“Giving your dog a safe and quiet space they can retreat to during gatherings can be very helpful to limit their stress levels. Introduce this safe haven in the run up to Christmas so it is well established by the time the celebrations arrive”.
Santa Claus is coming to town…
The festive period is fast approaching. While this can be a time filled with joy and fun, it can also be a time of significant stress for our furry friends. Read on for top tips to keep your dog feeling calm and happy during Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Festive events, parties and breaks from school and work during December often mean that our day-to-day looks significantly different from normal. While this can be a welcome change for us, unpredictable changes to routine can prove stressful for our dogs.
Changes to walking habits, bedtime and waking times and routines as well as activities during the day can all leave our dogs feeling unsettled. Particularly important is ensuring that our dogs can get sufficient rest. While having their family around during the day is great fun, it can result in dogs missing their usual naps and downtime. This, along with all the excitement of the festive period, can result in a significant reduction in sleep. Being sleep deprived is a huge factor in stress and anxiety, can result in irritability and increased unwanted behaviours such as destructive chewing or overly rough play, as well as impacting learning and memory abilities (Bódisz et al., 2020).
Where possible, it can be helpful to try to maintain some key elements of your typical routine to help your dog feel more comfortable, such as regular walks and mealtimes. Providing a quiet area of the house for down time and ensuring the dog isn’t bothered when they’re resting or making a point to pop out and leave the dog at home for short periods, can allow them to catch up on some sleep leaving them feeling more settled and able to cope with the rest of the day’s activities.
If you have a reactive dog, remember that your usual walking spots may be busier over the Christmas break. Consider the times of day and locations that you choose to walk in to avoid overwhelming your dog.
In the run up to the festive period, revisit or introduce training that will help your dog to cope – learning or practicing settling on their bed or a mat, ‘drop it’ for swiped decorations or presents, and calm greetings will all set you in good stead.
Christmas and New Year is typically characterised by lots of gatherings of family and friends – often including people we haven’t seen for some time who may be unfamiliar to our Westies. While these can be joyful events for us, they can be overwhelming for dogs.
Having lots of visitors can be stressful for dogs who are sensitive to noise, are worried by people arriving at your home, and/or are unsure about strangers.
Even for dogs who love visitors and get very excited when people come to your house, large gatherings, or lots of visitors in quick succession, can prove exhausting. This can lead to over-stimulation and overtiredness which in turn can result in unwanted behaviours such as jumping up, inability to settle, chewing, barking, mouthing and so on.
Giving your dog a safe and quiet space they can retreat to during gatherings can be very helpful to limit their stress levels. Introduce this safe haven in the run up to Christmas so it is well established by the time the celebrations arrive. Being mindful of the noise levels in the house and the effect this might have on your dog can help to keep gatherings fun, rather than scary. Considering spacing out visitors or planning in quieter days between events can also give our dogs a change to rest and recharge. If arrivals at the house are particularly stressful or exciting for your dog, considering having them in a separate area of the house for arrivals and departures of guests can help to keep their arousal levels down, as well as avoiding the risk of them darting out of the front door in all the excitement.
With celebrations, come fireworks. The intensity of the sounds can prove incredibly stressful for many dogs, with questionnaires finding that up to 50% of pet dogs find them frightening (Blackwell et al., 2013).
Starting desensitisation to firework noises can help to prepare our dogs for the inevitable New Year’s Eve displays. This involves playing firework noises at a very low volume and gradually increasing the volume over time as the dog gets used to them. It is important not to move too quickly and risk overwhelming the dog with the sound, however, and it can be helpful to work alongside a qualified professional dog trainer or behaviourist, especially in severe cases.
Offering a safe, cosy corner in the house for your dog to retreat to during firework season can help them feel more comfortable. Walks should be limited to daylight hours when fireworks won’t be let off and keeping busy with activities such as stuffed Kong toys, chews or sniffing games during the evening can help to distract your dog and give them a different focus. It’s vital to ensure that your house and garden are properly secured to avoid your dog bolting if startled by a sudden noise. It can be worth checking that their microchip and tag details are up to date, just in case.
Calmly reassuring your dog can help them to settle and having the TV or radio on to block some of the firework noise as well as the curtains and windows closed can help reduce the volume of the bangs and block out the flashes.
It’s also important to be aware of the additional dangers our dogs may encounter during Christmas and New Year.
Decorations, Christmas lights and trees can seem like great new chew toys for our dogs but risk injury to them.
Typical festive food (mince pies, chocolate, Christmas pudding and so on) contain potentially toxic ingredients and should be kept well out of reach.
Consider using plastic rather than glass decorations as well as keeping wires and other tempting chew-targets out of reach or behind a barrier can help ensure that our festive decs aren’t a source of danger for our dogs. Keeping presents and potentially toxic food or drink items well out of reach can help ensure smiles all round come Christmas morning. It can be helpful to remind guests not to leave plates or glasses where our dogs can reach them, especially taking care with foods containing ingredients that are poisonous to dogs, such as mince pies and chocolates.
Taking a few moments in the run up to Christmas to think through plans and how they might impact our dogs can make a world of difference once the festivities kick off. Having measures in place in advance can help reduce any risks or stressors and ensure everyone has a fantastic festive season! Paws crossed Santa visits all those good boys and girls…
Jessica is a dog trainer and behaviourist at Follow My Lead Dog Training.