As you head into the holidays with all the family gatherings and extra stresses of complex meals, family gatherings, gift exchanges, decorations, and general commotion, it’s extremely important to have a plan for how your dog is going to fit into the festivities. Just like people, some dogs love and thrive on the excitement surrounding these events, and some are stressed, anxious and generally put off by the changes in their routine. Dogs don’t understand the Norman Rockwell-inspired ideals we may have for our Christmas plans, so make sure your expectations are based in the reality of your dog’s behavior, not on what you’d like that behavior to be.
Christmas is not the time to begin socializing your dog to strangers (aka family the dog rarely sees) or working on behavior issues. Family gatherings are high-distraction, high stress situations for many dogs as well as their owners. You really have no business trying to use Christmas as a training situation unless you’ve put in lots of work with increasing levels of distraction approaching the chaos of Christmas beforehand. Doing so is truly a recipe for frustration, failure or even disaster. Even if you are well-versed in dog training and behavior modification, you are not going to have the mental space to provide good feedback for your dog while you greet successive waves of visitors and orchestrate the timing for a Christmas feast.
If successfully navigating the chaos of Christmas is outside your dog’s ability, you really need to come up with a plan that both keeps everyone safe (both human and canine) and doesn’t create or exacerbate behavior problems in the future. If you’re unsure of how your dog will perform, or just want to ensure things don’t go badly, make sure that the dog is controllable (usually by being on a leash) and make sure somebody is primarily focused on guiding the dog and providing good feedback. Have high-value rewards on hand and don’t hesitate to use them. Give the dog instruction (tell him what to do - use previously trained obedience commands) rather than correction. Reward the dog for compliance, both with the high-value rewards and attention and affection from guests if he is interested in them. Remember that moments of high excitement and distraction - like people coming and going - are going to be the greatest challenges for your dog. Expect it. Be ready for it. Give good instruction and feedback.
If you know that the festivities are going to be too much for you and your dog to handle, or that you can’t make them physically safe for your guests and mentally safe for your dog, don’t put them into that environment. Nobody likes putting their dog away, and we want them to be part of the family. That being said, it’s better for us and for them to put them in a back bedroom, outdoors in a fenced area if weather conditions allow, or even board them in a kennel rather than putting them in a situation where the deck is stacked against them.
Dog bites spike around the holidays. People never seem to expect them, but ask anyone who understands dog behavior what happens when you stack stressor upon stressor - Eventually the dog crosses his threshold and somebody ends up getting bitten. Don’t let it happen to you, your dog, and your family and friends. The vast majority of dogs go out of their way to communicate their discomfort and prevent bites from happening. Pay attention to your dog’s arousal level and body language, and don’t let them get into a situation where they feel like they need to bite. Just like people, not all dogs like every person they meet, and not all dogs like attention from and being touched by strangers. It’s not wrong or bad, it’s just the way some of us are wired. If you know that your dog doesn’t enjoy interacting with new people, don’t expect him to accept and enjoy a houseful of them.
If, after reading this and thinking things through from your dog’s perspective, you want to do some training so that things can go well at this kind of gathering with your dog, start training right after the holidays. You have a year to work on your dog’s skills in the following areas:
Obedience skills with gradually increasing levels of distraction.
Desensitizing and counterconditioning your dog to attention from strangers, first one at a time, then in small groups with increasing levels of distraction.
Desensitizing and counterconditioning your dog to people coming to your home, first one at a time, then in small groups with increasing levels of distraction.
Acclimatizing your dog to a variety of sounds, smells and other stimuli particular to the holidays
Christmas is special, it’s only once a year. We love it (or we don’t) because it’s such a departure from our routine. If you want to make sure it goes well for your dog, you have to put in the work so that it’s not such a big departure that the dog isn’t able to function.
Merry Christmas to you and your dogs!