It’s the most wonderful time of the year… an opportunity to see loved ones, enjoy some well-earned downtime, and most importantly - extra time with your dog/s!
Despite all the fun parts of Christmas, it can bring its fair share of stress too. From all the preparation and planning, to hoping there's no family arguments… especially if you’re sharing Christmas with non-dog folk!
To ease the burden, Certified Animal Behaviourist Caroline Wilkinson has put together some top tips to make sure you and your dog have a stress free Christmas with her “12 Days of Stressmas”!
Caroline is also sharing some of these tips, alongside tips for your own end of the lead from Clinical Psychologist Linda Blair, in a brand new podcast, find out more here.
A whole new world
While we might be enjoying the Winter Wonderland unfolding in front of us, there’s an awful lot of change in a short space of time for our dogs. The world suddenly looks very different - from flashing lights, to shiny decorations or giant snowmen on roofs.
If you’re still in the process of decorating your home, try to take it slow. Add a couple of new items at a time - and pair the process of their arrival with something fun, like playtime with a family member or a long lasting chew to eat.
Walks will be more stimulating - not only are there all those decorative additions to homes, but you might also see people acting a little differently. From the excitement of family get-togethers, office parties, or just a little too much festive cheer being consumed - there might be a lot of noisy people on the streets.
While you’re out on walks, ask your dog to engage in simple training exercises with you so they can move from “feeling” to “thinking” - take it slow, allow your dog plenty of space from things they aren’t sure of… and crate balance in your week of walks so there’s some calmer spaces being explored too.
Structure and Routine
Some dogs thrive on routine and structure. Unfortunately, again this time of year brings quite a lot of change to cope with. We may be around a lot more, enjoying extended holiday time. We might not be walking or feeding our dog’s meals at the time they’re used to. And with visitors staying, bedtimes might be later than usual.
To help your dog cope, try to keep some cornerstones of their usual routine in place - mealtimes are a great place to start. Try and feed your dog at a consistent time each day over the holidays, even if that is slightly later than during your usual working week. Set a time every day to give your dog some alone time if they usually would have it when you’re at work. Create a quiet space for your dog to go and rest should you and your visitors want to stay up until the early hours!
Now we can all visit family and friends freely this festive season, you might be making up for the past couple of lost years. If you have a dog who finds car travel stressful, this might be difficult for all of you.
Plan your travel now and aim to keep all journeys in the car to a minimum. If you have a long drive, plan to avoid any car journeys during your stay away. Right now, before any holiday adventures, give your dog some time off from driving in the car where possible. Instead, make the car a fun place to visit a few times a week - scattering treats around the wheels or seats, making sure your dog can safely access them. Build up to your dog enjoying a stuffed food toy - and trial your dog being safely confined in different parts of the vehicle to see if they are happier for example in a crate in the boot as opposed to a crash-safety harness on the back seat.
On the day of travel, feed a smaller meal before leaving or give plenty of time to allow digestion before you set off. Plan rest stops for your dog to relieve themselves and have a calming sniff for treats in the grass. Pack some water from your own home, plus their usual food. And take a familiar smelling item, such as their unwashed bed, with you.
It can be easy to forget that deliveries aren’t always available over the festive period. Make sure, now, that you’ve got plenty of your dog’s usual food to last you into January. Running out and needing to give your dog something different to eat, could lead to upset tummies.
With some of that food, prep some stuffed food toys and pop them in the freezer. These will be a positive distraction and can provide long-lasting entertainment while you’re eating your Christmas dinner or unwrapping presents.
Stick a list of any important information about your dog to your fridge - include your usual vet’s number as well as an out-of-hours emergency contact. Add their insurance details, how much food they have per meal, and details of any medications. This way everyone will be able to take care of your dog in a crisis. If you’re staying elsewhere for Christmas, look up an Emergency Vet Practice in advance, just in case it’s needed.
From fake snow, glass baubles, cooked turkey bones, and chocolates - plus plenty of other festive treats - there's a lot that could be dangerous for our dogs at this time of year. No-one wants to see their dog suffer or the stress of an emergency trip to the vets, so alway prioritise safety over festivity!
Pin a list of non-dog-friendly foods to your fridge and, to be safe, ask all guests to avoid feeding your dog any food. Ensure anything that they shouldn’t have is kept far back on surfaces or behind closed doors when you can’t keep an eye on your dog/s.
