When it comes to basic household manners, counter-surfing, table stealing, and garbage raiding are some of the most common struggles pet owners face. Dogs who engage in any of these behaviors generally engage in all of them.
While this is a daily concern for many pet parents, it can be even worse at the holidays, when the food is especially delicious and plentiful; hosts are frazzled, busy, and stressed; and there are plenty of guests around who might not be on the same page when it comes to training and establishing boundaries for your dog.
With Thanksgiving only one day away, your time to train your dog is limited. However, Christmas is not too far away! And it’s followed by Easter. With any luck, you will be sharing at least a decade’s worth of several holidays per year with your dog. It’s never too late to start teaching your dog to be a better-behaved host.
Here are four tips to make the holidays go smoothly:
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Make sure you have a good supply of the things you’ll need to promote good behaviors — high-value treats already cut into pea-sized pieces, stuffed Kongs or other food dispensing toys, marrow bones, bully sticks, etc.
Preparing also means getting your dog out for some decent exercise before your guests arrive, even if you’re very busy. And you’ll need to talk with your family about who is responsible for each of these tasks in advance, because you may unable to do them yourself if you’re preparing the holiday feast.
2. Make it a special day for your dog, too
When you are out shopping for a great chew or treat, try something new! Novelty is a great reinforcer for dogs who are experienced with a wide variety of chews, treats, and toys. If you always get your dog marrow bones for his chews, splurge and get him a special treat like an antler at your local pet store.
It’s always good to have a few tried-and-true favorites around as well, particularly if you have a picky dog. While you’re at it, pick a new place for your walk, or take a different route on your usual walk. This little bit of novelty can really enhance your dog’s experience, and the mental stimulation may tire him out more than your normal walk.
3. When you can’t train, manage
Anything dogs practice, they get better at. That includes good behaviors — like sitting politely, relaxing in a crate, or settling on a mat — as well as undesirable behaviors, like jumping, humping, barking for attention, peeing in the house, and counter-surfing.
The first step in stopping unwanted behaviors is, well, to stop unwanted behaviors. Freedom is a privilege to be earned through good behavior, and not a right. If you believe that your dog will steal the turkey from the table while you welcome guests into your home, you’re probably right.
The tools of management include crates, gates, tethers, x-pens, and leashes, all put on the planet to make it easier for you to set your dog up for success. During those times you are unable to train your dog, place her on a tether, in her crate, or behind a baby gate, and give her something that she likes to do, like chewing on a stuffed, frozen Kong.
Again, this works best if you have something really special — if your dog normally gets hard biscuits in a Kong, a Kong stuffed with a mixture of high-quality dog food and some organic yogurt will be especially exciting.
4. Teach your dog what you actually want her to do
The more you focus on problems, the more problems you’ll find. Instead, focus on solutions, and teach your dog proactively. Many trainers offer “holiday manners” mini-courses just before the holidays. These classes can fill quickly, so be sure to register soon if you’d like to attend one before Christmas! Students in my hclass learn behaviors like “Go settle on a mat,” “Lie quietly under the table,” “Leave it,” and so on.
If you have a basic understanding of clicker mechanics, you can teach yourself these behaviors. Emily Larlham’s Clicker Dog Training video and Jean Donaldson’s great book Train Your Dog Like a Pro will get you started.
With a little practice and a lot of consistency, your dog’s good manners can be something you are thankful for this holiday season!