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How Dogs See Holidays — and How You Can Make Celebrations Less Stressful for Them

Christmas, New Year's, and other holidays can be frantic, even scary times for dogs. Here's how to change that.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Nov 3rd 2015


I was working on training exercises in a local hardware store recently with a beautiful, nearly “bomb-proof” Golden Retriever named Solda. She was making find after find during our nose work class in a very busy, public location. After one fast find, her owner and I stood around chatting, remarking to one another how impressed we were with Solda’s nose abilities.

Suddenly, calm and confident Solda looked above our heads and let out a deep growl. We followed her gaze and understood in a second why she was growling: Hanging above us was a very realistic-looking mannequin in full scuba gear. Solda then began barking so loudly that a store clerk looked over and remarked: “Tell the dog that’s where we put our unruly customers!” Ha!

Even a “bomb proof” dog like pretty Solda can get spooked by holiday directions and costumes. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Even a calm dog like Solda can get spooked by holiday directions and costumes. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

We quickly moved Solda to a different part of the store, but in doing so, we passed a scary-looking, strange butler/ghoul. Surprisingly, Solda merely licked his stiff hand as we passed. Earlier she also had passed a giant, inflated turkey, but that didn’t phase her either. In fact, nothing phased her, save for that mannequin hanging from the ceiling.

Holiday decor and costumes can be a terrific way to socialize a young dog if done properly. On the other hand, they can also terrify and mentally scar (and scare) a dog. As we enter the three-month period of holiday cheer and associated decor, I encourage you to think about what the holidays look like from a dog’s perspective. Here’s how I imagine many dogs see human-created holidays:

Halloween

What feels like one thousand knocks on the door, and each time the door is opened, there are small people wearing crazy-looking costumes, many of which block the human’s face, leaving the dog no way to determine if the little monsters are friends or a danger.

Holiday decorations can be a great way to socialize young puppies if done properly. (Photo courtesy Annie Phenix)

Holiday decorations can be a great way to socialize young puppies if done properly. (Photo courtesy Annie Phenix)

Thanksgiving

Oh, all of those lovely smells. We know dogs have powerful noses, so a turkey cooking all day in the oven must be heaven on doggie earth … until the dog is scolded several times to quit putting his big nose near our human food. Also, why are there so many new people in the house? What happened to the dog’s daily walk?

Hanukkah and Christmas

So much hubbub! Human excitement! Tired parents! Noisy celebrations! AND more good-smelling food that the dog can breathe in but rarely gets to eat. Also, the dog’s daily routine is thrown out the door — as is, often, the dog himself.

New Year’s Eve

Dreaded fireworks. Oh, how they hurt a dog’s sensitive ears! Plus, the humans all seem to be acting a bit … goofy. And the next day no one gets up early, and some humans act a bit testy.

Fireworks by Shutterstock.

Fireworks by Shutterstock.

Easter

What’s the deal with these rabbits? Some are chocolate and poisonous to dogs. Some are GIANT costumed rabbits that scare dogs. Some dogs get rabbit ears placed on their heads while the humans stand back, take photos, and laugh and laugh.

July Fourth

This might be the worst from a dog’s perspective — so very loud!! Shelters are the busiest in the days after this holiday because terrified dogs bolt from their yards when careless humans leave them alone to go out and enjoy the loud booms and explosions.

So, what’s an owner to do?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to cease all human celebrations and holidays. Here are five tips to ensure your entire family – even your four-legged family members – stay happy and safe this holiday season:

1. Keep your dog’s routine as normal as possible

Dogs thrive on a daily routine because it helps them predict their environment. Try extra hard to work in daily mental activities for your dog.

Engage your dog’s mind and body during the busy and often hectic holiday season. (Tica Clarke Photography)

Engage your dog’s mind and body during the busy and often hectic holiday season. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

2. Try some fun nose work games

Tether your dog (or have someone hold him on leash) and let him observe you hiding delicious treats around your home or backyard. Unhook the leash and tell your dog: “Find it!” You might need to help out and show him the first few finds. Sniffing and seeking are crucial dog joys with the added benefit of tiring dogs quickly.

3. When a lot of people are coming over, exercise your dog beforehand

It is important to get your dog to engage in solid physical exercise before a party. Then give your dog her own quiet space in a room or a safe place away from the guests. Turn up soft classical music, and give the dog a long-lasting, safe chewie. If needed, talk to your veterinarian about some fast-acting anti-anxiety medication, especially if fireworks are going to be blasting. And never crate a dog who isn’t already crate-trained or who doesn’t love being crated.

Be sure to plan fun activities for your dog! (Photo courtesy Annie Phenix)

Be sure to plan fun activities for your dog! (Photo courtesy Annie Phenix)

4. Don’t overfeed your dog human food

Just because we humans like to overindulge on rich food and candy during holidays, please don’t make your dog do the same. Never give them chicken or turkey bones. If you want to indulge them, try putting great meat or cheese treats into a Kong, pour over some chicken stock, and freeze it overnight so it takes the dog a bit longer to work out the good stuff. Another good dog “gift” is frozen, raw beef and lamb soup bones.

5. Carve out quiet time for both you and your dog

We busy-bee humans always need more quiet time, and during the frantic holiday rush, we need it more than ever. So do our dogs.

Carve out relaxation time during the holidays and don’t forget to do that for your dog as well! (Photo courtesy Annie Phenix)

Carve out relaxation time during the holidays, and don’t forget to do that for your dog as well! (Photo courtesy Annie Phenix)

With just a little more focus on our dogs, they can learn to enjoy the holiday season as much as we do.

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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.