Yup, this is the time of year when the rubber hits the road, and the leaping, crotch-sniffing, poop-eating dog that you just rescued from a puppy mill is about to meet Aunt Polly, the only member of the family who is terrified of dogs. Or maybe it’s the dog you’ve had for years, and the leaping and crotch sniffing are in the past, but then… there’s that poop eating thing. A friend called me for advice about this very problem (visitors, not poop eating), and I recalled that I had written a post several years ago about how to handle the chaos that is the holiday season, not to mention the reality of owning animals that don’t understand why the routine flies out the window during the shortest days of the year. Here is the post again, (with some minor editing,) because dog behavior and holiday-related challenges are timeless:
From December 12, 2009:
Trainers and behaviorists can all tell stories about the calls they get around the holidays. Those of you who are trainers can no doubt tell some of your own. (I’d love to hear them!) Not uncommonly, we hear “Aunt Polly is coming tomorrow and she hates dogs and I have seven of them and they’ve never been alone in a room or in a crate and I can’t board them and I was wondering if you could tell me what to do.” (Answer: Pack dogs into car, drive elsewhere, leave note on front door for Aunt Polly that you’ve been abducted by aliens?)
From the other side of the equation, I’ve heard lots of dog lovers struggle over what to do when company comes and their dog doesn’t do well with visitors. One holiday season, years ago, I had five “do I have to kill my dog cases?,” all serious bites to visitors, on December 23rd and 24th. So sad.
Here’s my generic advice about holidays and dogs and visitors. I’d love to hear what solutions you’ve come up with for yourself or advised for others.
1. Do you REALLY want to take your dog to the big family gathering? How fun is it going to be when you discover that your nephew is allergic to dogs, or your sister-in-law brought a dog-hating cat, or your uncle brought his three Rat Terriers, all of whom are X!X!X! (insert interesting behavioral issue here.) For everyone’s sake, seriously consider leaving your dog at home, either in a great kennel or with a great dog sitter. This could be a blessing to your dog, to you, or to the rest of your family. (I still blush about bringing my St. Bernard to someone’s house when I was young and stupid. It was so hot where we slept that I finally opened a window to cool it off–Cosby’s panting and drooling got to be a bit too much. We woke up in the morning to find that our host’s prized house plants had been killed by the cold air. Our dog-disliking hostess literally began to shriek, eyes squinched shut, hands clenched, jumping up and down in fury like a five-year old. I still feel badly. Whoever and wherever you are–I’m SO sorry I killed your fern!)
Bottom line? “Dog Sitters. Don’t leave home without them.” Of course, in some cases bringing your dog just adds to the fun, and if that’s the case, then Eeeee Hah, bring ’em on. But if you’re not sure, then discretion is the better part of valor.
2. If visitors are coming to you, do what most professionals do, and thank the heavens for dog crates and X-pens. It seems to be the pro’s who are most likely to put their dogs away to prevent problems, rather than crossing their fingers and saying “I think it’ll be okay…”. Anytime I hear myself asking that question, I know to change my tune and do whatever I need to do to know that it’ll be okay.
I never hesitate to err on the side of caution if there is even the slightest chance of trouble between a dog and a visitor. Most trainers and behaviorists don’t either; nothing like years of hearing about serious bites and traumas related to dogs. ARe kids coming over and you’re not 110% sure about how they’ll behave around your dog? Not sure either how the kids will behave? Then start with your dog safely contained, meet the kids and then decide how they’ll interact. Is Uncle Johnny, all 6 foot 7 of him, driving in from down south to meet your dog who is uncomfortable around unfamiliar men? Aren’t you glad you crate-trained your dog?
In general, when first getting everyone together:
Start cautiously: Dog in crate when visitors enter?
Observe carefully: Watch interactions like a hawk at first.
Manage obsessively: Know your dog’s signs of discomfort and minimize the potential of any problems.
3. Give everyone a break. Crate Fido up after an hour with the guests, why wait until after he’s tired and beginning to get grumpy? Many of the cases I’ve seen in the past have occured after the dog has been with the company all day long, is tired and finally snaps/bites at the end of the day. Being an introvert (truly), I can sympathize. I love company and being with people, but I get tired after hours of it and need to go to my crate so that I don’t get cranky and bite someone. (Please keep that in mind if I come to visit.)
This all might sound a bit excessive, why not just let dogs be dogs and let things play out? Here’s why: A dear friend just had his beloved dog bite a guest (equally beloved) during Thanksgiving dinner. “Why didn’t I put her in her crate?” he asked, after the bite and the trauma. “Because you’re an optimist and not a professional trainer,” I said, but in the future, management is going to have to be Job #1 in his treatment plan. This kind of management becomes second nature to trainers, doesn’t it? But we had to learn it, and anything we can do to let people know that it’s OKAY to separate dogs and guests sometimes, the better.
What about you? Tell us your pet and holiday stories… from funny to illuminating to oxytocin inducing. I can’t wait to read them.
MEANWHILE, holiday preparation is in full swing at the farm. I spent much of Saturday baking loaves of carrot bread, cheese breed and herb rolls for our holiday packages for friends and neighbors. Jim made his great grandmother’s famous Christmas cookies, 150 of them, and we spent half a day decorating them together. Now I just have to keep from eating them before they get distributed to friends. Wish me luck.
Here’s one small batch of them now: