The holidays can be a stressful and overwhelming time for dogs. Many of the typical holiday activities and decorations can overstimulate dogs and cause them anxiety or unwanted behaviors. But with some preparation and training, you can help your dog stay relaxed and calm during the holidays. Teaching your dog to be calm amid the holiday hustle and bustle will make the season more enjoyable for everyone. In this comprehensive guide, you will learn techniques for desensitizing your dog to various holiday stimuli, managing their environment, using rewards and commands to encourage calm behavior, and tips for specific challenging holiday activities. With consistency and positive reinforcement, you can train your dog to handle the holidays in a composed manner.
Desensitize Your Dog to Holiday Stimuli
A major component in training a calm holiday demeanor is gradually desensitizing your dog to various holiday sights, sounds, smells, and activities. Start exposing your dog to festive stimuli weeks or even months before the holidays get into full swing. Go slow with desensitization and make sure your dog remains under threshold and doesn't react. If they start to get anxious, agitated or overexcited, dial back the intensity and try again later in a more muted capacity. Here are some specific desensitization techniques:
Let your dog investigate holiday decorations like trees, lights, wreaths, etc at their own pace. Reward calm, polite interest. Place decor items around your home in small increments so they don't suddenly bombard your dog. For nervous dogs, decorating may be better left until closer to the holiday when desensitization has progressed.
Play recordings of holiday music, doorbells, guests arriving/leaving, etc at very low volume around the house and during relaxing activities like meals or playtime. Slowly increase volume based on your dog's reaction. Expose them to live holiday sounds from a distance at first before bringing them closer.
Let your dog investigate holiday smells like pine trees, scented candles, and holiday cookies. Pair smell exposure with rewards. Consider scent diffusion products like plug-in diffusers to slowly emit holiday smells. Limit exposure to your dog's trigger scents.
Dress up in holiday clothes, decor and accessories around your dog. Get them used to seeing you in your party dress or Santa costume before the big night. Go slow if your disguise changes your scent or movement too.
Gradually expose your dog to holiday activities like decorating, gift wrapping, guests arriving, opening gifts, etc. Start with calm, muted versions before progressing to the full-blown ordeal. Go back to basics if your dog gets overwhelmed.
Manage Their Environment
In addition to desensitization, proactively managing your dog's environment can prevent overstimulation during holiday celebrations. Here are some tips:
Provide a Safe Space
Give your dog an escape to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed. Outfit it with calming toys, treats, and pheromone diffusers. Use baby gates, doors, or crates to prevent access and give them space when needed.
Watch Noise Levels
Reduce background noise from TVs, radios, guests, etc if it agitates your dog. Provide ambient white noise if silence also stresses them. Play music proven to calm dogs.
Block off unused rooms and restrict access when guests arrive. Keep your dog on leash or crated when party activity escalates. Close doors to busy areas and pause celebrations if needed.
Make sure your dog gets adequate exercise earlier in the day to take the edge off before holiday excitement. Consider a dog walker if schedules get too busy.
Mind the Food
Keep holiday foods out of reach. Ingesting unknown foods could upset your dog's stomach, diet, or trigger allergies. Clean up spills right away. Trash raiding and counter surfing behaviors may need intervention or management with crates if severe.
Watch your dog's body language for signs of stress like lip licking, yawning, shaking off, and whale eye. Step in before they get overwhelmed. Provide reassurance and give them a break from the action.
Use Rewards to Reinforce Calm Behavior
One of the most powerful tools for training calm holiday behavior is to reward your dog every time they demonstrate calmness and composure. Mark and reward all calm behaviors, especially during potentially stressful scenarios like guests arriving or gift unwraping. Here's how:
Keep Treats Handy
Have treats easily accessible during holiday celebrations to mark and reward calm behavior immediately. Food motivated dogs respond especially well.
Provide Stuffed Kongs
Give your dog a stuffed Kong when company arrives or during hectic times. Working on a long-lasting chew can redirect them from holiday chaos.
Play Calming Music
Put on soothing dog music when the house gets too busy. When your dog relaxes, reward them. They will start to associate calmness with the music.
Offer Chews and Puzzles
Provide appropriate bones, chews, or puzzle toys to occupy your dog when the party's in full swing. Set them up in their private space. Reward them for settling in.
Use Petting and Affection
If your dog seeks physical affection when they get antsy, give them some love along with verbal praise for being calm. This reassures them.
Create a "Look" Cue
Train your dog to make eye contact when you say "look." Use this to re-focus them on you if they get agitated around company or gifts. Reward for giving you their attention.
Use Commands to Direct Calm Behavior
Commands give you a way to clearly communicate what you want your dog to do amid holiday temptations and excitement. Here are some key directions to instill:
Use "leave it" when your dog tries to investigate holiday plants, decorations, food, gifts, etc. This teaches them impulse control. Reward when they resist the temptation.
"Go to Mat"
Teach your dog to settle calmly on a designated mat or rug with the "go to mat" command. Reward when they stay put during hectic moments.
A solid "down-stay" command keeps your dog from jumping, nosing, or pawing at gifts, food, and guests. Reward calm stillness. Practice in distracting party environments.
Sending your dog to their crate or playpen with "place" prevents holiday mischief and gives them an escape. Teach them to relax in their safe zone.
Loose Leash Walking
Loose leash skills are essential when navigating holiday guests, traffic, and distractions. Stop and reward calm leash behavior.
Manage Specific Holiday Activities
Certain holiday activities tend to be more challenging for dogs than others. Here are tips for handling some common holiday scenarios:
Keep your dog occupied in another room or crate when decorating. Supervise if they must be present. Reward calm behavior near the tree, ornaments, lights, and other tempting items.
Require guests to ignore your dog at first. After a calm sit, allow them to pet your dog gently. Teach your dog a solid "place" command to limit access and excitement.
Before opening gifts, take your dog on an exercise session to burn off energy. Use baby gates or crates to prevent your dog from dashing into the room during the frenzy of gift wrap tearing. Give them a food puzzle or chew at the same time.
Feed your dog before holiday meals so they are less tempted by food aromas and spills. Give them a food stuffed chew toy or safe bone to occupy them in another room while you eat.
Limit your dog's access to children's holiday events which can be extra frenzied. Manage interactions and provide a quiet sanctuary for your dog to take breaks from the commotion.
Get your dog comfortable riding in the car before holiday trips. Introduce them to host homes gradually if staying with family. Keep their routine consistent with walks, playtime, meals, and downtime.
While training can help dogs stay calm for the holidays, their genetic tendencies and personality also factor in. Extra touchy, anxious, or excitable dogs may never be completely tranquil during the holidays. Have realistic expectations for your individual dog, and don't force them into stressful situations. Focus on minimizing their triggers, giving breaks as needed, and managing their environment. Some dogs benefit from calming supplements temporarily during peak holiday time. Work closely with your veterinarian if your dog's holiday anxiety seems extreme. With patience and persistence, you can usually help most dogs handle the hustle and bustle of the holidays in a more composed manner.
Helping your dog stay calm for the holidays takes forethought and training, but it is possible for most pets. Start by desensitizing your dog to specific holiday sights, sounds, smells and activities using positive reinforcement and a gradual approach. Proactively manage their environment to prevent overwhelming sensory overload. Set them up for success by rewarding calm behaviors generously and using commands that direct a relaxed state of mind. Practice dealing with challenging holiday scenarios like decorating, parties and traveling. Be realistic about your dog's limits and allow them ample downtime. With time, training and compassion, you and your dog can hopefully enjoy the holidays with less stress and more joy. Implementing these training tips will go a long way towards helping Fido handle the holidays with poise and grace.