Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
Dogs and Holiday Stress
For many people, the holidays are a time for celebration, family gatherings, fun and joy. They are a break from our normal routine, a chance to relax, eat good food and just pause from everyday life for a while.
For many dogs, however, the holidays are a time for stress and anxiety; they may be faced with situations that are unfamiliar or that put pressure on them to behave in a certain way. As a result, they can become withdrawn, fearful or aggressive. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that during the holidays there is an increase in the number of reported dog bites.
The causes of this stress often arise from situations we consider part of the holiday spirit. By understanding what can trigger anxiety in our pets, we can help to keep them calm and avoid serious problems.
1. Unfamiliar Things
Decorating the home is part of the holidays—this could be ghoulish ornaments at Halloween or a big tree at Christmas. Many people completely transform their homes at these times of the year, moving furniture around to accommodate new things, and bringing in lots of new objects to the home. For a dog, this can be a very distressing experience. Dogs that suffer from stress or anxiety can find comfort in familiar things and the way a room is arranged. Everything smells like them and looks the same.
When this changes, they are unsettled, especially when objects (such as a Christmas tree) come from outside the home and smell unusual. Most dogs will eventually settle and become familiar with these objects after a day or two, though some may take longer.
To help your dog, here are some ideas:
- Decorate in stages, allowing your dog to become familiar with each new object as it comes into the home.
- If possible, don't rearrange the room to accommodate decorations.
- Have a safe place for your dog, such as a crate or bed, that is always available to them in a specific location. Don't remove this place or block it with decorations.
- If your dog is worried about a specific object, try throwing treats near it—you may need to start far from the object and then get closer.
- Some dogs will scent mark on new objects, this can be a stress reaction. Avoid this by putting objects up high or creating a barrier around them (such as using a puppy pen). Supervise a dog near these objects to ensure they don't get the chance to mark.
2. Extra Visitors
Holidays are often a time when people visit who we don't see for the rest of the year. Some dogs love having guests and greet them warmly, others find strangers in their home very stressful.
Whether dogs are happy with visitors or not can often be due to their breed. Some breeds are described as 'aloof with strangers' and it is part of their nature to show no interest in visitors. This does not, however, mean they are nervous or wary of guests, it just means they don't want to socialise with them.
Unfortunately, during the holidays, many dogs are put under pressure to be social when this is not in their nature and this can result in the worst outcome of all - a dog bite.
If you have a dog that is nervous around new people, shy with strangers and prefers its own space, you should not force them to make friends with your guests. Here are some tips to help a dog that is worried by visitors:
- Limit how many people you have to your home, if possible, perhaps spreading out visits over a few days, to avoid overwhelming your dog.
- If your guests are local, have them meet with your dog outside your home, such as in the park, so your dog can get used to them in a neutral place.
- Do not allow guests to pet a dog that is nervous of people or backing away. They are better to ignore the dog unless it approaches them.
- For uncertain dogs, they may be helped by a guest offering them a treat. The guest should not look at the dog or attempt to stroke them.
- Visiting children should never be allowed to chase, or try to handle, an anxious or nervous dog.
- Never force your pet to greet a guest. They should always be able to get away from a stranger if they wish to. Never hold them so a guest can stroke them.
- Barking or growling is a sign of a worried dog. Do not shout at the dog or punish them, as this will increase their anxiety. Instead, remove them from the situation that is stressing them.
- Have a safe place your dog can retreat to, this could be a crate or a room. Guests must not enter this space, as it is for your dog only.
- For dogs with separation anxiety, who draw comfort from a specific person, allow them to be with their person but slightly removed from the gathering. For instance, you could have a crate next to this person where the dog can be, with the person offering them treats when they are calm.
- Reward positive behaviour—calmness, not barking at a person, or barking and then looking away when you ask them to.
- Offer comfort—it is incorrect that a scared or nervous dog should be ignored as affection will worsen the problem. Stroking a worried pet, or allowing them to cuddle with you will reassure them and help them to calm down.