Use wooden or paper decorations on your tree, instead of glittery or glass ones. If you’ve a young puppy or a toy-obsessed dog, think about placing the tree in a room your dog doesn’t usually use or place a pen around it. Reward your dog with lots of yummy treats when they choose to engage with you instead of investigating your new decorations.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Prioritising sleep and rest is probably the most important thing you can do for your dog over the busy festive period. Quality rest is so important to help our dogs to recover from any over-excitement or worries they may have, as well as helping them to cope with changes in routine.
It can be tough for our dogs to switch off when we have lots of new people or dogs visiting, so plan a calm resting place for them in advance. Set it up now, so that your dog can get used to hanging out there comfortably. If you can, ask all guests to avoid that space so that your dog can see it as a safe zone - where they can rest uninterrupted.
We can fall in the trap of trying to tire out our dogs so that they’re more relaxed. Unfortunately, this can lead to hyper behaviour following too much of a good thing! Create balance in your dog’s week of walks and activities and if needs be, take a human-only walk to allow your dog some quiet time at home.
Introducing Visiting Humans
It might be the first time your family or friends have been able to get together at Christmas for a few years, which could be quite overwhelming for everyone, including your dog. Make sure relationships get off on the right paw by sending everyone a little note from your dog in advance. Let your dog request how they’d like to be greeted, whether they perhaps might need some help not getting it wrong by jumping up, or if they just need some space as people arrive.
Try to give your guests something positive to do when they arrive - whether that’s to throw some treats for your dog to chase, giving them a food toy you’ll have ready by the front door, or requesting a simple trick that your dog loves to perform. Giving your guests something TO DO is much more effective than asking them NOT to do something (like simply ignoring your dog).
Introducing Visiting Dogs
Whether visiting dogs are the most friendly canine companions or not, meeting inside one dog's home can be unsettling for both sides. Meet in a neutral space - whether that’s for a walk somewhere near your home or just at the end of your road and walking back to the house together. This can give your dogs some time to suss each other out before they need to go indoors together.
Plan for the worst case scenario that either the dogs don’t enjoy each other's company or find it hard to relax when together. Set up separate spaces ready for individual dogs to enjoy by using stair gates throughout your home. Prep food toys and long-lasting chews for those times that dogs need to be separated.
When sharing spaces with friends and family that we wouldn’t usually do so with, it can become a little claustrophobic. Whether that’s, for you, because your visitors aren’t sympathetic to your dog’s needs. Or, for your dog, that they find it hard to relax with lots of people around and are becoming a little too used to you being around 100% of the time.
Creating space can help everyone. Whether that’s taking time out from your guests to go and walk your dog alone or taking a human-only walk that allows your dog some solo time. Making sure your dog has a little regular alone time will really help when you do return to your usual routine in January.
Go On Adventures
Getting outside during the sunlight hours is really important especially over the Winter months. It will help to keep your dog’s circadian rhythms in check - which affect all kinds of important bodily activities such as hormones, temperature, and sleep. These all play a big part in how dogs are feeling and, in turn, their behaviour. Dogs can experience their own form of seasonal affective disorder, so getting out in the sunlight whenever you can is a great idea.
Being outside also allows you to engage in some fun adventures together, making the most of time away from work to explore new local walks. These walks will not only boost your dog’s mood, but yours too - as well as helping you to digest all those extra festive treats.
Use Their Brains
If there are some miserable weather days over the festive break or your post-Christmas feast full tummy doesn’t inspire you to get out for a long walk, balance out shorter walks with some short fun training sessions.
Providing our dogs with a mental workout can be just as tiring for them as a physical one - but without the need to step outside. Just remember to keep training sessions short - 5-10 minutes is best - and always end on a high. Give lots of motivation with small pieces of treats. Our soft bites are great for breaking up into small pieces to fuel your fun training sessions.
If you’re stuck for ideas on what to teach your dog, check out our “12 Days of Tricksmas” on instagram to get inspired!
Take some time off!
Once the festivities are over and guests have gone home, plan to take some well deserved rest.
Whether your dog has found the holiday season exciting or a little worrying, having a doggy duvet day is the perfect antidote to any stress they’re feeling. Take a day or two off from the world - play games at home, allow them opportunities to sniff, and encourage plenty of sleep and rest.
If you do go out for walks, visit quiet spaces without the need to engage with other people or dogs. Take everything slowly and enjoy that peace and quiet.
We hope you’ll be able to enjoy all the wonderful moments this magical time of year can bring and, after following our “12 Days of Stressmas” tips, enter 2023 feeling calm and relaxed.
Caroline is also sharing some of these tips, alongside tips for your own end of the lead from Clinical Psychologist Linda Blair, in a brand new podcast.