Christmas is always an exciting time of year, all the build up and anticipation, catching up with friends and family, keeping up the traditions and enjoying a change of routine or scene. It can be a stressful time for people so it’s no surprise our dogs often find it overwhelming too. They have the added disadvantage that they can’t understand why everything has changed suddenly or why there is so much happening in their home.
We might think it affects the nervous dogs most, the ones who enjoy the stability of their routine or those who have a more select group of human-friends. But even those dogs who LOVE people, can become overwhelmed very quickly. Whether your dog loves new people or is more socially-selective, they will experience increased stress during this time of year. Stress from excitement can impact a dog just as much as stress from fear or uncertainty, and all stress, good or bad, can lead to more problem behaviours.
For many people, and their dogs, Christmas means a change of routine and a change of surroundings. This may be because people are at home rather than at work, people are visiting the house, or you’re visiting other houses, you may change your walking routine, perhaps taking far longer walks than usual or visiting different places with your dog. All of this can lead to your dog feeling over-tired or over-stimulated and as a result you may see some behaviour changes, for example:
Mouthing and jumping
Christmas is chaotic so it’s unfair to expect your dog to behave as they would on a normal daily basis, to some extent you have to decide what behaviours you’re willing to accept and which ones you need to manage more effectively. Behaviours practiced in times of stress can develop into habits so you can’t simply assume your dog is barking more because of ‘Christmas stress’ and the behaviour will stop when everything returns to normal. However, you may decide now is not the time to work on your dogs’ jumping up and put that on the list for next year … you have to set the rules and expectations.
Dogs will be overwhelmed at this time of year, but so will all the humans, which means your dog won’t be in the best place for learning and you won’t be in the best place for teaching. Good management is key in these times, it’s far from the ideal training environment, unless you’re surrounded by people who are likeminded and understanding of your training. Even so, training your dog is unlikely to be top priority so to take the pressure off everyone, make sure you use management to set your dog up for success.
Rest is one of the first things your dog is likely to lose during all the Christmas excitement, where they may be used to a regular routine of rest time during the day, this is lost and they have fewer opportunities to switch off and relax. They may be used to sleeping for 4 hours while everyone is busy working, but with work schedules gone, they lose this regular routine too.
Your dog may need help to find rest time each day and you will need to be the one who sets this up. A dog who is excited by all the activity of Christmas is unlikely to take themselves off for a sleep, likewise a dog who is anxious about it all will struggle to remove themselves to go and relax.
To help your dog you could:
Have regular intervals of crate time, if your dog is crate trained, this can provide a familiar routine and allow your dog to sleep properly in a quiet area of the house
If they don’t find a crate beneficial then set up a quiet room for them, one where they won’t be disturbed by anyone so they can rest properly away from all the activity
Keep an eye on how much your dog is resting, if they’re on-the-go for 6 hours straight, it’s no wonder their behaviour is deteriorating, so aim to encourage rest regularly and avoid them becoming over-tired
Take a ‘safe space’ with you when you visit other people, a crate is ideal for this, but you could also use a familiar bed, a lead to keep them within a smaller area, or ask to use a separate room for them to rest in
Christmas is full of activity and excitement, so your dog may take full advantage of this and get involved with everything. This means calmer activities often disappear and there’s less opportunity for your dog to engage in behaviours which relax them.
For a dog who is anxious or over-excited, providing outlets which encourage calm behaviours will help avoid them turning to other behaviours, like barking, mouthing or stealing …
Provide chews or toys which encourage chewing and licking, these are calm behaviours which will help de-stress your dog. They can be done amongst the busyness or away in a quiet room. Things like natural, long-lasting chews, stuffed Kongs, snuffle mats or lickimats, all provide a great outlet, but be careful about making sure your dog is undisturbed and comfortable with where their activity is provided
Calm sniffing walks or sniffing games inside also provide an ideal outlet for your dog to focus on. You could start some scentwork training or play simple games like finding treats or toys in the house or garden. Encourage plenty of sniffing on walks and take the time to allow your dog to sniff at their own pace.
Management is always key, especially at a time of year when our focus is unlikely to be on actively training our dogs. Management keeps people safe, it keeps your dog safe, and it avoids unwanted behaviours being practiced.
Jumping up – with lots of people around, jumping is likely to worsen or be practiced much more frequently
Keep your dog in a different room or behind a gate until guests are settled
Keep your dog on a lead and prevent them approaching people to jump up
Ask people to interact calmly and not encourage jumping
Reward for you dog for their feet-on-the-floor
Remove your dog if they’re repeatedly jumping or being encouraged to do so by people
Stealing items – Christmas brings many temptations for dogs, people leave things around, food is often more accessible or left out more often than normal, our usual routines of keeping stealable items away will probably be neglected slightly
Use a pet gate to prevent your dog accessing higher risk areas
Keep your dog on a lead or use a tether so they can’t access items to steal
Make use of their safe space at times when you can’t be supervising or managing the environment
Provide activities for you dog to keep them busy and away from the temptation of stealing
Management also applies to dogs who feel overwhelmed by all the changes, so if your dog is anxious or fearful about different people being around or the changes to routines, then maintain some familiarity and ensure they have choices amongst the chaos
Give them the choice to get away, encourage them to go to a separate room where they can have their own space
Make sure they aren’t forced into interactions, having a rule of visitors ignoring your dog can really help, especially until your dog feels more relaxed. Always give them a choice about who they interact with and whether they want any interaction or not
Not every dog is a social butterfly, and that’s perfectly acceptable, so don’t feel pressured into feeling like your dog has to make friends with everyone
If your dog is actually happier not being involved at all, then that’s also okay, they don’t have to play any part in Christmas, they may want to spend time on their own away from it all with a tasty chew!
It is a difficult time for training, but in some cases it can turn into the perfect opportunity, if you feel ready for training, your dog is in a good mindset, and your guests or the people around you are cooperative, then go ahead and make the most of the opportunities to work on behaviours like jumping up, barking at guests or settling around people. But remember, if it gets too much or if things don’t go to plan, then call it day and wait for better times to work on it.
Most importantly, remember:
Put management in place to avoid unwanted behaviours
Set your dog up for success
Make sure they always have the options to make good choices
Continue to reinforce any good behaviours!
Written by Naomi White