Dogs and Christmas…keep Fido happy and safe

Christmas is a time of family get togethers, good cheer, and high energy. We love to celebrate, to drink, to eat, to grieve our losses–and we often include our dogs in whatever we might choose to do at any given moment.

Extended families and long-lost friends might descend on you over the holidays, some of whom may think they are god’s gift to dogdom, while others might be terrified of dogs, even small ones. They might bring Fido, their fluffy white dog, who “usually” gets along with dogs, but appears like Cujo in the making.

And then there are the dog costumes at stores and online, encouraged and modeled by friends and family, even trainers. There are a gazillion choices for treats and all manner of toys. There are human tidbits, leftovers, and new children’s toys to contend with. Whether you have one dog or multiple dogs, this season can be overwhelming for both you and your dogs.

Annie and her presents.

a few things to think about:

  • Take a deep breath and realize that Christmas is for us, not for our dogs. In fact, holiday times can be very stressful for your dog(s), particularly if they are anxious, reactive, or fearful. Even Annie, who is a well-grounded dog who had every advantage as a puppy, has an uptick in her anxiety level with multiple visitors. And if visitor dogs are added to the puzzle, she is over-the-top with excitement and anxiety.
  • Plan what your dog will do and where he’s going to spend time during get-togethers and parties. 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.
  • Even if your dog does love people, he may enjoy them for 15 minutes, then 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. Does your dog enjoy having other dogs in his house? 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 normally wouldn’t.
A quiet, peaceful room for Tessie away from the chaos.
  • 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 the valuable toy by a more dominant dog.
  • 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.
Annie works hard to resist the forbidden cookies…but if I wasn’t there, who knows?
  • Be careful not to leave human food lying around–desserts, candies, turkey bones (can be 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.
  • Marijuana baked goods 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 shakes off, licks his lips, yawns, puts back his ears, tucks his tail, or tries to escape when you approach him with his lovely annual 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.
Annie refused to let even a Christmas hat near her unless she was allowed to play tug, so I asked
Bruno, our faux dog, to help out.
  • 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 more prone to make mistakes such as messing in the house, or snapping at or biting humans (think about the unsupervised child who chases your dog, or the uncle who LOVES dogs and insists on hugging your dog while Fido’s eating dinner).
  • It’s also more likely that fights will break out between canine siblings or canine visitors to the house due to high stress and arousal levels.
  • If you are sad or depressed at Christmas (many of us have lost 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.
  • By being vigilant and careful and by looking out for your dogs’ needs, you can make the season a positive experience for all of your family.