It’s the holidays.
You’ve spent the last two weeks putting up lights, baking, cleaning, setting up seating arrangements so your feuding uncles stay as far away from each other as possible and now it’s time; your guests are beginning to ring the doorbell. Your smile becomes frozen to your face as your dog barrels in from the back room and starts body slamming the door — barking in a hysterical, high-pitched noise that is sure to be heard even by your grandpa who forgot his hearing aid again. You gamely grab the dog’s collar and try to manhandle him away from the door, when the cat, freaked out by the sudden commotion runs out into the night.
No wonder people are stressed this time of year.
But, it doesn’t have to be that way. While I can’t help you with the feuding uncles, there is still time to help your pets enjoy the holidays. Here are three tips for a more festive holiday season.
#1 Teach a rock-solid sit
If your dog knows sit, he cannot possibly jump up on your guests because his butt will be glued to the floor.
It’s great that your dog will sit when you are alone in the kitchen and holding his favorite treat, but what you really need for the holidays is a sit that works while the doorbell is ringing and the guests are coming through the door. Many people get frustrated with their dog because they think he is just being stubborn when he doesn’t sit when company comes pouring through the door. It would be like asking you to do simple arithmetic in a quiet library vs. asking you to do the same problem while trying to find a parking space at your favorite shopping mall at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. Distractions make even simple tasks more difficult. Take your sit on the road, meaning that wherever you go and whatever is going on, ask your dog to sit. Start small with few distractions, but work up to more challenges. Make it fun for the dog; when you up the distractions up the value of the reward he is getting.
Tip: Teach your dog to sit the first time you say the word. Many people repeat cues over and over and still give the dog his reward. There is no reason for the dog to sit the first time, if he still gets the treat after you have been shouting “sit” at him for 3 minutes. It is your treat, if the dog wants it, he will learn to earn it on your terms. Instead of shouting “sit” over and over, ask one time. If he doesn’t sit, take one step or count to 30 seconds and ask again. The first time he sits after only one cue have a huge party with lots of treats. Soon your dog will learn that sitting fast is the quickest way to the reward.
Tip: Teach your dog to sit even if he doesn’t see the treat. Your dog isn’t stupid. If you only ask him to sit when you are dangling something the dog really wants above his nose, he will have no incentive to sit when he doesn’t see the reward. Hide the treats in your pocket or put some on top of the refrigerator. Ask him to sit and magically make the treat appear from someplace else. He will learn that even though he can’t see the treat, it is still possible to get it. Once he is doing great, don’t give him a food reward every time he sits. Sometimes tell him “good dog,” or scratch him under the chin. Mix it up so he can’t predict when the awesome food reward will come and when he only gets a “good dog.” But, always pay him with something when he sits, even if it is just “good boy.”
Tip: Teach your dog to sit beside you. Many dogs learn to sit by being in front of their owners. Make sure you practice asking your dog to sit beside you. A dog sitting beside you looking up at your face is less likely to be jumping up on company.
Once you have these things in place, begin practicing with the doorbell. Start small with only one person on the other side of the door and work in short sessions. Break out your highest value treats. Slowly up the distraction level so that the dog is always winning. You have now made sitting at the door one of the best games in the whole world.
#2 Teach your dog to love his crate
Many people get anxious about putting a dog in a crate. Some people think it is cruel. But, as long as you make the crate an awesome place, your dog will love going into it. When I yell “crate” at my house, my two dogs scramble to find the nearest open crate because that word means something really tasty is coming their way. For many dogs, being in the crate away from the hustle and bustle of the arriving guests will be much less stressful. But, you don’t want to try stuffing your dog in the crate for the first time 15 minutes before your guests arrive.
Tip: Bring your crate into whatever room you relax in. Leave the crate door open and just sit down. Have a bowl full of high value treats. If your dog looks at the crate, give him a treat. Don’t throw the treat into the crate; just give the dog a treat for looking. If the dog is comfortable just being in the room with the crate, start tossing some treats near the crate door. If the dog is going up to the crate door without issue, begin tossing treats inside the crate, but just inside the door. As soon as your dog figures out that being near the crate door is fun, close the crate (without the dog in it) and ignore it for a few minutes. You want to end this game with the dog still wanting to interact with the crate. Open the door back up again and reward the dog for being near the crate door. Begin tossing treats into the crate. Once the dog is all the way inside the crate, call him out, close the crate door and ignore the dog. You want the dog to decide that the crate with the door open is a really excellent game. If you open up the door and the dog races into the crate you are ready to give this a name (like “crate” or “kennel”). Now you have a dog that will race into his crate on cue.
Next, close the crate door for just a second with the dog inside and then have a huge treat party as long as the dog is not whining, barking, or digging at the crate door. If he is, go back to just tossing treats into the open crate. If the dog is ok in the crate with the door closed, latch the door and step back. Then go right back and let the dog out with lots of praise and treats. The final step is to find something your dog REALLY wants to chew on. I suggest bully sticks, elk antlers or a Kong filled with peanut butter. As you close the crate door, give the dog one of these high value things to chew on. When the crate door is open, the high value item goes away. It only appears in the crate when the door is closed and the dog is inside. Soon the dog will learn that being in the crate with the door closed is a magical place.
Tip: If your dog is so stressed by being in the crate that he cannot eat or if he injures himself while in the crate trying to get out, seek the help of a professional dog trainer or consult with your veterinarian. This may be an indication of a more serious issue.
Tip: Never use the crate to punish your dog. Don’t grab his collar and force him into the crate. You want the crate to remain fun, and you want the dog to run in on cue.
Now you have a dog with awesome crate behavior. Move the crate to different rooms and practice going in and out of the crate. Find the room farthest from your entertaining area and get the dog comfortable before guests arrive. Give him his favorite item to chew on. Put on some music and close the door so inquisitive guests or children don’t go in and bother the dog. For many dogs, this is the best place to be during the holiday party.
#3 Know the signs of stress in your dog
If you live with another person, you know the warning signs if your significant other is not happy. You might say, “Honey, can you get Uncle Jim another eggnog “and be met with “the look.” You know that look. Chances are good that asking for eggnog was not the issue, but that the request was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many people don’t realize their dog is stressed until he growls (or even worse nips at someone). But, your dog gave you lots of clues before that growl happened. Get to know how your dog looks relaxed so you can begin to notice changes.
Tip: The following may be clues that your dog is getting stressed: lip licking, excessive panting, yawning, excessive scratching, excessive sniffing or pacing, shaking as if he just came out of a bath, seeing lots of white around his eyes, turning his head away from someone approaching him, tucking his tail or putting his tail up higher than normal and flattening his ears back. If you see these things it might be time for your dog to take a break from the crowd. Don’t ignore signals like this. These are clues your dog is sending out and he is trying to tell you he needs just a little more space or something is making him nervous. If you ignore your dog’s early warning signals, he could decide he has no choice but to growl or snap.
Tip: Just because your dog’s tail is wagging doesn’t mean he is having a good time. Dogs wag their tails for many reasons. Some of those reasons may indeed be happiness wags, but many tail wags actually mean back away.
Now you have a dog with a perfect sit, you know the signs of stress, and if he gets stressed you can ask him to go into his crate for some relaxation chewing. Your holidays just got less stressful for you and the dog.
Just don’t forget the cats. Most cats will be happiest shut up in the back bedroom before the company begins arriving. That way they won’t dart out the door or jump onto the kitchen counter for the caviar.