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3. Change of Routine
Dogs are very good at settling into routines with us—the time we get up, the time we feed them, the time we take them for a walk, the time we go to work. Many dogs find these routines reassuring and can be upset when they change. During the holidays, routines tend to go out the window. We might not be waking up at 6 a.m. anymore, we are at home instead of going out to the office, and all our normal day-to-day stuff is changed.
Some of these changes our dogs may appreciate - such as people being at home all the time, but others can unsettle them and cause stress. If you normally have a daily routine, avoid changing it too much when the holidays arrive. This means sticking to feeding and walking times, if you can. Keeping to your normal routine as much as you are able, will help to alleviate some of your dog's stress at other changes in your home.
4. Lack of Exercise
All dogs need daily exercise to keep them physically and mentally healthy, some couch potatoes may only need a walk around the block, while high drive dogs may need a couple of long daily walks. Very often, when people become absorbed in the holidays, the dog's walk gets forgotten. While one missed walk should not do any harm, if your dog's normal exercise routine significantly drops, then this can affect their behaviour.
Under-exercised dogs will be full of restless energy which they will expend in unwanted behaviours—chewing, barking, digging and other destructive habits. They can also become frustrated and this can lead to a range of behaviours, including aggression. Exercise is also a way for a dog to unwind and reduce the stress they might be feeling from other seasonal changes in the home.
The simple solution is to keep your dog exercised over the holidays, you may even want to add in an extra walk on busy days to help them relax and get away from the household commotion.
Fireworks have become a feature of the holidays, but for many dogs and other animals, they are a huge cause of anxiety. The trouble with fireworks is that they are unpredictable and very loud. Dogs that are naturally noise-sensitive can react to even distant fireworks.
You can try to desensitise your dog to fireworks using recorded noises of them going off, but this only works for some dogs. For many, it is the sudden abruptness of the firework explosion that really scares them.
Here are some ideas to help your dog cope with fireworks:
- Avoid walks after dark, when fireworks are more likely to be going off.
- Ask neighbours to warn you when they are having firework displays so you can keep your dog inside and safe.
- Turn the telly up loud and close all the doors in the house to try to minimise the noise.
- Have a safe place for your dog to hide in, such as a crate.
- Some dogs respond well to being offered treats when fireworks go off. The idea is to train the dog to see the sudden noise as a good thing that results in treats. This needs time and patience.
- Pet specific soothing remedies and sprays may help calm very stressed dogs.
- If your dog is extremely scared of fireworks, it may be necessary to speak to your vet for advice.
6. Being Left Alone More Than Normal
In contrast to those dogs who spend more time with their owners during the holidays than they normally would, some dogs will be forced to spend more time alone, as their owners are visiting friends and family, going shopping or taking part in other seasonal activities without their dog. This might be the only time of the year when a person goes out in the evening for a meal, for instance, leaving the dog alone at night.
Separation anxiety is a common problem with dogs and can be worsened by this sudden change in the owner's lifestyle. It may be the case that it was not realised the dog suffered from separation anxiety before this, because the dog was never left alone for long.
Separation anxiety is a complicated problem that cannot be fixed overnight, it can also increase when a dog is stressed by other changes in its routine.
Some tips to help your dog cope at this time:
- Take your dog with you whenever it is possible, but don't leave them sitting alone outside shops or cafes—this is how dogs are stolen.
- Spread out long trips away from home, so they don't happen all in the same day or week, to minimise the stress they cause.
- Leave a dog with a lick mat or filled Kong to occupy them while you are out.
- Use calming remedies specifically made for dogs to help them relax.
- Leave a television on for noise while you are out, and also a light on in the house. Some dogs are scared of the dark when alone.
- Give your dog a good walk before you leave them so they will be tired and want to sleep, this can also prevent accidents in the house.
Dogs can be a bit like small children when it comes to getting over-excited during the holidays and, just like children, this over-excitement can lead to bad behaviour.
New toys, new people, and changes in routine can all lead to a dog becoming over-stimulated. Dogs might be bought a new interactive toy that has them bouncing all around the house. Or visitors might engage the dog in games or rough play they don't normally get and cause them to become hyper. This can be worsened if a dog is not getting its usual exercise.
