Sometime around the beginning of November, my phone starts ringing. The calls come from dog and cat owners whose pets are behaving oddly. Pete, a once mellow Lab mix, is pacing, panting and whining. Glinda, a star student in my group dog training classes, is stealing socks and garbage. And Fiona the cat just peed in the guest room. Maybe you've noticed some changes in your dog or cat. What's going on?
It all starts with Thanksgiving.
The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is, from your pet's perspective, a puzzling and sometimes nerve-wracking time. It starts with a day devoted to an endlessly ringing doorbell, bowls of forbidden candy and clusters of sugar-amped kids in costume, segues into a day of non-stop cooking and company and marches relentlessly towards a long period of guests, gifts and Things That Can't Be Touched. It's the holidays and if you think it's tough on you, you should see it from your pet's perspective!
If your holiday plans involve any sort of deviation from the routine and whose don't, plan for your pet's comfort ahead of time. If you're going to have guests, be a guest, spread plates of expensive cheeses on your coffee table or put priceless family heirlooms on display, understand that these activities may stimulate, stress, tempt or otherwise discombobulate your pet. With a little pre-holiday planning, you and your pet can share the joy and sidestep the pitfalls.
Visitors I love my extended family but I tend to become a bit unhinged during the lead up to their yearly arrival. I'm sure you know the drill: cook, clean, shop, wrap, lather, rinse, repeat. If you're feeling the holiday pressure, don't take it out on your pets. Remember that to them, it's just another day. When the cake burns, the ornament breaks or the scissors have disappeared again, take a breath. Save the most predictable and loving you for your family, pets included.
Scheduling Your pet loves routines. In fact, he depends on them. Wake up, go outside, eat, play, sleep. Complete the cycle, start over. Simple. Even though your time is tight, try to keep your pet's routine on track. If you miss a feeding or a walk, your pet may act out. If he does, please stay calm and forgive. Understand that your pet is totally dependent on you and if your schedule is erratic, he'll feel anxious. Anxious pets are prone to anxious behaviors like chewing, peeing and whining. You would be too if you had to rely on someone to feed you or take you to the bathroom.
So what to do? How can you keep your pet calm and happy? The answer is simple -- plan ahead.
Try to picture your pets behaving at their best. Dogs greeting guests calmly and sleeping quietly through dinner, your cat watching the festivities from a safe distance.
Then imagine the worst. This is often quite easy for some of my clients since many have already lived through stolen food, broken wine glasses and one very unfortunate incident involving a cat and a fur coat. Because even the most well-mannered pet can react unexpectedly during the holiday chaos, here are some helpful tips.
Whether you're expecting a single elderly relative or a herd of exuberant kids, your pets are going to notice and react. If your reaction isn't appropriate, your pet's won't be either. If you suddenly shift from a calm and attentive caregiver to a frustrated or passive stranger, your pet may show her discomfort by peeing, chewing, barking or becoming hyperactive. Isolation isn't the solution either: left confined and alone, may pets will react even more strongly, becoming possessive of their owners or showing aggression towards strangers. These are not signs of bad behavior. When treated like an object rather than a sentient being, animals will always object!
Think Ahead Your pet's routine may be disrupted by your holiday plans. Aunt Irma may claim your dog's favorite chair and your mother-in-law may not want the cat food bowls on the countertop. If that seems likely, relocate your pet's eating and sleeping areas a couple of days/weeks before any big event. Try to find a spot that is equally comfy and if your pet is the party type, near the action.
Older dogs and pets with more persnickety personalities (cats, I'm talking to you!) may prefer to avoid contact with your guests entirely. Again, planning is your friend! Condition your pet to a room or another comfortable spot, an armchair or quilted cushion. On the big day, give her plenty of exercise (a tired pet = a happy family). After greeting everyone, lead your pet to her quiet spot, play some soothing music, leave her with a favorite chew or toy. If your company is staying overnight, provide a sleeping spot in your room and ask your company to respect your pet's personal space. As a general rule, children under five should be supervised or separated from your pet at all times.
Puppies and super-social dogs will not tolerate isolation well. If you intend to involve your pup in the action, let her drag a leash and use treats and toys to entertain her during initial
Territorial pets are deeply home-proud. The combination of holiday preparations and holiday guests creates feelings of anxiety and protectiveness. Decondition your territorial pet well ahead of time. Start with that reliable bark machine, the doorbell. Place your dog on a leash and stand near the door. Enlist a friend or family member to stand outside and ring your doorbell 10 times in 20-second intervals. Focus your dog on a handful of treats. Encourage his focus with a phrase like "Say Hello," and then use that phrase (and a lot of food rewards) to indicate that Uncle George is a good visitor and welcome in your home! If your dog is unnerved by the holiday influx, and threatens your company, isolate him in a room with a holiday gift bone, or consider kenneling him for the duration. Protective dogs do not enjoy holidays as you might hope they would, but they are just doing their job.
Meals Meals are very confusing to dogs. We-the humans, gather in pack-like formation around a elevated surface just emanating with alluring odors. During holiday's it gets worst! Even strangers are invited to the feast, while our beloved dogs are still denied. Have heart. Provide your dog with a bed around the outskirts of the table at a distance that discourages begging (by the dog) and the sneaking of vegetables (by your children). Give him a bone to satisfy his impulse. Feed your dog ahead of the meal, perhaps increasing their bounty during large gatherings to satiate their feast-tension.
And remember that not everyone is a dog person and therefore may not appreciate a large, slightly damp muzzle prodding their leg for a chunk of turkey. Get ready by, you guessed it, planning ahead. Prior to your event, begin to station your dog during family meals and quiet times. Chose a spot that is near enough to your table that your dog will feel included but not so close that he will be underfoot. Attach a short 3' leash to an immovable object, provide a bed or mat and a highly prized chew toy/bone. When the party starts, encourage your dog to lay quietly while you enjoy your guests.
Attention, exercise and play! Nothing sooths a savage beast-person or dog, better than a little fun and exercise. During the holiday hubbub, plan a walk or some free play with your dog to ensure they're tuckered out come mealtime.
All this pet-focused interaction offers you the chance to unwind and bond too.Gobble, gooble--woof, woof, woof!