Any trainer worth her weight in dog hair will tell you that recognizing your dog’s stress signals is critical to insuring that it is not overwhelmed by current events. I have written columns about recognizing the most common stress signals,* but the question today is: What are some of the most common holiday situations that can drive even the most easy going of dogs to dismay and distraction?**
Colleen Pelar, trainer and author (Living with Kids and Dogs, Puppy Training for Kids), describes doggie stress*** as part of a continuum of behavior:
Nobody is happy all the time. We each have our good moments and our bad moments. It’s important to remember that dogs do too. Rather than look at dog behavior as simply aggressive or nonaggressive, it’s far better to see it as a continuum ranging from Enjoyment to Tolerance to Enough Already (and back again).
The critical thing to remember is: when our dogs move from enjoyment to tolerance, they are asking for help. It is our obligation to help them get back to enjoying the happenings so that they do not have to take the situation into their own paws and say, “Enough! I have had enough already!!”
Her enlightening photo gallery of dogs and kids presents situations that most people do not recognize as trying for their dogs. The holidays provide many such stressful opportunities. I encourage everyone to ask: How many times do I put my dog into a position where he is uncomfortable and simply tolerating the situation?
One common stressful scenario is staged photo shoots. Everyone wants the photo of the children and the dog all snuggly and happy for the holidays. Look at image #21 of 32 in Colleen’s gallery. This attempt at making the dog part of the photo op results in a dog who is not happy, but only tolerating the situation. A great example of how quickly a dog can move from comfortable to tolerant is the sequence of #24-25. In 24, the dog is happy to be with his children because he has sufficient space around his head. But in #25, the children have turned towards him and are crowding his head. He has moved to tolerance.
Think carefully about how you arrange the family photos. If your dog goes from open mouthed to close mouthed, wiggly to barely moving, looking at you to avoiding eye contact, he is telling you that this is not comfortable for him. Your best bet is to give him more space, especially around his head and face. Also give him several tasty treats throughout the photo session and have someone dedicated to be his private treat dispenser so that he has one person to focus on. If there are loud children, sudden movements, or other distractions that un-nerve your dog, give him a treat every time a kid shouts, runs, or otherwise acts in an erratic fashion.
Another situation that can stress a dog is Christmas morning, when we plunge “into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” (Gene Shepherd, A Christmas Story). The opening of presents, the piles of paper, ribbons, and box tops, the squeals of delight and the wanton disregard for the normal canine routine can unsettle your dog. To help Rover better cope with the chaos, make sure he gets outside first thing, and is given a tasty stuffed Kong to work on while the presents are opened. Make the Kong the night (or two) before and freeze it so it is readily available and long lasting. I have several stuffed Kongs at the ready so my guys have something to do besides helping the grandkids open their treasure trove.
A third situation to keep in mind is the constant stream of people who the dog sees but once or twice a year. Many dogs revel in the flow of humanity through their abode, but for others, this is the height of stress and anxiety. In my blog Make Your Holidays Merrier I suggest two strategies for your dog to meet and greet guests:
Tip #3: Manage your meet and greets! Two strategies can be employed here:
1 Fido meets people as they come in, then retires to happy spot; or
2 Have Fido outside or in a crate. Then when your guests are settled, Fido comes out for a meet and greet, goes potty, and then settles down with a tasty kong.
And remember: your dog doesn’t have to meet everyone who comes to the house. If Fifi feels overwhelmed, put her in her happy place and let her choose when to re-join the festivities. That way, everyone’s Christmas is merry and bright.
**To help your dog manage the holidays see: “Make Your Holidays Merrier!” http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/photos.html
***Check out Colleen’s stress signal list at: http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/stress.html.
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