December, 2017

Life with dogs

Training & Behaviour

In true Noddy Holder style – It’s Christmas!

Or it will be soon. Whether you are mad about Christmas or a bit of a Grinch there’s no hiding from the festive season.

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This is where I usually go on a bit of a rant about how Christmas is no longer a week event and instead pervades everything for months on end and by the time December comes along I’m already sick of it……but instead I thought I’d be more useful and write a guide on how to navigate the Christmas and New Year period with your dog(s) so you don’t have to add that to your list of (seemingly endless) worries at this time of year.

Christmas can (apparently) be exciting and fun, but it comes with its own stresses and our dogs feel no differently to us about it. Take care to ensure the safety of all at this time of year, by heeding the advice that follows you can make sure that this Christmas will be one to be remembered for all the right reasons.

“Christmas can be exciting and fun, but it comes with its own stresses and our dogs feel no differently.”

Door bells, deliveries and doorstep visitors

These events skyrocket in frequency during December. Whether it’s a delivery from Amazon (other internet companies exist 😉 ), carollers or even a visit from Santa himself (he still visits my street every year collecting for the local Rotary Club), it can be cause for extreme rowdiness from the canine contingent. Especially when you get so many in a short space of time.

The ultimate way to deal with this requires some planning and training ahead of time, you can teach your dog that the bell (or knock) is a cue to go to his bed. He hears the door go, pops over to his bed, you open the door, deal with whatever, then go reward him for being totally awesome. Unfortunately this isn’t a quick fix, but if you’re going to have dog training goals for resolutions it wouldn’t be a bad one to go for……

So an alternative that should at least ratchet down the crazy is to toss some treats to your dog when the door goes. If you want to go one step further, throw the treats to wherever you’d like your dog to go when the door goes – like a specific location in the room, or another room altogether. He’ll get the idea pretty quickly. However just the act of throwing treats for your dog after the door goes will help. You’ll be able to use the time your dog takes eating the treats to shut the room door (or gate) preventing his access to the front door.

Novel things

Lots of unusual things suddenly appear at this time of year and many could be harmful to our dogs.

Festive plants like Poinsettia, Lilies, Mistletoe and Holly are all poisonous to dogs, so if you do bring them into your home be sure they are placed where your dog can’t have a sneaky nibble. Here’s a guide to common poisons that can be found in your home by The Kennel Club.

If nothing but a real Christmas tree will do, be sure to sweep or vacuum the needles regularly to avoid them becoming embedded in paws (or feet – it really hurts!). The needles can be a bit like grass seed and work themselves into the body causing discomfort and sometimes infection. Some dogs may see the tree as a brilliant spot to pee (I mean why else did you bring a tree indoors if not to save going out in the cold and dark?) so keep an eye on your dog and if it does look like he is tempted prevent access unless he is supervised to avoid accidents.

Decorations can also seem appealing. Tree lights with wires made for chewing, baubles that look a lot like balls, tinsel that looks like sparkly tug toys, edible decorations too! If your dog is likely to try playing with decorations put them out of reach, or put safer decorations that are less delicate on the lower branches so if your dog does decide to retrieve a bauble or two they won’t break in his mouth.

If you still fear for your tree but really want one still, consider popping it inside a puppy pen or other type of barricade so the tree is safe from pets (and if you put presents underneath it, they are too).

Beagle chewing Christmas present left under the tree


Christmas normally means indulgence but too much can cause problems for our dogs.

Chocolate contains theobromine which is toxic to dogs. The darker the chocolate the higher percentage of theobromine. Toxic doses depend on the size of the dog and the cocoa solid content of the chocolate but if your dog has eaten any do contact your vet, especially if the following symptoms are present: vomiting, excessive thirst, sore abdomen, drooling, lowered heart rate or convulsions.

Grapes and its derivatives (raisins, currants, sultanas etc) can also be toxic to dogs causing kidney failure. Even a small amount can cause kidney damage and these should certainly be avoided. Don’t forget that many traditional Christmas foods contain these dried fruits and so Christmas cakes and puddings and the like should all be kept well away from your dog.

Whilst giving some leftovers to your dog should be fine in moderation, please exercise caution and be sensible. Fatty and rich foods can cause upset and in some cases cause pancreatitis.


