FESTIVE FIZZ OR FESTIVE TIZZ? MAKING CHRISTMAS EASY FOR OUR DOGS
Christmas can be a wonderful time for people who love the buzz of the festive season. Some dogs love it, because their special people are invariably at home for several days, which can mean frosty walks and snuggles on the sofa in front of the fire.
For some dogs, though, Christmas can be overwhelming. Christmas brings a change in routine, different sights, sounds and smells and alien things brought into the house. Trees are usually kept outside and are great things to sniff (or even pee on!) All of a sudden, the tree that appears in the corner of the front room is off-limits and any attempt to sniff or chew it is likely to get met with firm instructions to 'leave that!' And peeing up it is definitely a big no ...
It can be useful to see things from the point-of-view of your dog, especially if she is a puppy or teenager. Growth spurts, teething and hormone surges mean that she is likely to be finding it difficult to control how she’s feeling at the moment (not unlike human teenagers. And at least you don’t get your sweet Labrador coming home with a nose-ring and tattoos plastered all over her belly ….)
Gnawing and chewing on things are soothing for dogs, and she’s going to find a lot of things very tempting over the festive period. Wooden Christmas decorations are likely to be a huge temptation, especially if she's a teething puppy or a teenager going through hormonal changes. And sudden chewing can happen with any teen, because it's a real stress-buster (even if she hasn’t been inclined to chew anything until now).
For anxious dogs, new things in the house can take a lot of getting used to. Maggie, one of our whippets, struggles with furniture in different places, or anything different in the house and so we phase our Christmas decorating over a couple of weeks so that she can gradually adjust. We let her sniff new things before we put them up, and we put a snuffle mat down for all the dogs while we're decorating the tree so that they have really good feelings about the process.
KEEPING OUT OF TROUBLE
It's helpful for your dog if you can make things easy for her so that she can cope with all the changes around her. Giving her plenty of search, sniff and chew games will keep her brain busy and allow you to do all the Christmas prep that you need to.
We can also make things more manageable for our dogs if we think about how we react to any stressed or excitable behaviour that she might start showing.
It can be a release of frustration, and an understandably human response, to yell ‘No no no!’ at her when she helps herself to baubles off the Christmas tree, but shouting isn't really helpful to either of you. When we shout, our adrenaline levels spike. Which means that both you and your pup end up feeling tense and on-edge. Adrenaline meets adrenaline: so, if you shout at your dog, you’re likely to get a response of increased excitement (adrenaline), or fear (adrenaline), or even confrontation (adrenaline).
Added adrenaline just takes everything over the top. And some dogs can even get-off on the attention of being shouted at because shouts tend to come with eye contact and most dogs love being looked at. Consequently, shouting can increase the feel-good of chewing on a forbidden Christmas decoration for some dogs. Which means that they're a lot more likely to do it again.
AVOIDING THE ‘FEEL BAD’
I don’t avoid shouting because I’m a nice person - I'm not and, like a lot of people, I can find it a real release of pent-up frustration (I do it a lot at the laptop - but mostly inside my head because Betty my staffy-dog can't cope with it ....)
I don't do it at my dogs, because I know that it either doesn't work all that effectively, or it can cause harm. We've lived next to very noisy neighbours and their shouting really upset three of our dogs. One of them finds shouting very arousing and will become giddy. And the fifth ignores all but the very loudest shouts.
Shouting can seem to work, though. Especially if you're a bit addicted to doing it and don't really want to stop because it makes you feel better.
It probably does seem to work the first few times that you do it, especially if you have a fearful dog. Loud noises generally get a response from any animal, and most will probably look at you, at the very least. Some of them will associate the loud noises coming out of your mouth with an awareness that they need to move away from whatever they're doing, but most of them won't. They will generally just want to move away from the shouter (which is why shouting seems to get a response, because the dog stops what she's doing. She hasn't learned that what she was doing was 'bad', but she has learned to move away from the feel-bad of the shouty person)
Anyone who uses shouting as a way of controlling their dog soon turns into a louder and louder shouter. Often without realising. Because using feel-bad only works as long as it feels bad enough to outweigh the feel-good of whatever the dog is doing. So, you have to make that feel-bad feel badder and badder to get the same response!
Some dogs, especially excitable ones, just find shouting arousing and will get more excited. Fearful dogs find shouting overwhelming, but the majority of dogs just get immune to the shouts after a while, so you have to shout even louder to get a reaction. If you throw chasing the dog into the mix (so that you can retrieve whatever she has stolen off the Christmas tree), then you're adding even more excitement to what is already quite a heady mix of emotions
And a shouty household doesn’t create a calm, happy festive season. In fact, it can all end-up a bit Christmas Grinchy…
FEELING THE PEACE OF CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
To help your dog and your family, it’s a good idea to think about what your dog needs at this festive (but sometimes quite frantic) time. Christmas can be unsettling for dogs of all ages, but especially for puppies and young dogs. Their routine changes. Homes often become busier and full of visitors. The new smells, new noises and new things to look at are all really interesting to the naturally curious mind of most dogs, and they are likely to want to explore them. Quite a few of these things might be ‘off limits’ for dogs, but your dog won’t understand that.
MANAGING THE SPACE - KEEP THINGS OUT OF REACH
The kindest thing that you can do for your dog over the festive period is make sure that anything you don’t want her to have is put well out of reach. Getting cross with a dog who has found her way into the box of mince pies that were left on the kitchen counter doesn’t achieve anything other than to make both of you feel upset with each other. The mince pies should either never have been left out in the first place, or your dog shouldn’t have access to rooms where there are things she shouldn’t get.
It can feel like a bit of a logistical nightmare, especially if you have children, so it’s a lot easier if your pup has been trained to love being confined away from the family, either in a crate, a pen or a separate room.
