Christmas - Tips from Agria's Behaviour and Training Advisor

Written by: Carolyn Menteith, behaviourist and trainer

Christmas – and indeed any winter festival of lights and presents – is a magical time.

Friends and family get together to share food, wine (often lots of wine!) and exchange presents. Children are excited, adults are often wildly distracted trying to make everything perfect for the family, and the house is full of strangers eating drinking and being very very merry.

Despite all this fun and enjoyment however this is the time when the majority of dog bites in the home occur – and in most of these cases the victims are children. With a little bit of thought, it isn’t difficult to see why – and thankfully with this knowledge, it is easy to prevent.

Firstly, the children are off school and at home (often with lots of their friends) – and not only that, they are wildly excited. Christmas is coming!!

The dog’s usually predictable home is a scene of upheaval. There are things everywhere, tinsel and glitter seems to cover everything, and more to the point, someone has brought in a tree (and unlike any other tree, the dog is forbidden from touching it, chewing it, and weeing on it appears to be a very definite no-no!).

There are unexpected visitors to the house – and while the children really wish Auntie Maud wouldn’t kiss and hug them, that’s nothing compared to the dog’s view on this! And once she hits the sherry…! Well, all bets are off!

And to cap it all, the weather isn’t great – and so the dog is probably getting less physical exercise than usual – and the adults seem to be running around doing all kinds of things that don’t include the dog or even seem to remember the dog exists.

Most dogs can cope with the temporary craziness of Christmas – and many actually enjoy it – but for a surprisingly large number it’s stressful and worrying. In the Nightmare Before Christmas scenario, the dog is under-exercised, over stimulated, under-supervised and over- threshold. An accident waiting to happen.

 So how to make sure you all have a merry Christmas…?

  1. Remember the dog’s needs don’t stop for the festive season. Make sure they get enough exercise, stimulation – and indeed your attention – as they do at every other time of the year.
  1. Try and keep your dog’s routine the same as always. It’s easier for a dog to deal with the unexpected if they have predictability the rest of the time.
  1. Supervise all interactions between children and dogs – your own children and strange ones. If you can’t, use baby gates to keep them separate – or just keep the dog with you.
  1. Watch out for any signs your dog may be getting stressed. Dogs can’t tell you when they are beginning to feel worried so you need to look out for their tell-tale signals. This might be subtle signs such as licking their lips, yawning, showing the whites of their eyes, or just trying to move away – or it might be more obvious signals such as tension, looking worried, lowered body language or attempts to hide.
  1. Don’t let anyone – child or adult – handle your dog roughly or inappropriately. No grabbing, hugging or rough play. This is especially important when alcohol is involved as from a dog’s point of view, drunk people behave very unpredictably.
  1. Have a ‘safe space’ for your dog where they can go and not be disturbed. Use this space anytime things get chaotic, noisy – or you just can’t supervise your dog – and make sure the dog has a special treat to make their ‘den’ feel special and not as if they are locked away from the fun.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do however is make sure you have some ‘dog time’ every day. Time where you forget about the madness of the season and you just focus totally on your dog, making sure you give them what they need to be healthy and happy. This is the very best Christmas present you can give you dog - your time and your love.

Note: If you have any concerns that your dog may behave aggressively to family members or visitors, consult a qualified and experienced behaviourist for help.