Every year at this time, I start preparing my clients for the holiday season, and every year, I come up against the same thing; families want to include their dogs, but they often have very unrealistic ideas about what their dogs should be doing with their families. People want their dogs to be part of gift opening activities, however, they don’t want the dogs to take every gift from under the tree and tear it apart. People want their dogs to be around during the holiday feast, but they don’t want him to beg at the table. And families like to include dogs in greeting the guests at the front door. The problem is that everyone has this idea that it is somehow or another going to all work out, without ever preparing their dog for the big day. Incidentally, I see this in families who want to include their dogs in their weddings, funerals (yes, I had a client who wanted her dog to go to her late husband’s funeral, and called up to ask my advice on how to best include him!), birthdays and other family events.
I like to include my dogs in most of my activities too, and so people are often surprised that they may come to visit me and never see my dogs. I am actually more likely to bring a dog to visit you than you are to see one of my dogs when you come to visit me. I feel like saying that the reason for this is that I am a control freak, and that would not be untrue but there is a lot more to it than that. It starts from the point that I really want my dogs to be successful. I really, really want them to be successful. Yes, they goof, but the vast majority of time, after people have met my dogs they say things like “wow, I wish my dogs behaved as well as that!”
The way that my dogs get such a stellar reputation is simply that I train them to do what I want them to do and then I plan interactions to compliment what they know. All my dogs know how to do a one hour down stay by the time they are 6 months, so if I have to take them somewhere, I can depend on them to lie down and stay for at least an hour. This means that I can start taking them quiet places to visit for up to an hour at a time so long as their other needs for food, water, exercise and social contact have been met. This can be a lot of fun. I can go out with a friend for coffee somewhere, or I can go to someone’s home, or they can come to visit me. In this way I teach my young dogs that there is an expectation about the down stay no matter where it happens. The thing about this is that I don’t take my pups out with people who are going to upset my training plans. I only take them places where I know they will be supported and successful in what I want them to learn. If you are the type of guest who is going to tease my dog out of her down stay and into play, then she can rest in her crate while I am visiting with you. If you have kids who might be too quick or too much fun for a puppy to resist joining in the fun with, then she can rest in her crate, where she won’t learn bad habits right off the bat.
With my older dogs, who know the drill, I will have them out while you visit, if I am confident that you are the kind of guest who knows how to mind their manners around my dogs. I expect that my dogs are going to mind their manners around my guests, but by extension, I expect that my guests will mind their manners around my dogs. When I am visiting with you, you are the person I am interested in, so I want to be able to spend my time focusing on you! I don’t need to spend all my time pleading with my guests so that they are not getting my dogs unnecessarily excited, and I don’t want to spend my time with you chastising my dogs if they goof and forget their manners. So unless and until I am very certain that my dogs cannot be tempted out of their down stays, it is most likely that they won’t be coming out of their crates or the yard if you are at my house for a short visit.
If you are visiting for more than an hour or so, I usually make some time for an activity that everyone is going to enjoy with my dogs. If I have a new adult dog in my home, who doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the training to participate, you still won’t meet that dog. It isn’t fair to the dog to be asked to behave himself when he doesn’t understand the rules. If people are up for it, we can go for an off leash walk around the farm at a time that works out for the rest of our day. If people don’t want to go for a walk, we sometimes go out for a game of fetch, one dog at a time. In the event that people don’t want to go outside, then I will bring the dogs out one at a time, to do some tricks and maybe play some scent games. What I do with my dogs and you will depend upon who you are, what your experiences are with my dog or dogs, and what the activity is for the day.
So how do you include your dog in the holidays while also making sure that your dog is going to be successful? As always, it depends. If I am expecting your family to my home in the mid afternoon, to stay for two nights, and participate in two formal meals, brunch, gift giving and the normal hubbub that comes along with a houseful of people who don’t normally live there, I am going to give some thought to how to set up for success. If I am going to visit you, the process is analogous, as I will outline below.
When I am expecting guests, I always make certain that my dogs get a really good run before you are expected to arrive. For my dogs that usually means getting them out and off leash, preferably in a group of other dogs. This is fairly easy for me; we live in the country, in a place where we have over forty trails to choose from and we know a lot of dog families so getting real exercise is not terrifically difficult for me. If I am going to go visit someone, I always look for a walking trail on the way where I can stop for at least 40 minutes to run my dog or dogs. I want to start out a guest experience, either as a host or as a guest with a dog who is not full of beans and silliness.
Once I get that out of the way, when I get home, I make sure that I have a good supply of toys pre-stuffed to give my dogs in their crates. Stuffing Kongs properly means knowing your dog very well, and understanding how they work on toys. With naïve dogs, I will just put kibble and chunks of treats such as liver, sausage or cheese loosely in the Kong. I will put the whole thing upside down in a coffee mug so things don’t fall out while stored. With more experienced dogs, I will do the same thing, but add a plug made from sausage or cheese. Locally we can get a product called Rollover (https://rolloverpetfood.com/product/beef-dog-food/ ) that works very well to plug a kong. There are many brands the world over of this type of product. With dogs who are really good at this, I will use Rollover to lock in the kibble on multiple levels; I will alternate a layer of kibble with a layer of rollover until the Kong is completely stuffed. Kongs stuffed in this way can be dropped, thrown, or bounced and they won’t spontaneously empty. For the truly serious Kong chewer, I will freeze these to make emptying them really difficult. Although I mention Kongs here, there are now a wide variety of toys available to stuff. Just make sure that you can blow through the toy so that you don’t create a vapour lock that can suck your dog’s tongue into the toy. You can find my blog on safe toys at https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/safe-toys/ .
