparing for guests. Mental enrichment is a great way to distract your dog from any change in their schedule. It will help relieve some stress—and hiring a dog walker or pet sitter will give you a break as well.
My dog Shermie is anxious, and a good dog is a tired dog. I’ve learned which tools work best for our pack when company comes over for Christmas Eve dinner. Exercise stimulates the production of serotonin, that feel-good chemical that we humans also get when we work out.
In Sherman’s case, it gets rid of “anxious” energy. If I don’t have time to take him, I have reliable pet sitters that I schedule for drop-in visits.
Music Is Calming
In our house, we play music from iCalmDog on Spotify. You can also purchase specially crafted music by Through a Dog’s Ear. “We know that the consideration of the sensory environment—be it in a shelter or your home—is critical to the long-term health of our animals. Humans have stress-relief strategies at hand. Dogs and cats don’t have access to relaxation or anti-anxiety techniques,” explains founder Lisa Spector.
Advice for Guests
Guests need some rules for engaging with your animals. For example, not everyone knows that feeding dogs leftovers can easily cause serious stomach upset. When children are visiting, in particular, it’s important never to let them be unsupervised with your dogs.
Explain to your guests that baby gates are up to manage the animals and that they should remain where they are. You may also let them know the dogs are calm and in a special area of the house where they are enjoying puzzle toys filled with treats! Reassure your holiday company that your perfect angels are happy and safe, even if they’re not at the party.