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!”

18735699 - portrait of multi generation family
Including your dog when visiting is an art that includes actually training the dog. This dog has been taught to sit and stay in a relaxed way with his family, showing that the family has prepared the dog for a group portrait.

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.

Dog tearing up Christmas present
Gift giving is a large part of many traditions! If your dog does not already know how to automatically leave items that are not his, leaving him to his own devices during the holidays almost always results in a dog who gets into something he ought not. This may result in something funny, but it could also make someone who worked really hard on the perfect gift really upset, and rightly so! Managing expectations, using crates and leashes and teaching your dog what you expect of him is a better choice than allowing him to cause this sort of upset.

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. 

Cute little Shiba Inu dog lying on doormat at home
Go lie on your mat is one of the essential behaviours that my dogs need to know to help them be successful guest dogs and host dogs. I look at my dog’s mat as his chair at the table. I can decide where he needs to lie, and make sure that everyone knows not to disturb him there. This includes your dog in your activities without creating the kind of chaos that can occur when he doesn’t know where he should be or what he should do.

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.

Senior man practicing tricks with dog
Tricks can be a great way to include your dog in the holiday activities, and part of the fun is that you can break almost all the rules! Normally I would not encourage a dog to put his feet on the dinner table but in this case, being at the height of the high five recipient means that the old man doesn’t need to bend down to participate! Setting clear rules for your dog when teaching the trick makes this a safe and fun activity.

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.



Originally published on May 10, 2013   After getting a puppy, the next most exciting thing you get to do is buy puppy toys!  Dogs enjoy toys and a good selection of toys is a great foundation for good environmental enrichment.  An enriched environment helps dogs grow better brains and develop better problem solving capabilities.  There are now thousands of different toys on the market to choose from and it can be difficult to determine which toys are safe and which ones are not. I use three criteria to decide if a toy is safe.  The first is the size.  The toy must be large enough to not be a choking hazard.  The second thing to consider is the integrity of the toy; are there bits that can come off?  The third thing that I consider is the hardness; can you twist the toy in your hands?  If you cannot twist it then it is too hard for your puppy’s teeth. Let’s consider size.  When you look at your dog’s lower jaw, you can feel where it is widest.  All your toys should be longer than the widest part of your dog’s lower jaw.  If the toys are not longer than this, they can get stuck between his back teeth or worse he could choke on them.

When you look into this dog’s mouth, you can see the distance between his upper back teeth. Toys must be large enough to not get past these teeth or your dog might choke.
Using your fingers on the outside of your dog's jaw you can measure the width of his jaw.  All toys must be larger than this to be safe.
Using your fingers on the outside of your dog’s jaw you can measure the width of his jaw. All toys must be larger than this to be safe.

Integrity of each toy is another part you need to look at.  If the toy has broken parts, we have to make certain that they cannot come off of the toy.  Some toys are glued or fused together and they can come apart and become a choking hazard.  When purchasing toys, check to make sure that they do not have loose parts that could come away and choke your dog, but even with toys that are a single piece, make sure that bits have not been chewed away releasing a potential choking hazard.

This rope toy is a serious choking hazard, not to mention that if your dog does swallow strings and they get entangled in his gut, then they will be really hard to find if your vet needs to surgically remove them.
This rope toy is a serious choking hazard, not to mention that if your dog does swallow strings and they get entangled in his gut, then they will be really hard to find if your vet needs to surgically remove them.

Rope toys are generally longer than your dog’s jaw is wide, but they contain a special choking issue.  Because rope toys are made of strings twisted together, as the puppy chews, the individual strings can come away from the larger rope and become a choking hazard.  Some rope toys have been sold as dental products, indicating that they might naturally floss the dog’s teeth.  If you cut these toys up, you will often find that they are made of soft cotton string that disintegrates when tension is put on the individual strings.  These small pieces of string can easily be swallowed and create a blockage in your dog’s gut. Toy blockages are a veterinary nightmare for the dog, for the owner and also for the veterinarian.  The last thing you want to do is to cut open your dog’s gut to search for bits of toy, but if your dog has a blockage that is the only way to get items out.  These surgeries are highly risky and exceedingly painful for your dog.  Prevention is the best medicine. The final criterion that we are interested in with toys is hardness.  Bones are the traditional item to give a dog to chew and most dogs really do love them.  Some diets call for you to give your dog raw bones.  The risk with bones is that they may leave scratches and chips or worse, slab fractures on your dog’s teeth.  Veterinary dentists now recommend that you test your toys be twisting them in your hands.  If you can twist the toy in your hands, then it is not too hard for your dog’s teeth. Many people still like to give their dogs organic treats such as rawhides, beef pizzles, pig ears and other bits of dried animal tissues.  Almost every dog will eat these but there are some issues with these too.  It is very easy for a dog to bite off a piece of rawhide and choke.  Bits of organic toys can become trapped in your dog’s gut and then swell creating a serious blockage; much like a string toy.  One of the real difficulties with these items is that they are animal flesh, making it even more difficult to find them inside your dog if there is a problem. In terms of tooth damage, there is one more toy that bears consideration.  The tennis ball.  Too small to safely meet the needs of most dogs, its surface has also been implicated in enamel wear in dogs.  If you are going to play ball with your dog, it is important to choose a ball that will not wear down his teeth.  In Canada we have something called a street hockey ball, bright orange and smooth plastic that met the requirements of Dr. Haws, the veterinary dentist who advised us about the risks of hard toys and tennis balls. Once you have determined that a toy is a safe toy, then you can classify them into a number of different categories.  The first category is the toy you and your dog play with together.  Then there are the toys that your dog might play with alone.  Finally there are pooch pacifiers.  Tugs, balls and puzzles fall into this category.  Amongst these toys are items that may be hard, but are not intended to be chewed, such as wobblers-the very large hard plastic toys that dispense food when your dog makes them wobble.  They have a hole in them for the food to come out, and they are heavily weighted so that they spring back up once the dog stops moving them. Many puzzles have small parts for the dog to remove in order to get to a treat; under supervision, some dogs can play very safely with these toys.  They are intended to be shared between an owner and the dog, and dogs should not be left unattended with these toys.  You can teach your dog many things with puzzles including how to solve problems and how to find things he cannot see.  When a dog is stuck with obedience exercises, we often reach for the puzzle toys to help the dog to start to think more creatively.

