POP QUIZ: During the holidays, what is the #1 thing smart dog trainers and behaviour professionals do differently than most dog owners that results in stress-free time for family, friends, and resident dogs?
'You can't train a behaviour at the time that you need it.'
Let's be honest - many people are embarrassed by how their dog behaves when visitors come over. Your dog may excitedly jump up on frail Granny Vera, or hump Uncle Bob's leg, steal food off the kid's table, or get in a fight with your sister's Puggle. Despite all the good cheer, the holidays can become stressful if you are worried about how your pet will behave when company arrives. And even though some dogs may appear happy and excited when company is over, the holidays can be a stressful time for your pet too! Visitors may behave in ways that are scary, or unpredictable, or your dog may not know why they are being yelled at for behaviour - like jumping up - that they do all year round. Good behaviour - like polite, four-feet-on-the-floor greetings at the door- isn't something that happens naturally. Dogs need to be systematically taught how we want them to behave. While this can easily be done using kindness and treats, it does take time for your dog to learn these new skills. The days leading up to the holidays - or even the day itself - is NOT the time to try and tackle training these behaviours. To try doing so would be setting both you and your dog up to fail. This holiday season, make things merry and bright for you, your company, and your dog. Management is the secret weapon of smart dog trainers and behaviour professionals, and it can be your secret weapon too this holiday season too. Here are some tips on how to manage your dog this year.
1. Barriers and safe rooms, for the win. The single best way to manage your pet is to physically separate them from your friends and family. Baby gates, crates (if your dog is happy in a crate), x-pens, even a closed bedroom door are all great ways of achieving this separation. (Check out this link for more ideas, in pictures.) It's also a good idea to put a note on the barrier, to remind people how they should behave: 'Please don't go in this room.' 'Please don't look at/pet/interact with the dog over the barrier'. If your dog is safely and comfortably contained it's hard for them to get 'practiced' at jumping on Granny Vera, or humping Uncle Bob. It's also then really hard for Granny or Uncle to accidentally reward the behaviour (when Granny pets the dog as he jumps up), or behave in ways that might hurt or scare your dog (when Uncle yells at or pushes the dog). Despite best intentions, other people are generally NOT good at helping you train your dog. Add in a few glasses of punch, and this only gets worse - suddenly Uncle Bob fancies himself the Dog Whisperer...and using punishment-based techniques can quickly result in someone getting hurt. The only way to control how people interact with your dog is to physically prevent all opportunities they have to interact with your dog.
2. Create JOMO not FOMO. Most people have heard of FOMO - a Fear Of Missing Out, and this isn't what we want your dog to feel behind the barrier. Being behind the barrier shouldn't cause your dog to feel frustrated or upset. Instead, we want to create JOMO - a Joy of Missing Out! The barrier/safe room is where the best things happen: new squeaky toys, Kongs filled with tasty frozen canned food, food puzzle toys, meaty bones, bully sticks, relaxing music made just for dogs - whatever special things your dog enjoys. If your dog is comfortable with people, you could even have a bowl of pea-sized treats on the human side of the baby gate/x-pen for your guests to toss to your dog when they are standing or sitting calmly. (This is actually a bit of sneaky training, as it helps your dog associate their own calm behaviour around guests with receiving tasty treats. Bonus!)
3. All is calm? After your guests have arrived, and things have calmed down (and if you haven't had a few cocktails) if your dog is not fearful of people you could try bringing your dog out on leash - after carefully instructing visitors on how they should behave first! Having them ignore the dog is a great place to start. If they do want to interact with the dog they could toss small pea-sized treats to the dog when the dog is behaving calmly, e.g. all four feet on the floor, or lying next to you while leashed on their bed. If this proves to be too exciting for your dog, just put them back in their safe place with a tasty treat. If your dog is fine with this level of interaction, it's important to still keep things brief. Even the happiest, most well-adjusted dogs can become tired or overwhelmed by the excitement of the festivities. Once the 2019 holidays are over, a wonderful - and realistic - New Year's Resolution might be to take the time to teach your dog how to politely greet and interact with visitors next holiday season. With 364 days to practice and train, I can think of no greater gift for you both. Happy holidays, to you and your animals.