Once I have a well exercised dog, and a pile of stuffed toys ready, then I am ready to entertain you. If I am travelling, I bring the toys with me. Regardless of if I am answering the door or ringing the doorbell, that initial excitement is not part of my dog’s lives because they are in crates when it happens. Usually they don’t have a Kong at this point. If I am arriving at your house, my dogs are in their crates in the vehicle, and if you are arriving at my home, my dogs are usually crated for about a half an hour before you arrive.
You may be wondering why I do it this way. When dogs are permitted to greet every single guest every single time, they never learn to do that politely. Imagine for a moment if your closest friend greeted you the way most dogs greet people at the door. Imagine how you might feel for instance if your dad or your uncle were to rush the door yelling and hooting and hollering, and then leapt up at you and tackled you to the ground. Even if the intent was benign, you would not be pleased. When my dogs are well enough trained to lie quietly and approach gently, they can greet people at the door. I use behaviours such as the one hour down stay (https://mrsbehaviour.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/the-racehorse-down-stay/ ) proofed against doors to teach my dogs what to do but I don’t allow my dogs to just greet. Usually when I am visiting for two nights, I have a pile of things to bring in and I leave my dogs in their crates in the vehicle until I am ready to bring the rest of my things in.
Often if you are visiting me, I will have coffee waiting, and we can sit down to visit a little, and this is when I like to bring my dogs out. My dogs understand that people sitting around drinking coffee means that they should find a place to settle. If I have a young or naïve dog, I will often bring him in on leash, and have treats available so that I can reward him for calm and quiet behaviour. Once you and the dogs have had a chance to meet quietly, either by you going to them to give them treats, or they coming and sitting beside you to get a treat, then they are free to go about their day. People have often commented when they stay with me about how my dog’s “excited” greeting is very low key. They are obviously pleased to meet you, however they are not whining, jumping up or knocking you over.
If I am visiting, I usually bring yellow mats for my dogs (dogs see yellow and blue, so I want something that they will recognize as their own) and they do a down stay once we are in the house. When I am visiting, my dogs are not allowed to move freely through your house without permission. They don’t know the rules of your house, and I don’t want them to be in your way. When I move from one place to another in the house, they follow me, either because they have been taught to do that, or because they are on leash.
There is an exception to these rules for my dogs. If you know my dogs really well, and you know how I want you to interact with my dogs, then I may allow them to meet you at the door. Friday has a young friend who visits a few times a year, and when she comes to visit, Friday will circle her and smile, and she will bend over and tickle Friday all over. They are delightful to watch because their behaviour is highly reciprocal. I contrast this with most greetings is a dog who is so excited and who has no idea about what is expected, and a human who spends most of her effort fighting off the affections of the dog. This is not a healthy greeting, and it doesn’t reflect what I expect of my dogs or of my guests.
Once the guest/host greeting phase is over, my dogs are usually fairly settled and behave towards my guests as they would towards John and me; they are happy and relaxed, but they don’t spend all their time overwhelming people with their exuberance. If at any time they are struggling with what I believe is appropriate and healthy interactions, I will take them back to their crates, give them a stuffed toy to keep them amused, and then go back to visiting.
At meals, my dogs will either be in their crates with their dinners, or lying quietly behind my chair. I don’t want my dogs to learn to bother people who are eating, and I don’t want either my host or my guest to teach my dog bad manners by rewarding behaviours that I don’t like, so most often my dogs are crated through dinner. Given that holiday feasts are often accompanied by candles and multiple courses that have to be served and cleared away, this makes things easier for everyone. My dogs love their crates, so this is easy for us. I feed all meals at home in crates so that I can see who is eating, and who is not, and so that I can ensure that with multiple dogs, no one eats anyone else’s food.
Often holiday visits include gifts exchanges. If I have a dog who is really savvy about guests, I will have them do a down stay as part of the activity, however if they are not, then they spend that time in their crates. It is a short period of time in my dog’s life, but it can make such a difference in the memories that are created at the holidays. Consider for instance if someone has spent a lot of time and effort planning a special gift for another person and the dog completely overshadows the experience. You want the gift giver and recipient to remember the exchange, not how the dog jumped into the picture and stole the show, or worse how the dog destroyed the gift itself because he didn’t know how to keep his paws to himself.
In between meals and gifts, I still need to meet my dog’s needs for food, training and exercise. Often this is an opportunity to include family members in activities where they can more actively interact with my dogs. When this is not possible, I may do a few tricks here and there. This serves to give the dog a role in the gathering, and also to give people who may not know my dogs to interact with them in a way that I can control. It is a win/win when the dog has a role and is appreciated for himself.
All of this requires planning and training, and certainly it is not how everyone experiences holidays with their dogs. I wrote this blog after a Facebook exchange with a colleague who was lamenting her experiences visiting with her dog. A number of trainers chimed in with their horror stories of visiting with dogs, and I mentioned that when I had guests, often my dogs would stay in their crates. We were all surprised to find out how many of us crated our dogs when guests arrived, and how few of our non-professional trainer friends did not. I often see posts on social media saying things like “the dog lives here, you don’t” along with a laundry list of poor behaviours that I should expect when visiting that person’s home. When I visit, I am not coming to be drooled on, sat, on, pestered, or hassled into play. Yes, my dogs live here. No, I don’t expect them to make visiting me a chore.