This lab is playing with a puzzle toy under supervision.  Puzzle toys like this are great for teaching dogs to think
This lab is playing with a puzzle toy under supervision. Puzzle toys like this are great for teaching dogs to think “outside of the box” but are suitable only for dogs who are supervised and willing to give up the small parts that could be potential choking hazards.

Tugs are usually made of fabric, and fabric is usually made of strings or threads.  We will use these for tug games, and keep in mind that a loose thread can result in a pulled tooth or injured mouth.  After each tug session it is important to go over the item carefully and cut away any loose threads or loops of thread to make the toy safe.  If the toy becomes excessively worn, then you should discard the toy. Toys that you use to play with your dog can be very important tools in training.  The very best training is like play; you take turns, you get behaviours you want and the dog gets to have or do things he wants.  We even have a special name for training that involves behaviours as reinforcement for behaviours; we call it Premack.  When you ask your dog to sit before you throw a ball, then you are using the Premack principle to reinforce sitting.  The best play between dogs and people has clear rules were everyone can get what they want out of the activity.

First you do a cued behaviour.....
First you do a cued behaviour…..
And then we click and tug!  This form of play training has its own special name; we call it Premack.  Notice that although the trainer is using a rope toy, it is a rope in good condition that does not risk broken strings that could be swallowed.
And then we click and tug! This form of play training has its own special name; we call it Premack. Notice that although the trainer is using a rope toy, it is a rope in good condition that does not risk broken strings that could be swallowed.

The next category of toys are those toys that your dog may play with when you are not around.  These toys include some of the larger rubber puzzles, really tough Frisbees, large kongs, herding balls, and other items that your dog can engage with, either by himself or with another dog or dogs.  These items need to be really indestructible and you must check them regularly to ensure that they remain safe and are not damaged. The final group of toys, the pooch pacifiers, are toys that we can use to help the dog settle and stay calm and quiet.  These are stuffed kongs, legal chew items and items your dog finds soothing.  We have seen dogs who have a favourite cushion, bed or blanket that they really snuggle into and relax with.  Pooch pacifiers are not intended to get the dogs thinking, but rather to get them to relax and rest while we are either away or doing things that cannot include the dog.  These are great tools for when you have workmen in your home and you don’t want to interrupt what they are doing.

ADDENDUM:  May 6, 2015

Recently a Weimerainer made the news when he got his tongue trapped inside a rubber toy.  The toy was the right size and it was not too hard for him, so what happened?  The toy (it looks like one of the new Nerf dog toys) only had one hole.  When the dog deformed the toy with his mouth, and then released it, a negative pressure zone was created and his tongue was sucked in.  Once his tongue was inside the toy, a vaccuum was created and he could not get it out.  As blood pumped into his tongue, it became swollen making matters even worse!

Inspect all of your rubber toys and make sure they have a vent hole to prevent this from happening.  To test them, simply form a seal around the obvious hole with your lips and blow hard.  If you can blow through the toy it is safe.  If you cannot, then you must either carve a hole to allow air to come in and out when a dog’s tongue is inside the obvious hole, or discard the toy.  Be very careful when purchasing toys to ensure that they will not create a vaccuum in the toy if it is deformed!  We were very excited when we saw Nerf’s new line of dog toys, but when we inspected them, we could not recommend them because none of them have an escape hole.  We contacted Nerf twice via their website and got no response.  We urge consumers to alert Nerf to this danger and hopefully their otherwise terrific toys will be remodelled so that they are safe for our dogs.