The Life of the Party: holiday entertaining success for dog owners

The holidays are here and many of us are expecting to welcome company into our homes to celebrate the season.

While the holidays are a wonderful time, they can also be stressful for dogs and their people.  When we entertain, we hope to enjoy a nice, relaxing time and provide our guests with the same enjoyable experience.  A significant contributing factor to the likelihood of accomplishing this goal is the behavior of the family dog.  At our holiday parties, our dogs can be a significant source of pride if they are well-behaved, or can turn the fun quickly into a nightmare if they are behaving at their worst.

Jim and I will be hosting our 9th annual Lomonaco "Christmas Eve Eve" party this year and at this point, I've got hosting this party with Mokie and Monte in the house down to a science.  Trust me, it hasn't always gone smoothly, as we frequently have thirty guests or more throughout the night and many of them are poorly trained!  What is the key to success?  Being patient with yourself and your dog, formulating a plan, and sticking to it to keep your party running smoothly!

Here are some tips that may make your holiday party much more enjoyable, for all two and four-legged attendees:

EXERCISE:

The first consideration is physical exercise.  Winter weather is often a deterrent to even the most dedicated of dog parents - roads can be slippery and hazardous, particularly if your dog pulls on the leash.  Bitter winds and frozen phelanges can make walks unpleasant!  Many of you may be looking outside to find feet of snow (lucky ducks - we've had no snow at all here in upstate New York and I'm envious of those who got blanketed) and understandably inside trying to stay warm and dry.

If you and your dog are healthy and have appropriate warm weather gear, bundle up and get out there!  One of the benefits of exercising your dog in deep snow accumulation is that the snow provides great resistance and tires you both out more quickly!  Consider going on more frequent short walks.  If the roads are slippery, consider purchasing a pair of YakTrax (http://www.yaktrax.com/), I know I couldn't live without them in the winter! 

Also be mindful that salt on roads and sidewalks can injure your dog's feet and also should not be ingested when the dog is grooming himself post-walk.  Consider having the dog wear paw protection of some sort and whenever possible, avoid walking through icy areas.  Wipe your dog's feet with warm water when returning to the house. 

On the day of an event/party, try to give your dog 1.5 - 2x the amount of exercise he normally gets - this might mean moving your schedule around a bit to accomodate the extra exercise time, but you'll thank yourself later!  (tip:  if your dog has a favorite play mate, you can substitute that extra walking time for play time - your normal exercise routine plus a good, romping session of play with a best doggy friend!)

To get the most out of your walks, mix it up a little.  Take a different route than you normally walk, or go to an entirely new place for a walk.  For dogs that are so inclined, fetch and tug can also be wonderful exercise and provide good relief of pent-up energy. 

The second consideration is mental exercise.  Now is the time to brush up on some training!  Refresh on the following behaviors at a minimum:  leave it, door manners (polite greetings and wait at a boundary) - the door will likely be open a lot!, and go settle on a mat/in a crate. 

Also, teach your dog a new trick!  It will be fun to show off to your friends plus a mentally stimulating task for him.  I imagine learning a new trick for a dog is somewhat like doing a crossword puzzle for people - fun mental stimulation that relaxes your brain.  The trick I've been working on with Mokie lately is "back up," one that will be both cute and useful this holiday season!

PREPARATION:

Once a Girl Scout, always a Girl Scout - I understand (and you should too!) the importance of being prepared.  What preparations should you concern yourself with?

  1. Management: what are your dog's problem behaviors?  Counter surfing?  Jumping up on guests?  Rushing out the door?  Barking at guests?  Think of your dog's training weaknesses and ways you might prevent the dog from engaging in these unwanted behaviors.  Common management tools include crates, gates, and tethers.
  2. Treat preparation:  Most of your human guests will likely be enjoying a variety of treats, so why not the dogs?  I like to prepare a variety of yummy dog treats and leave some in each room of the house (out of the dogs' reach, no small task with a resident Saint) - that way they're always on hand so that I or my guests may reward good behaviors in this extremely distracting environment.
  3. Party favors:  Consider making some "party favors" specifically for the dog lover's in attendance - provide small bundles of favored treats with a ribbon attached to the package with behaviors you'd like your guests to reward (sitting, allowing petting, relaxing on a mat, lying down, hand targeting, name response, etc.).
  4. Quiet space:  It's important that you prepare a quiet space for your dog in case the party gets to be overwhelming for them.  This "quiet space" can be a crate or a bed out of the way of party traffic or in another room.
  5. Give 'em something to do:  Dogs do stuff.  Frequently, when dogs get to decide what they'd like to do, their choices are not ones their humans would readily approve of and may include counter-surfing, bolting through the door, chewing on your guests shoes at the door, snatching food out of people's hands, knocking people over with effusive greetings,  humping your guests, etc.  If you don't want the dog to come up with his own idea of fun, be ready with fun things for him to do.

          For my party, I'll have bully sticks on hand, some Nina Ottosson toys stuffed with tasties for the dogs, Kongs stuffed and frozen with ground raw foods.  Other ideas         would include Buster Cubes, Tug a Jugs, pressed rawhide (look for products which are made in the U.S.A.), marrow bones, frozen pork hocks, kibble hunts, antlers, nylabones, etc.  A WORD OF CAUTION:  If your dog has a tendency to resource-guard these items, please give them to him in his "safe space," a quiet room where he can enjoy them in peace, away from feeling threatened that partygoers want to steal his liverwurst Kong.

