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Dog behaviourist How to keep your dog calm and happy through the Christmas chaos

Suzi Walsh has some helfpul tips to get you and your furry friends through the holiday season.

THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS are a joyous time filled with festivities, family gatherings, and decorations.

While this season can bring excitement and cheer for humans, it can be overwhelming for our four-legged friends. Dogs, in particular, may find the holiday hustle and bustle stressful.

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To ensure a harmonious holiday season for both you and your furry companion, it’s essential to teach your dog to settle and relax. Teaching your dog to be able to relax and chill out is one of the most amazing gifts you can give your dog and it’s one that will help them all year round.

Here’s a guide to help you achieve a calm and content atmosphere for your dog during the Christmas holidays.

Part of the family

More and more people consider their dog as an important part of their family and so including their pet in the Christmas festivities is key to a happy holiday. But why? Dogs are known for their loyalty and companionship, but that’s not all.

Research has shown that interactions between dogs and humans can lead to an increase in oxytocin, also known as the “bonding” or “love” hormone.

The companionship of a dog can help reduce feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Walking a dog or taking them to a park can lead to increased social interactions and this can be especially beneficial if you otherwise struggle with socialising.

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Caring for a dog not only brings joy, but it can also have health benefits, even reducing the risk of dementia, according to a recent Japanese study. Researchers followed 11,000 people for four years, finding that dog owners, regardless of exercise or social activity, had a 40% lower chance of being diagnosed with dementia.

It’s no wonder people want to make their dog a part of the Christmas experience with many people choosing to include their dog in gift giving, visiting family members, long winter walks, Christmas dinner and even photos with Santa Claus.

But just because you want your dog to join in the holidays doesn’t mean they’re ready.

Gradual exposure to decorations

Introduce holiday decorations gradually to avoid overwhelming your dog. Start with minimal decorations and gradually add more over time. This allows your dog to acclimatise to the changes in their environment without causing undue stress. This is also helpful with young puppies who may be tempted to have too much fun with low hanging tree ornaments or lights.

Maintain routine

Dogs thrive on structure, and the holiday season can disrupt their regular schedule. A study by the International University of Monaco in 2022 showed that a consistent routine is associated with reduced behavioural problems in dogs which in turn improves the relationship between both dogs and their owners.

Try to maintain feeding, walking and playtime schedules as consistently as possible.

But don’t worry, there is some flexibility, you don’t need a rigid timetable. It’s more important to ensure your dog’s needs are met on a consistent basis. The familiarity of a routine provides a sense of security for your dog. Keeping the most strenuous activities to the morning hours will help set your dog up for success throughout the day and encourage them to relax in the house more readily.

Basic cues

Reinforce basic cues like “sit,” “stay,” and “leave it” or think about words your dog already knows and how they might be useful to you during unfamiliar situations over the holiday period. If your dog knows a lie down cue then start practising that again and rewarding your dog for listening to you.

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A lie cue can be just as useful as a leave it cue. If your dog’s lying down, it’s more difficult for them to jump around or take items you don’t want them to have. You can practise this on your walk if your dog is faced with more distractions than usual. This can help your dog engage with you if your home is full of people and distractions.

Create a calm environment

Before diving into training techniques, set the stage for a relaxing environment. Establish a designated space for your dog with their bed or a comfortable blanket. This will serve as their safe haven, allowing them to retreat when they need a break from the holiday excitement.

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Try to have this space in a room that they already enjoy relaxing in but keep it away from any areas that are too busy or where your dog will be continuously disturbed by lots of foot fall.

Training techniques

Whenever your dog voluntarily lies down or exhibits calm behaviour in the settling spot, reward them with treats or praise. At the start, your dog won’t know what is happening, they might even get up out of their safe space and follow you around. However, don’t despair, this is normal when a dog is learning. Simply go about your business and wait for them to go and lie down again. Repeat the reward.

Your dog will soon figure out that choosing to lie and relax in that safe space triggers you to do something that they enjoy and they will start opting to go and relax more. Reinforce the idea that calmness is associated with positive outcomes. Gradually increase the amount of time your dog spends in the settling spot. Start with short durations and gradually extend it as your dog becomes more comfortable.

