Even during a pandemic, Christmas might be a time of small get togethers, good cheer, and high energy. We love to celebrate, to drink, to eat, and to grieve our losses–and we often include our dogs in our celebrations.
Close family members you haven’t seen for some time might descend on you over the holidays and think they are God’s gift to dogdom. Others might be terrified of dogs. They might bring Fido, their fluffy white dog, who “usually” gets along with dogs, but appears like Cujo in the making once he arrives.
Canine Christmas costumes are available in stores and online and are encouraged by friends and family, even trainers. An endless array of treats and all manner of toys are advertised for dogs. There are human tidbits, leftovers, and forbidden children’s toys for your dog to contend with. Whether you have one dog or multiple dogs, this season can be overwhelming for everyone.
a few things to think about:
- Take a deep breath and realize that Christmas is for us, not for our dogs. In fact, holiday time can be very stressful for dogs, particularly if they are anxious, reactive, or fearful. Even Annie, who is a well-grounded dog who had every advantage as a puppy, has had an uptick in her anxiety level with the rare visitor we’ve had since COVID started. If visitor dogs are added to the scenario, she is over-the-top with excitement and anxiety.
- Plan what your dog will do and where he’ll spend time during get-togethers. When we had Vera, our human and dog-reactive German Shepherd, we chose not to have more than one or two visitors to the house at a time, and we always introduced her to them in a consistent manner. We also monitored her closely for the duration of the visit. In many ways, COVID has been kind to our reactive dogs.
- Even if your dog loves people, he may enjoy socializing for 15 minutes, then will need some time away from the noise and bustle to decompress. He may love to be around adults, but be somewhat uncomfortable around children. (Being “OK” with children is not the same as loving kids.)
- Think carefully about whether to invite canine visitors into your home. Even if he does enjoy doggie friends, in a high-stimulus environment, it’s not unusual for dogs to get over-aroused and erupt into squabbles.
- Even well-behaved dogs can get over-stimulated and eat, spill, or break things they usually wouldn’t.
- Set up a safe, quiet, comfortable area for your dog to spend time away from the chaos. Supply his space with some of his favorite, indestructible toys, his bed, and a bowl of fresh water. Visit him several times during the day or evening, take him outside and play with him frequently, and allow him to visit with company only as much as you think he enjoys.
- Try to keep this season as routine as possible for your dog, and maintain his daily exercise and playtime routines. Feed him his regular diet, and keep new treats and chews to a minimum.
- Be careful to choose gifts for your dog that are safe. A toy that is safe for one dog might not be safe for another depending on the strength of his jaws and his behavior. Some dogs like to destroy or dissect toys, some just like to spend time with them.
- When dispensing gifts in multi-dog households, put your dogs in different parts of the room–or even separate rooms–to avoid resource guarding of the treasured items. Even if your dogs don’t fight, one dog will often be forced to give up a valuable toy by the dog who has greater access to coveted resources in the canine relationship.
- Know where to call and who to contact if your dog ingests something unauthorized.
- Review a list of potential poisons for your dog at Christmas.
- Be careful not to leave human food lying around–desserts, candies, turkey bones (potentially fatal), bread, cheese, chips, etc. Even well-behaved dogs can lose their manners when things are left at nose level, and a poor decision could put him in the hospital. Placing your dog in his safe place might be a good idea during times when humans are eating. Also, inform guests not to feed your dog since they could inadvertently give your pet something toxic.
- Marijuana baked goods and artificial sweeteners can be very toxic to your dog and result in hospitalization. Some dogs like alcohol, which is also extremely toxic to dogs–they can lap it directly from a glass or from the floor if a drink spills. Even alcohol-infused desserts can be dangerous.
- Before you purchase or dig out your dog costumes for Christmas, think for a minute. As Suzanne Clothier points out in her book “Bones Would Rain From the Sky“, it is wise to ask your dog, “how is this for you?” If your dog shows signs of stress such as shaking off, licking his lips, yawning, putting back his ears, tucking his tail, or if he tries to escape when you approach him with his lovely reindeer costume, put it back in the box. On the whole, dogs don’t like to be dressed up, and even new harnesses and head collars need a desensitization period.
- Because the Christmas season is a stressful time for our dogs, it is important to understand that your dog is more likely to be reactive, anxious, and prone to make mistakes such as messing in the house or snapping at/biting humans–like the unsupervised child who chases your dog, or the uncle who LOVES dogs and insists on hugging Fido while he’s eating dinner.
- It’s also more likely that fights will break out between canine siblings or canine visitors due to high stress and arousal levels.
- If you are sad or depressed at Christmas (many of us have lost or miss loved ones at this time of year and the season might trigger a grief reaction) take time to play with and walk your dog. It will not only be reassuring for your dog, but will make you feel better too.
- Be vigilant and careful. By looking out for your dogs’ needs, you can make the season a positive experience for everyone.