The latter months of the year can be stressful for humans and their pets. Schedules are disrupted, there's often travel or visiting guests, there may be changes around the house, including strange lights and sounds, and generally speaking, there is a ton of food.
This can be a lot for any family, but for a family that includes a dog who struggles with aggressive behavior or a dysregulated nervous system, it can become a nightmare.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be. There are things we can do right now that our future selves will thank us for.
And that's this article. Please enjoy my top recommendations to prepare for the holiday season with a dog who may behave aggressively, is dysregulated, or really for any pup getting ready to navigate the chaos that will be the holiday season.
Security, Safety, and Sanctuary
The first thing to do to prepare for the holiday season is to set expectations. We may be surprised to find that upon investigation, the expectations we hold loosely in our minds are not that reasonable when we say them out loud.
If you're ready for a good calming activity and perhaps a nap after a day of travel or a few hours of visiting with family, consider how ready your dog will be for the same!
And unlike us, our dogs don't know the agenda ahead of time and can't opt in or out of visiting your family members.
You may also realize that your dog's success in certain situations will hinge on hypervigilance and active management on your end - something you might not have the energy or attention for around the clock during the holiday season.
It's reasonable then that our first priority be to create a sanctuary spot for your dog. This place should be somewhere that your dog feels secure. They should be able to relax and even fall asleep in this space.
This should also be a safe space, meaning that your dog and all the other living beings in the home are physically safe while this space is in use. This is an especially important tool when there are small children in the home, as active supervision is a must for ALL dogs and babies or toddlers when they interact. When active supervision can't happen, having your dog in their sanctuary spot can keep everyone safe.
Your dog's sanctuary spot can look different in different environments or even in different parts of the same house. Your dog's spot may look different than another dog's spot because what they need may differ.
For some dogs, a physical barrier is necessary for everyone's safety and security. These sanctuaries may use barriers like an x-pen, baby gate, closed door, or leash. Other dogs may not need a physical barrier but may enjoy a spot where they won't be bothered.
Your dog's sanctuary spot can include their favorite items, like a soft blanket or bed. You can include any enrichment activities that are safe for them to enjoy. Calming enrichment like sniffing, licking, and chewing can be especially beneficial. This is an area of relaxation. More on this later!
Some sanctuary spots may be in a quiet part of the house, separated from the visual and auditory stimulation of the day. Others may allow the dog to remain around the activity but take a distinct bit of space. Your dog may even benefit from having multiple spots - some a little more removed than the others.
It helps to know what our dog might find the most challenging. If hearing voices or closing cabinets is hard for my dog, I might add calming music, a white noise machine, or a box fan to their space. I might cover their x-pen or crate with a sheet if they're stimulated by movement or other visual triggers.
You may be reading this and nodding your heads, already planning your dog's quiet nap area. Awesome.
Others have already disregarded this plan, knowing your dog will freak out being separated from the family, even just by a barrier in the same room.
To those folks, you are not alone. I know. Don't worry. We have time to practice this skill.
First, set your realistic goal. Maybe you need your dog to relax on the other side of a baby gate, where they can still see and hear you. Maybe you need them to be totally separated, in another room. What does the scenario look like that balances everyone's needs?
Then, begin preparing your dog to relax in that space. This exercise begins when all your dog's needs have been satiated at a quiet time of the day. You may start by sitting in that space with them while they enjoy a calming enrichment activity like a snufflemat, lickimat, or a chew. Perhaps they can do this while you sit just outside the enclosure. Slowly build your dog's independence at their pace (or ask your behavior consultant for help!)
I also like to increase independence by teaching and reinforcing "no-follow" behaviors. This includes teaching the dog to relax on a mat (a skill I generalize the heck out of, associate with the environmental cue of simply having beds available, and which has no implied stay so we can always preserve flight - a must-learn for most of my clients) and the exercise of capturing calm behavior.
In some scenarios, being tethered to their safe person can be a sort of adapted sanctuary spot for a dog, though this option does not give the human much of a break and may leave the dog in the midst of the excitement for longer than is ideal.
And finally, consider safe spaces outside of the home. Taking a break with the dog walker may give everyone the time they need to decompress! Or you may decide that boarding is less stressful than bringing your dog along this year.
In any case, knowing how you and your dog can take breaks and having a plan that allows you to turn off your dog-brain without compromising safety will make your holiday season much less stressful.