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Patience is crucial when training any behaviour. If your dog becomes distracted or doesn’t settle immediately, avoid scolding. Scolding will achieve nothing but a very confused dog. Your dog will be aware if you are stressed and that in itself will make it difficult for them to relax. A 2022 study by Queen’s University Belfast researchers showed that dogs can smell stress from your sweat and breath so there is no hiding how you feel from your canine pal. Try to keep calm. It will help your dog to relax and settle down. And remember, comforting a fearful or worried dog does not reinforce fear.

It is a misconception that being kind to an animal during a frightening event is rewarding that animal for fearful behaviour. Animals do not think this way.

Fear is an unconscious, involuntary emotional response that we cannot reinforce simply by being nice. Always reassure your dog if they’re stressed. It will help them cope in an otherwise over-stimulating environment.

Use background noise

The holiday season can be noisy with music, laughter and conversation. Help your dog adjust by using background noise, such as soft calming music to drown out sudden loud sounds that might startle them. Research shows us that classical music appears to have a calming influence on dogs in stressful environments, while also being therapeutic for human ears too.

Be mindful of what your dog might be experiencing at any given time. It is your responsibility to ensure that they are not overwhelmed and they need you to advocate for their well-being.

Make sure that your guests aren’t too overbearing and always supervise your dog around young children so that your dog isn’t put under too much social pressure. Always worth explaining the dog’s behaviour to your guests, too, such as “best not to pet fido as he gets nervous and could be cranky” so they know to keep their boundaries. 

Fun activities for your furry friend

Most importantly, have fun with your dog at Christmas. Here are some fun-filled games and fun to spend Christmas:

Hide and Seek with treats: Hide small treats around the house or in the back garden. Encourage your dog to find them using commands like “search” or “find.” It’s a great mental and physical exercise for your dog. It especially helps to calm dogs who can become otherwise stressed or overstimulated with high energy games like fetch and tug.

Santa Says: Play a Christmas-themed version of “Simon Says.” Use cues like “Santa says sit” or “Santa says stay.” Reward your dog with treats or praise for following the cues correctly.

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Wrap a gift for your dog: It can be so enjoyable to watch your dog sniff out a tasty chew or a new toy. Use some excess wrapping paper to wrap something up for your dog and hide it under your tree. Let them find it themselves or wait until Christmas morning and encourage them to rip it open and find the treasure inside. Always supervise your dog with this activity and use a box instead of wrapping if you are concerned your dog might consume some of the paper.

Christmas dinner treat: There are many safe foods you can give your dog for a special Christmas treat. Turkey meat (no skin or bones), lean beef, potatoes (cooked, but not roasted in oil, fat or seasoning), sweet potato or mash potato (ideally without added butter), brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, parsnips and swede.

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If your dog has a sensitive stomach, avoid sharing your Christmas dinner or limit it to very plain foods that you already know your dog can tolerate. It can also be fun to serve your dog dinner in a puzzle toy or make freezer treats with leftovers for a later date.

Christmas Day performance: Why not teach your dog to do a special trick for Christmas Day, this is a great way to bond with your dog as well as entertain guests. Tricks like roll over, twirl, bow, high five or speak are always crowd pleasers and are quick to teach. Always make sure your dog is physically able to carry out the trick before you start training as well as ensure that the environment is appropriate, no one wants to roll over on a cold tiled floor.

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Remember to always consider your dog’s age, size, and health when playing games. It’s important to ensure that the activities are safe and enjoyable for your furry friend.

Teaching your dog to settle and relax during the Christmas holidays is a gift that keeps on giving. By creating a calm environment, maintaining routines, and employing positive reinforcement techniques, you can ensure that your dog not only survives but also thrives during this festive season.

Remember that every dog is unique, so be patient and tailor your approach to your dog’s individual needs. With a little training and understanding, you and your furry friend can enjoy a peaceful and joyous holiday season together. And as always, please remember, a dog is not just for Christmas. Enjoy the holidays.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry.