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A Pawsful Holiday Season

Even competitive dog trainers may find that their dogs need some extra training and management around the holidays. Find out how to keep your dog relaxed and happy during the holiday season. Includes a section on great toys for keeping a busy dog... busy! By Jan Casey

Ready or not, we've entered the holiday season. For pet owners, that can be a very trying time. Company has notified us of their impending visits, be it for a few hours or a few days. Obviously our routines will change and our schedules will be out of sync. The family pets thrive on pattern and routine and they will be some of the first to show their discomfort with the changes. Now is the time to plan ahead and work to help your pet handle the changes with finesse. Even competitive dog trainers may find that their dogs need some extra training and management around the holidays.

Consider what may cause your pets to become anxious. Will it be the people arriving at the door? How about mealtimes when the smell of cooking turkeys and hams fill the air and the dog is banished from being near the kitchen and the table? Do you and your dog have a regular routine in which he is exercised and now you find there is no time due to extra chores? Are you tense when having company, sending your dog the message that he should be tense, too? 

There is no magic pill, no special "Perfect Dog in 7 Days" program, but you have a chance to make some improvements before the first guests arrive. Begin by teaching the dog to relax. It's the first thing I teach in puppy classes now and people are always astounded at how calm that class is by week three. Grab some candles, spritz the air with lavender calming spray, and put on some soothing music, either classical or a CD from Through a Dog's Ear (

Begin by reinforcing the dog on a mat, dropping small treats there. Use lower value treats, something that will not overly excite the dog. Ask the dog to lie down and begin some gentle massage or Tellington Touch ( If your dog is very excitable, you may need to begin rewarding for smaller steps such as soft eyes or nostril flares. As you see your dog shift her body position to one in which he is lying down with his hips rolled, you can add the cue "relax." As the dog learns to relax on cue, begin to use it in more distracting environments   on the porch or in the yard, even in the car. Just bring along the mat as the dog will associate that with relaxation (just like they associate leashes with walks).

Work on polite greetings at the door with the help of family and friends. Have the person enter through the door as you drop treats on the ground for the dog. As the dog becomes calmer, ask for a "sit." Build up to having the person knock or ring the doorbell before entering. Reward your dog for excellent behavior!

Got a drooly dog sitting by the table while you eat? Drag that mat back out and teach your dog to go to it on cue. Give her a frozen stuffed Kong® and let her enjoy that while you eat. You may need to tether her in the beginning (your cooking is probably tastier than whatever you used to stuff the toy). There is nothing wrong with rewarding with people food later, just don't reinforce begging by feeding at the table.

It happens every year - with all the special holiday activities, exercising the dogs gets put on the bottom of the to-do list. Keeping them well exercised will pay off with better behavior, so don't ignore their needs. Make sure they receive some type of tiring exercise every day the weather permits or consider hiring a dog walker so you can concentrate on holiday preparations. On the days when the weather keeps you inside, take time to teach the dog a trick. You'll have the extra benefit of being able to entertain your company with Fido's performance.

A tired dog is a good dog!

Toys can exercise your dog's brain and body, keep your dog busy, and make him tired. A tired dog is a good dog! Leslie Clifton of Dog Kingdom Pet Supply (, which provides force-free dog training equipment and pet supplies, offers some suggestions for great toy purchases for your dogs over the holidays. Before you purchase, though, Clifton shares a warning. "Toys should always be large enough for the breed so there is no danger of accidental ingestion; for example a Newfoundland say playing with a small-sized Jive ball. Grave danger there."

Teaser balls are great for dogs that are triggered by motion.

For exercise, Clifton says, "We love all the West Paws zogoflex toys. They float, fetch, and are durable, eco-friendly, and you can stuff and freeze the Tux and Tizzy. If a dog is a destructive chewer then people really do need to make sure the toys are super tough and not leave their dog unsupervised with any toy. The Jive Dog Ball is super tough. For over all toughness we love the Jolly Pets toy Teaser Ball ( There are three different sizes. They are great for dogs triggered by motion so any of the herding dogs/working dogs [might like them]. These float too, and are mentally stimulating. In the same category of toughness and stimulating for [some dogs] is the Jolly Egg ( Another toy that's great for exercise is a Flirt Pole, which is a rod with a stretchy cord and a stuffed toy on the end. "These are great for folks with limited space mobility, but it is easy to over do for the dog, especially if they are over weight and unconditioned, so start small! (

Bridget shows off a flirt pole.

Some of those toys all dogs to self-exercise but others, like the Flirt Pole, require human help, which is likely in short supply during the holidays. Smart toys are another way to exercise your dog with lots of brain work, and you won't have to do much other than to load the toy with treats. Clifton says, "We are big on smart toys. (Here are some examples of smart toys: If your dog is a resource guarder/chewer, eats foreign items, or thinks it is fun to run off and play keep away, don`t buy a game with a lot of small pieces! If your dog is new to food games keep it simple. Your dog may need a little help or encouragement at first with high value treats.... Keep in mind that some dogs may be afraid of novel items." There are a variety of good "smart toys" available now that keep dogs busy. Use of these toys with a dog's kibble can serve as mealtime as well. Clifton says, "We love all the Ottoson toys; they are very well made and can take a lot of bashing around. They are a little pricier, but they are a great investment. None of our dogs eat from bowls ever!" 

Bridget plays with a "smart toy."

If you just can't work out enough time for your dog (and you aren't using a smart toy as a feeder), then at least make mealtime special. You have to feed them and take them outside anyway, so use these times as training times. Ask for a sit or down and a stay while you hold the food bowl. The bowl only goes on the ground if the dog maintains her position. This helps the dog learn impulse control, another valuable behavior. Want to go outside? Sit and wait on both sides of the doorway (unless the dog has been holding all day, in which case, save this for practice later).

Some folks may not want to train their dogs; they have no interest in it, feel unable to do so, or just really don't have the time. Or perhaps the dog may not be around others because he is fearful. Don't forget that management is acceptable. Pick a quiet room for the dog. Have his crate set up with a comfy bed inside, perhaps inside a closet if the dog is noise sensitive. Freeze some stuffed Kongs® in advance to dispense when company arrives. Keep the television or radio going to act as white noise. You may want to investigate a Comfort Zone diffuser, which replicates the pheromone a mother dog secretes as she nurses (it can be calming to many dogs).

Remember each situation is different. If your normally quiet household is going to become party central and you know that this will be very stressful for your dog, consider boarding your him (if that's not very stressful too!). He may appreciate the quiet. Plan now so you and your pet can enjoy safe and peaceful holidays!

Jan Casey is a senior trainer and behavior consultant for Courteous Canine/The DogSmith of Tampa in Lutz, Florida. Her education includes a BA in Special Education and an MS in Curriculum and Instruction as well as her Diploma in Canine Behavior Science and Technology from CASI. She is currently serving as a Steering Committee Member for the Pet Professional Guild. Her family includes three dogs, two birds, and a wonderfully patient husband.

Photos courtesy of Leslie Clifton.

A version of this article first appeared at and has been used here with permission.


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