There can be lots of strange noises at this time of year, and I’m not just talking about the incessant Christmas songs! Fireworks, crackers, party poppers, balloons popping, children’s toys, carollers, drunks….. Unfamiliar noises are often worrying for dogs but some simple strategies can make it easier. Have high value treats available and whenever there is a noise, immediately feed your dog several treats one after the other. For dogs that generally aren’t too bothered by noise having pots of kibble around so you can do this will be fine, for those dogs that find noises more scary use the really good stuff that they don’t get that often. This technique works best if noise is always followed by treats, so get the whole family involved and have pots arranged around the house so there is always something nearby.

When you are expecting the noise or disturbance to last a while then pop your dog somewhere safe (and quieter if he doesn’t like the noise) put some music on, or the TV to help muffle the other sounds and give your dog a stuffed kong or chew to help him relax. Using a thundershirt or anxiety wrap can help too. Lots of dogs are scared of fireworks so being prepared before hand will go a long way to help them, there is information from the RSPCA and Dog’s Trust that may be useful.

Visitors, parties, general excitement.

During the Christmas period children get excited, we tend to have more visitors than usual, we may go out more than usual, we are certainly busier than usual getting everything organised!

Make sure that as much as possible you keep your dog to his usual routine. Try to feed and walk him at the normal times and make sure that you still spend time with him one on one for attention, training, play etc.

If your dog is wary around people and is normally concerned about visitors be sure that you have a safe space for him to disappear to when visitors come calling. Some dogs will become over excited or frightened when around unusual noises such as children toys, balloons popping, party bangers, flashing lights etc. and intoxicated visitors can also cause a dog to feel uneasy – being grabbed, cuddled and told you’re a good boy over and over by auntie who has hit the sherry early is not a dog’s idea of fun, so plan in advance to help keep your best friend relaxed. If your dog is known not to cope well with these types of situations, or you haven’t owned your dog long enough to find out, don’t take chances, be ready with your dog’s ‘retreat area’.

Leave him in a quiet spot, with a special chew or treat like a stuffed kong so that he doesn’t have to interact with anyone that he doesn’t want to. Leave the radio/TV on to help block out some noise. Exercise him in advance to help him settle down whilst you get on with enjoying yourself. Self directed enrichment activities are perfect for the periods your dog is on a bit of a time out. I’ve created a booklet full of enrichment ideas for dogs that can easily be included in your daily routine but are especially useful for when you are busier than normal.

If your dog is not just concerned but also actively barks, snaps or lunges at visitors, keep him entirely separate for the whole time you have guests. The Christmas period with all the comings and goings is not the time to try to address this behaviour. Make it a resolution to get some help once the festivities are over and you have more time though. I can help you so get in touch.

Even if your dog is normally happy around strangers of all ages, the Christmas period can still be difficult to deal with for our canine pals. Make sure that all visitors (adults and children) respect your dog’s space. If your dog is turning or walking away or finding a quiet corner to lie in, make sure you honour his choice and keep everyone from pestering him. He is making a fabulous choice to take himself away when it all gets too much and we certainly don’t want him feeling he has to escalate things to get people to leave him alone.

It is always important to always supervise children and dogs, but especially at this time of year when the kids are off school, hyped on chocolate and sweets and charging about. Remember it is not enough to just be present, you need to watch your dog’s communication and how the children are interacting with him. Be prepared to intervene the moment the dog becomes uncomfortable or if any of the children’s behaviour is inappropriate.

Child pulling on dogs lips, the dog is not having fun!

This isn’t OK, intervene!

If you are visiting and taking your dog with you – don’t forget to pack his bag too! Check in advance that your dog is welcome, exercise beforehand to help him settle down when you get there, take a bit of his bedding, water bowl, own food, toy etc.

Finally, generally try to notice when your dog is being good. As a species we are pretty bad at doing this (we’re great at noticing what we don’t want) so it can take a bit of effort at first. If you take the time to see when your dog is doing what you want and then reinforce him for it, he is highly likely to that again in the future. Even if you haven’t asked your dog to do anything, if he does the right thing anyway – reinforce him. In my experience rewarding my dog for doing things I like is the absolute fastest way to get a generally pretty well behaved dog.

Have fun over the festive period. With a little bit of forethought everyone can enjoy this time of year, including our furry friends.

Don't forget to grab your copy of Enrichment Ideas