ARE YOUR GUESTS WELL-BEHAVED AROUND YOUR DOG?

At the holidays, people are frequently enjoying their share of eggnog cocktails, hot buttered rum, and other adult beverages.  As we all know, people consuming large amounts of alcohol may act in ways that put themselves and others in danger.  Also, drunk people sometimes like to "mess with" dogs.  Believe it or not, I have had to ask people to leave my house because they insisted on staring at, growling, and barking at my dogs.  Perhaps I seem like a rude hostess, but for me it's a small price to pay to keep my guests and my dogs safe.

As a hostess, in addition to setting your dog up for success, set your guests up for success to ensure that everyone, canine and human, can enjoy the party safely; this is definitely multi-tasking at its best. Check out this great blog from Doggone Safe for holiday safety tips (http://www.doggonesafe.com/how%20to%20prevent%20dog%20bites%20during%20t...).

Supervise your dog whenever he is in a public space at the party.  If necessary, keep him with you on a leash.  Familiarize yourself with canine stress signals, like those mentioned on this page (http://www.wagntrain.com/BodyLanguage2.htm) from my friend Stacy Braslau-Schneck of Stacy's Wag 'N Train.  If you see stress signals from your dog, take him to his quiet space and give him a bone or toy to chew (one that you know he is safe with/cannot destroy).  Check on him frequently and if you choose to bring him back to the party, only do so for very short intervals with frequent breaks from the action for "R and R" (rest and relaxation).

WHAT DO I DO IF...

  • ...my dog jumps on guests as they enter the door?

As an immediate solution, consider leaving some yummy treats in your mailbox.  Encourage your guests to grab a few on their way into the house and drop treats on the floor as they enter.  This will get the dog's attention from up toward the guests' face towards the floor to receive his treats and buys you what I like to call "clickable moments" (opportunites of good behavior in situations where good behavior still requires manufacturing).  Have guests provide praise, treats, and petting only for "four on the floor" - all four feet on the floor.  Ask them to turn away from the dog and ignore him if he jumps.

Alternatively, you may want to use gates and/or a tether/leash to prevent your dog from engaging in the unwanted behavior.  Be prepared to reinforce desired behavior, including all incidents of sit, down, or four on the floor. 

New Year's resolution:  Train for polite greetings!

  • ...my dog growls at new people in my house?

Growling is often a symptom of a fearful emotional state and thus, treatment for growling often involves counter-conditioning and desensitization.  The nature of these processes is that they take time to work effectively.  In all likelihood, chances are good that you do not have enough time between today and your party to implement the full protocol successfully, therefore the best course of action is management.  Set your dog up in his quiet place for the duration of the party or consider sending him to a trusted friend's house for the evening.  If you will have guests attending that your dog likes, allow them to visit with him in his quiet place, giving him treats or playing with him.  Monitor for signs of stress.

New Year's Resolution:  Pick up a copy of Nicole Wilde's "Help for Your Fearful Dog" and get to work on helping your dog become more confident!

  • ...my dog reacts when people do "x" behavior?

My Saint Bernard Monte does not like being grabbed by his head, or to have people bend over him and put their face near his/stare in his eyes.  Most of my guests have been attending the party for seven years and are well aware of Monte's triggers.  Nonetheless, I remind all guests upon entry about the rules and have a strict "no tolerance" policy.  This is my dog's house, and harassment of them will not be tolerated under any circumstances - the fun times of people at the party should not be at the expense of an animal's physical and emotional well-being.  I am fully prepared to intervene on my dog's behalf, and you should be prepared to keep your dog feeling safe as well.  It's important not only to tell your guests how not to greet your dog, but instruct them specifically in the ways he likes being greeted as well, so that the party can become an excellent socialization opportunity.

New Year's Resolution:  again, I'll recommend Nicole Wilde's "Help For Your Fearful Dog" and a desensitization/counterconditioning protocol.

  • ...my dog bolts through the door?

Keep him on a leash when people are entering and exiting your house.  I know at my party the front and back doors are practically revolving with people entering and exiting the house.  I also trust my dogs to stay inside the boundaries and watch them carefully at all times.  If I had doubts that they would safely remain in the house in these situations, I would manage for their safety with tethers or keeping them in a crate as people are coming or going.

New Year's Resolution:  train "wait at a boundary" and "back up"

  • ...my dog steals food?

Management will be your friend here again.  Ideally, you'd want to train a default leave it, a reliable back up, and a well-proofed "go settle" behavior.  Since you likely don't have that luxury in this short time period, manage your dog and supervise carefully when he is in the same room as available food.  Instruct your guests that they should avoid reinforcing "begging" behaviors.

New Year's Resolution"  Train "leave it", "back up," and "go settle."

While certainly not exhaustive, these tips should give you guidance on setting both your canine and human partygoers up for a successful, enjoyable, and relaxing celebration.  Having a plan for your party will help ensure that your dog's behavior will avoid landing him on "the naughty list" this holiday season.

What are you waiting for?  Enough reading, you've got dogs to walk and Kongs to stuff in preparation for the holidays!  Blessings to your family this season and all seasons!