With many friends and families preparing to reunite again this festive season, I wanted share my top tips for anxious dogs at Christmas and how to help keep both pets and people and safe during this fun, but often, stressful time.
With so many pandemic puppies and rescue dogs lacking critical early socialisation and training due to lockdowns, being exposed to strangers or big groups of people in the home over the festive season is likely to create a lot of stress and anxiety for many of them, as well as for other domestic pets, putting people and pets at risk.
Many anxious dogs respond with fear-based aggression – a big issue that I and many other trainers are seeing at the moment – which can put people, especially children who can’t read the warning signs, at risk of being seriously hurt. Even the most placid of dogs can react when they are under stress, so preparing our pets now for visitors and giving them a safe and calm place to go when they are feeling overwhelmed, is key.
Top Tips for anxious dogs at Christmas:
- Slowly introduce new people into your home one or two visitors a week as soon as possible, using treats and positive reinforcement training to create a calm, positive experience.
- Put your dog on a lead and ask people to take off hats, hoodies and sunglasses, move slowly, avoid staring at the dog or interacting with them if the dog is barking, jumping or acting in appropriately.
- If your dog is food motivated, have the other person slowly come into the house or room with a treat easily visible. If they are toy or ball motivated you can use those too. If your dog moves towards them to investigate, they should offer your dog the treat and speak in a low, calm and encouraging voice to help create the positive association we are after.
- People should NEVER put their hand out when meeting a dog. This is a sure way to get bitten, despite what you have been led to believe. Visitors should invite the dog to them with a pat to the leg and if the dog doesn’t respond or moves away, leave them alone! Never force interactions.
- If ignored, dogs will often get curious and slowly make their way over to investigate. So, people should talk quietly, no sudden movements, encouraging and praising good behaviour and let the dog take the lead.
If your dog is very anxious in general, do speak to your Veterinarian or a Vet Behaviourist about longer and short term, medication options.
As the owner of an anxious, rescue dog myself, I know first-hand the vital role that medication can play with helping some anxious dogs cope with the world around them. A stressed dog simply cannot learn, so it really can enable us to have real success with our behaviour modification efforts and should be something owners should be open to talking to their vet about.
On the day of group gatherings:
- On the day itself, make sure your pet has a safe room or area outside to take themselves too if they are feeling overwhelmed and that they have their bed, blankets, toys, water, food or a long-lasting chew – and that no one is allowed to interrupt them there.
- Cats should have a high up place to escape to, or they may like to escape and hide under the bed. Let them be!
- Use pheromone appeasing sprays or diffusers in the area specific to dogs and cats. You could even pull down the blinds and put on some low music to block out the noise if things get a bit rowdy.
- Keep children away from the area at all times!
Other festive season tips to keep pets safe:
Keep them away from toxic food and beverages
With Christmas meals generally including ham, pork or turkey – all with fatty skin and often high in salt, pudding with brandy sauce and fruit mince pies, it is a time to be vigilant about keeping pets away from toxic or harmful food and alcoholic drinks. All of those foods mentioned above are no good for dogs, with fruit, macadamia nuts, grapes, raisins and alcohol all being extremely toxic.
Always ask guest to refrain from feeding your dog any food, even if it’s “just a little bit” as it is often a time that many dogs end up in emergency vet clinics for pancreatitis or from toxic foods, causing pain and suffering, sometimes worse, in your dog and a LOT of pain to your hip pocket!
Keep them cool in the heat
On hot days I am still dismayed at how many people are out walking or running their dogs in the heat with no regard to the pain or damage the hot paths and roads do to our dog’s paws, not to mention the risk of heatstroke.
- Always walk dogs early in the morning and in the evenings on a hot day. A good way to check if the ground is comfortable for your dog is to see if you can comfortably leave your hands on the road or footpath for 5 seconds without it feeling hot.
- Put sunscreen on the sensitive or exposed areas such as nose, ears or bellies, especially where skin is exposed.
- Ensure pets have plenty of shade (at all times of day) and cool, fresh water.
- NEVER leave your dog in the car, even with the windows down and in the shade, on a day over 20 degrees.
- If your dog is looking uncomfortably hot, cool them down with tap water (not iced), but you can give them ice blocks to lick or in their water bowl.
About the Author: Lara Shannon is a NDTF certified dog behaviourist and trainer, pet food nutrition specialist, Executive Producer and Host of Pooches at Play on Channel 10 and editor of Poochesatplay.com. Lara also runs her own dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area and is the Author of World of Dogs and Eat, Play, Love Your Dog