Our dogs are highly attuned to us and our moods. Most dogs tend to feel safer with the stability of a calm, settled household around them and young dogs and puppies can find the excitement around Christmas preparations quite upskittling. Some people feel highly stressed at Christmas (for reasons beyond the scope of this blog!) and those feelings are likely to impact on our dogs.
If your dog is starting to show any signs of feeling uneasy about changes in routine and extra activity in the home, it’s a good idea to start preparing her for Christmas now. If you’re expecting high levels of visitors, have a quite place where she can go that feels safe, calm and quiet. This can either be her usual bed, if it’s in a room where she won’t be disturbed, or it can be in a separate room.
What really matters is that everybody who comes to the home understands that she needs to be left alone if she’s in her safe place (including Uncle Ted, who may firmly believe that all dogs love him and every dog should put-up with him hugging them. If Uncle Ted can’t behave himself around your dog, then maybe Uncle Ted needs confining in a safe place. With or without a large bottle of gin ….)
CREATING A SAFE PLACE
You can teach your dog to love being confined by making the area where she will be shut away feel really comfortable with her bed, plenty of ‘safe’ chew toys, including good quality bull bars and stag horns and a little bit of peace and quiet.
By starting to make this place feel safe now, it means that she won’t feel anxious or uneasy when all the festivities start. Putting her in there ‘cold’ on Christmas Eve would just cause unnecessary stress for both of you, because she’s very likely to get distressed at being left on her own. The room won’t feel safe at all, especially if your dog is used to having access to you all the time and is inclined to be a bit clingy.
ESSENTIAL OILS FOR CALM
You can create a sense of real calm in your dog's safe place by using essential oils, which work on the olfactory and nervous system. Essential oils can soothe stressed dogs, but they need to be used carefully because they can have negative associations if they are used only when a dog is stressed. One preparation used successfully by many pet owners is Pet Remedy, which is a blend of calming essential oils.
Pet Remedy is a great product if it's used carefully, but I’ve heard of a local vet practice that uses it in the consulting room in the hope that it may soothe anxious dogs. It’s great that they’re trying different ways of helping dogs to feel less anxious, but unfortunately many of their canine and feline patients will now associate the smell of Pet Remedy with being stressed at the vets. If you attend a Vet Practice that uses Pet Remedy, then it's a good idea to make up your own soothing essential oil remedy so that you can create really good associations with the smell of the oils. Because, no matter how therapeutic their properties may be, they won’t work if your dog’s sympathetic nervous system has crashed into overdrive because the smell has bad associations for her.
CALMING OIL BLENDS
Bergamot, geranium, lavender, neroli, clary sage and mandarin are all good mood balancers and calmers.
Try dabbing a drop of one of the above oils onto a bit of kitchen roll and holding it about 10cm from your dog’s nose. If she moves towards it, looks at it or tries to lick it, she probably thinks it’s ok. If she turns her head away, moves away, yawns or licks her lips, it’s not for her.
Once she has selected the oils that she likes, over the next two days, try spraying Pet Remedy (or your calming blend of 30 drops of essential oils diluted into 10ml of brandy or vodka and mixed with about 20ml of spring water) into the centre of a room where she usually settles at times when she is relaxed or sleepy. Avoid spraying it on her bedding – essential oils can be overpowering to the canine nose and less is more.
Doing this means that the herbs won’t only have a therapeutic effect, they will also have feel-good associations because she will have smelt them when she was feeling calm and settled.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
After two or three days, try putting her bed (or her crate, if you crate her over-night) in a room where nobody will go and disturb her during the festive period. Spray the blend of essential oils into the room and put a a stuffed, frozen kong, a snuffle mat or a lickimat on her bed. Chewing and sucking has a soothing action on dog’s brains, and being left with a mix of lickable food in the kong will also work on her ‘happy hormones’ and help her cope with being left on her own.
If you usually have the TV on, the radio or music, then have it on loud enough for her to hear in her room, or put a favourite channel on for her in her safe room. Leave the door open and allow her to go in and out as she wants.
Once she settles in the room happily with her stuffed kong/other lickable item, then you can start to shut her in there, either with the door closed or with a baby-gate that she can’t jump over. This can take time, and if you feel you need some help in getting the process right for your dog so that she doesn’t struggle to be confined away from you, please ask me for my free booklet Confining for Calm.
Once she is happy to be left in there you can start using the room to confine her for periods when you need her to be settled and comfortable away from all the Christmas fun. Make sure you always leave her with plenty of toys and something to suck or chew.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Christmas can be festive and cheery for the whole family if you understand that your dog is likely to find the increased activity a bit unsettling. If you can be thoughtful about what she needs, plan well ahead, and make sure that she always has time and space away from seasonal sparkles, then you should all come through it with tidings of comfort and joy!
TOP TIPS FOR A HAPPY CHRISTMAS
Keep anything that you don't want your dog to have out of reach or in a secure room
If your dog is a chewer and stealer of things, don't pile presents up under the tree and allow your dog access to them (especially not if they contain food) She has no idea that she shouldn't investigate them
If she is fearful of new things, introduce Christmas decorations gradually over a period of a few days (or weeks, for really anxious dogs)
Try to keep to your dog’s normal routine. Walk and feed her at her usual times
Create a safe place over the preceding weeks so that she can be happily confined if she needs quiet time
Spend some time in there with her if you both need quiet time together
Teach visitors and family members to leave her alone if she needs quiet time
Keep things out of reach that she shouldn’t have
Avoid allowing children to play with her excessively during school holidays and don't allow them to dress her up
Feed her usual food and don’t allow people to give her ‘people food’ or unsuitable treats that may upset her stomach