Navigating Christmas with a reactive dog: a behaviourist’s tips

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Christmas
Image by Patricia Alexandre on Pixabay

The festive lights, increased sounds, additional people, and alterations to their routine can be overwhelming for any dog, particularly those who tend to be reactive. That’s why holiday letting agent Canine Cottages has partnered with Clinical Animal Behaviourist Rachel Rodgers to provide some top tips on how to handle Christmas with a reactive dog.

Throughout most of the year, tending to your dog’s needs and ensuring their happiness and obedience is a straightforward task. However, when the Christmas season arrives, the abundance of activities can create a truly overwhelming experience for both you and your furry friend.

Below, Rachel advises on the steps you should take to ensure you and your dog have the most calm and enjoyable Christmas season.

Pay attention to the early signs

Dogs will show very subtle signs to indicate they are feeling uncomfortable, such as; tucking their tail underneath them, pulling their ears back, yawning and lip licking. Rachel says, “If these subtle signs are innocently missed or ignored, your dog may escalate to more drastic methods to show that they’re uncomfortable, such as barking or lunging at the trigger they deem to be threatening.”

Rachel refers to Kendal Shepherd’s ‘ladder of aggression’, adding, “At Christmas time you may find that your dog is hiding under a chair or a table. It’s important not to get in their space at this point as again, you would leave them with little option but to escalate their behaviour and potentially snap.”

“Many dogs would benefit from having a break from the festivities and a safe, calm place to retreat to when it gets too much”

Implement methods to calm your dog

It’s important to remember that a reactive dog is struggling emotionally with a situation. While you may dislike the barking, lunging and snapping, your dog is not being a “bad dog” per se, more often than not, they are scared.

Rachel suggests, “Consider using physical barriers such as baby gates and crates to keep your dog from making a bad choice and to keep them safe”. Rachel highlights that these “aren’t to be used as punishments but instead used to mitigate risk to prevent a bad situation from happening”.

Rachel suggests giving your dog a nice distraction such as an enrichment item like a stuffed kong or a lickimat. This makes them feel happier about being separated from you and keeps them entertained and quietly away from all your visitors if it’s all getting a bit too much for them.

Foster a safe environment

Remember that home is a safe environment for your pup; look out for their signs that your dog might be struggling and uncomfortable. Rachel says, “Many dogs would benefit from having a break from the festivities and a safe, calm place to retreat to when it gets too much. If your pooch struggles with separation anxiety and may get upset when being apart from you, perhaps see if you or a family member can take them for a short sniffy walk to decompress instead.”

A top tip from Rachel, “Use their food allowance wisely and give smaller main meals so you can use higher value treats, for example chicken, sausage or cheese in small pieces when they are in situations which they may find difficult.”

Create space and set boundaries when guests arrive

Christmas Day is bustling with activity, and for your pooch it can be a confusing experience, as they may not comprehend all that’s happening – especially with guests. This dynamic requires caution, particularly if you have a reactive dog.

Rachel explains what NOT to do when introducing your dog to guests: “If your dog is nervous, people are often tempted to give their guests treats to feed the dog. However, your dog may focus on the food, snatching it rather than taking it nicely. This can lead to trouble, as your dog then realises once the food is gone, that they are face-to-face with the scary thing – a stranger. This can cause your dog to panic, growl, and even nip the person.”

Instead of handfeeding, have visitors drop treats on the floor and gently toss some away to create space. This promotes a positive association for the dog and rewards good choices. Providing space is key for anxious dogs to feel more comfortable and reduce fear.

This is a guest post by Canine Cottages. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk.

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