Today in my Holiday Stress series we’re going to answer the big question: Do you need to change your holiday traditions to accommodate your dog?
I’m not saying that you should dispense with everything that you really love about the holidays. But look around. What do you really love about the holidays? Some of the things that make your dog the craziest may not be as important as you think.
How much time do you spend stressing about your dog destroying your decorations? Opening your presents? Eating Aunt Sue’s annual box of chocolates? The more you stress about it, the more edgy your dog will be. The more times you scold, the worse you’ll both feel. What about from the dog’s side–Is your dog afraid of the Christmas tree? Terrified of the fire in the fireplace?
If something isn’t important to you, let it go. If the mantel full of antique ceramics doesn’t make your heart sing, leave them in the attic so that you can keep playing fetch in the house. Put away the antique tree skirt that nobody really sees in favor of one that can be washed or thrown away if puppy mistakes your tree for, you know, a tree.
You can also simplify your social calendar. Cut down on the number of mindless shopping trips and parties away from home with people you don’t really like. You’ll be less stressed, your dog will spend less time alone, and you’ll both be happier.
For things that can’t be jettisoned, or that really do matter to you, consider management. If your dog is afraid of the Christmas tree, but you really love it, make a compromise and move it to a room that the dog spends less time in. If you can’t move the tree, try Leslie McDevitt’s “Look At That!” game to desensitize your dog. Find a very thorough discussion of this quite useful exercise here.
If, on the other hand, your dog adores the tree so much that he wants to eat it, you can move the tree to a room with a door or with a doorway that can be gated, or you can move your dog to a crate or a closed room while you’re away. Unless your dog is a saint, either put the presents away until they’re really needed or block his access to the area around the tree. In my experience, most of Silas’s problems in the house have happened while each of us thought the other was watching. When your house is full of temptations, be very clear about who is watching the dog.
Cut down chances of accidental poisoning by keeping holiday treats off surfaces dogs can reach. The ASPCA reports that poinsettia poisoning is overrated, but your dog still doesn’t need to be chowing down. Put them higher up or in places the dog can’t access. It’s also a time of year when there are a lot of forbidden food items around. Don’t wrap food gifts and put them under the tree until the last minute. I hear that some truly disgusting people ruin fruitcake with raisins, and chocolate is everywhere right now. If you’re like my mom and put chewing gum in the stockings, pass up those that contain xylitol. Nothing will stress your holiday like a trip to the emergency vet.
Finally, ask yourself if your dog really wants to participate in whatever your family is doing. We love our dogs and want them around, but popping popcorn and unwrapping presents may be too much for a noise-sensitive dog. Your off-key carols may have poor Fido wishing for some earplugs. The yule log burning can make your dog very nervous. Make sure your dog always has the option to leave the room and go somewhere that’s more to his liking. If your dog is anxious about dogs or strangers, think carefully before you take him to the tree farm or to get a picture taken with Santa.
(The fine print: Don’t trust anyone on the internet for advice about serious training issues. If your dog has a history of biting, separation anxiety, extreme fear, resource guarding, or generalized anxiety, please get professional help.)