In the section above, I mention calming enrichment for your dog's sanctuary spot. Calming enrichment refers to species-typical behaviors in which your dog can engage that also help your dog's nervous system to calm.
You may hear about the Calming Trifecta: sniffing, licking, and chewing. These exercises help your dog to calm down by releasing endorphins and lowering the heart rate. These exercises are great to use in your sanctuary spot, but they're also important before, during, and after stressful events because they provide natural stress outlets for your dog.
As your dog's stress hormones rise, they'll look for a way to displace their arousal. Sometimes, our dogs do this in ways that serve them well. Often, our dogs will take space, drink water, grab a toy, or sniff around the room in order to calm themselves down. When we set them up for regular stress-relieving outlets, we make this an easier choice.
We may also notice our dogs displace arousal through activities that actually ramp them up more instead of soothing them. This includes behaviors like running, jumping, spinning, pacing, and vocalizing. In these moments, we can redirect our dogs to a calming exercise so they displace that arousal in a way that soothes them instead.
Calming activities are also helpful in the wake of a stressful event. A scatter feed following a moment of big excitement can help your dog come back down faster and support them in learning how to regulate their own arousal.
Importantly, this includes scenarios in which your dog has done something you don't like, such as growing, barking, or even biting. You're not going to reinforce that behavior with food - it's being intrinsically reinforced because it results in safety (those behaviors mean "give me space"). You're merely minimizing the damage of a management-oops by helping your dog calm down faster.
One special note on food-based activities: always allow your dog to enjoy their resources in a stress-free way. I always recommend separating your pet from others while they eat or enjoy food-based enrichment. A physical and visual barrier ensures no side-eyed looks create tension and that a wandering and curious visiting dog doesn't wander over to see if your dog finished their dinner. Don't take items from your dog unless you have to, and then always use a high-value trade.
Some dogs may need additional support to help them stay safe and healthy during the holiday season. The time to talk to your veterinarian is now.
Some dogs benefit from what is often called "event medication." This label is used to refer to medications that take effect in a matter of hours, wear off in a few hours, and cause some measure of sedation to the dog.
We might want to take the edge off to help our dog successfully navigate a hard situation. We may want our dog asleep and snoring in the other room. Discuss your goals with your veterinarian to craft an individualized plan for your pet.
Including non-prescription support such as nutraceuticals, supplements, or over-the-counter medications may also be appropriate. Your veterinarian (and only your veterinarian) can also guide you in these choices.
The most important thing is to talk to your veterinarian about your individual dog. The second most important thing is to give yourself TIME: time to reach out to your vet and time for them to consider what might be best for your dog. Time to get an appointment with your veterinarian for them to prescribe the medication, for the pharmacy to fill it, and for you to pick it up. Time to test the event medication during a time you will be home to observe and while no stress events are occurring. Time to adjust the dose or change plans based on the results of that test. Give yourself time.
Hopefully, by now, you're considering where and how your dog (and you) will be able to relax during the chaos of the holiday season. You're thinking of how your dog likes to relieve their stress best. You might even be preparing to email your vet or drop them a call.
Is there anything else you can do?
Yes! Here are some of my favorite skills or exercises to teach and who they will best serve. You can learn more about them through the alphabetized categories in our Live Google Document.
Treat-Retreat is a great game for dogs whose concerns involve visitors. Whether your dog is shy, frustrated, or over-excited, Treat-Retreat can help them build valuable social skills. This game generalizes well and quickly and can greatly impact your dog's relationship with holiday strangers.
This is a game for your holiday strangers to learn. Teaching the people interacting with your dog about consent testing is a great way to keep everyone safe and dog-aware. Learn more about consent testing here.
Engage-Disengage is a great game that can be used with virtually any trigger, including people, other dogs, noises, food, etc. This game takes care of counter-conditioning, teaches an alternative behavior, and turns triggers into environmental cues. It's also a great way to keep your finger on your dog's stress-o-meter.
Pattern Games are all about predictability, and the lack of predictability around the holiday season can be a big challenge for many dogs. Bringing back some of that predictability with pattern games can make a big difference. Bonus: Pattern games are easy to teach and learn.
The holidays are coming faster than we can anticipate. Don't be caught off guard! There are things we can do now to prepare our dogs to be successful, whether they are over-excited, struggle being out of routine, have a tough time with new experiences, or struggle with people or other pets. Talk to your behavior consultant sooner rather than later and your veterinarian, too! Your future self will thank you!