By Dr. Judith Herman
Q. This is the first holiday season with friends and family. Our Covid puppy, who is now a teenager, hasn’t been around crowds. What can I do to make this a good experience?
A. Not only are the pet parents going through the stress of entertaining and family gatherings so are our dogs. Doesn’t matter if Buster is a new member of the family or has been there for a few years. Gatherings, when not part of a pet's lifestyle, can be a stressful time.
The first thing you want to do is assess how your pup handles a change in routine. Another is to know what behavior skills he has or doesn’t have. If he is rusty or just clueless because he was never taught these skills, it is important to know. How does he react to different stressors, such as crowds and novel environments? The third is to set up rules for the guests as well as for the dog before any event happens.
Look at your best friend and write down what makes him happy, fearful, concerned, and so on. Rate the level from 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest. If he has been exposed to crowds like at a baseball game, how does he act? Happy, worried, doesn’t care? How is he with running children from toddlers on up? Does he act differently out and about versus at home? Is he okay in a boisterous, chaotic environment, or does he prefer quiet times at home?
Now look at the holiday events you are planning this season. Will it be low stress of close friends and family? Or is this the big blow out you have been dying to have? Who is going to be there, and how do they normally act?
Let’s put the two together. Buster is great with crowds, noise, and chaos. He is bomb proof. Here you have more flexibility on how to help him. Even the most solid dogs need a safety net in social events. Be sure to give him a place to relax. If you notice he is getting revved up or starting to be a little naughty, it is time to give him a break. The place should be away from the action. If he loves his crate, leave the door open, so he can go in. If he is too involved in the festivities, you may need to help him into the crate for a time out with the door closed. Give him a tasty frozen Kong or another long-lasting treat. If he doesn’t have a crate but has a bed, do the same as if it were a crate: a quiet place and a long favorite treat to keep him happy. No one is to go near him while he is taking a break.
What to do with the pup who with the first guest is submissively peeing, cowering, barking, or just moving around with his ears back and a worried look in his eyes. Start with him in his crate or on his bed when people arrive. If that isn’t a skill he has, ask your guests not lo look at him or approach him, no matter how much “dogs love them”. If that isn’t working, put him on a leash away from the door and have someone not greeting guests interact with him. You can have the designated person take him out of the room and play with him somewhere else, so he doesn’t see what is upsetting to him. Once everyone is in and settled, try to let Buster interact on his terms with the guests. Remember the rules; he gets to approach them not the other way around. If this is still too much, set him up in a spare room with food, water, favorite toys, and a frozen Kong or other special treat until the guests are gone.
If your pup just can’t handle social interaction, schedule to board him at a local kennel, but make reservations soon because they book up fast.
Hopefully, you have spent time training your dog to be a good citizen by learning simple tricks like sit, down, stay, and go to your mat. If you haven’t, you can make it a game and start now. Dogs learn fast, but don’t expect the same response when alone with you in the kitchen versus a social event. That is too much of a leap. These skills are important to give Buster confidence in what to do in a stressful situation. He looks to you for guidance. Left to his own devices, he may make bad choices.
Wishing you and our pup a safe and happy holiday season.
Judith K. Herman DVM, CVH
Animal Wellness Center