When a dog becomes over-stimulated it can lose its self-control. In a young dog, this could lead to painful mouthing and injuries if they are roughly playing with a guest. Other dogs may start to become possessive over toys or a new food item (such as a bone). They may run around and bark, or charge into people and knock them over.
An over-excited dog is not a bad dog, it is just one that needs time to calm down and return to its usual self.
To avoid this problem:
- Limit how many new things happen in your dog's life at once.
- Don't allow guests to rough play with dogs.
- Avoid prolonged games of fetch or chase, as this raises a dog's arousal.
- If your dog gets a new toy or chew, make sure they have a safe place to enjoy it undisturbed.
- Take your dog for its usual walks to give it a chance to unwind.
- Make sure your dog gets time to rest, in a quiet area no one can disturb it.
While some dogs live with children all year round, some will only encounter them during the holidays. Many dogs are not automatically comfortable with children, equally, not all children know how to behave around a dog.
Even if your dog is fine with your own children or grandchildren, it may find visiting children stressful. If your dog rarely meets children and shows any signs of nervousness around them, it should not be forced to interact with visiting children in your home.
Unfortunately, many bites occur because a child is allowed to play with a dog inappropriately. This could be down to rough play with the dog and child, where the dog accidentally scratches or mouths its playmate. Or it could be that the child hurts or torments a dog, unwittingly, and the dog reacts by biting. Even a dog that is normally fine with kids, can be put under strain during the holidays and react out of character.
The best solution for everyone is to place your dog in a room or area which is child-free while there are visitors in the house. Children who understand dog behaviour and have been taught how to interact with a dog properly can be introduced to your dog, but only if your dog is willing. Never force a dog to say hello to a child if it is scared, no matter how much that child wants to pet him!
9. Family Tensions
Unfortunately, the holidays, along with being a time of joy, can also be a time of tension. People come together who do not normally see each other often, or maybe don't always get along, and arguments can arise. Our dogs are very attuned to us and pick up when we are stressed, which in turn can cause them to become anxious.
There are many reasons why we can become stressed during the holidays, from trying to find the right gift, to preparing the perfect meal. We might try to mask our anxiety, but our dogs notice.
There is no easy solution to this problem, since for many of us the holidays naturally come with elements of stress. The best thing to do for our dogs is to stick to their routine, make sure they get exercised and, if they like to be fussed, give them plenty of cuddles. Stroking our pets helps relieve our own anxiety, so this is a solution that can help both humans and dogs.
10. Lack of Sleep
All of us can feel stressed, uptight or simply snappy when we aren't getting the sleep we need, and the same goes for our dogs. On average adult dogs need 12–14 hours of sleep, while puppies and elderly dogs may sleep for up to 18 hours. Very elderly dogs may even sleep longer.
Dogs prefer to spread their sleep out over the day, taking naps before going back into action. Feral dogs are active during the night as well as during the day, but our pet dogs have learned to adjust to our routines and most will happily sleep through the night.
When dogs do not get enough sleep they can become anxious, restless, lose self-control or inhibitions and possibly become grumpy. In a worst-case scenario, a dog suffering from a lack of sleep can become snappy or bite. Just as too little exercise can lead to frustration and stress in a dog, so can a lack of sleep.
During the holidays, dogs may find it harder to get the sleep they need because they are constantly disturbed. This might not be deliberate, but just a consequence of a busy house during the celebrations. Here are a few ways to help your dog get the sleep they need:
- Have their bed in a quiet place, away from busy areas such as hallways or the kitchen. If this is not where your dog normally sleeps, take a few weeks to let them adjust to it before the holidays.
- Remind guests not to disturb the dog while they are resting.
- For anxious dogs, a crate may be a preferable place to sleep than a bed. They can tuck themselves away in the crate. Cover the crate sides with a blanket, if open, to make a cosy den.
- Make sure your dog gets enough exercise, so they are tired and find it easier to fall asleep.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Sophie Jackson