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Happy Doggy Holidays!

Meredith Lunn CDBC

Certified Dog Behavior Consultant 

Just before Christmas one year, I got a call from Angie, a dog owner who said her dog was exhibiting some very strange behavior around the Christmas tree. She said Bowie would sit in front of the tree, pull his ears back, lick his lips and look at her with squinting eyes. Since some of these are stress behaviors, I wondered if the addition of the tree was causing him some anxiety. She noticed that the behavior usually occurred right after she came home from work. She wanted me to see the dog in action, so I met her at her home after work the next day.

When he greeted us at the door, Bowie was friendly and animated. However, as he headed for the Christmas tree, his body posture lowered, and his pace slowed. When he positioned himself in front of the tree, he had all the signs of an anxious shelter dog. Angie commented that there was never anything remarkable, such as an ornament on the floor. We stepped out of the room to leave him alone with the tree. After a couple of minutes, we looked in on him.

Angie and I couldn’t help laughing at the sight of Bowie carefully licking a candy cane on one of the lower branches! As we walked back into the room, his ‘anxiety’ came back. When we took a closer look at the candy cane, we saw that he had carefully licked the bottom of it into a neat little point. He must have been working on it every day since Thanksgiving when Angie put up the tree.

Bowie’s story is a humorous example of how a dog’s behavior can change during that period of time that begins with Thanksgiving and ends with New Year’s Day, or what many of us refer to as ‘the holidays’. We decorate our homes with strange objects, have large gatherings of strange people, indulge in different foods, and spend a lot of time occupied with activities that don’t include our dogs. There are many things that can result in both physical and behavioral changes in your dog during this time. Here are some things that I’ve learned over the years that could help you ease your dog’s physical and mental stress during this hectic time of the year:

Routine: Try to maintain your dog’s daily routine as much as  possible. Feed and exercise him at the regular times. A 20 minute walk or playtime can be a stress reliever for both of you and provide your dog with some much needed one-on-one attention.

Environment: Since dogs are keenly oriented to their environment, any changed to your home - such as rearranging furniture, adding Christmas trees, large statues and displays of bells on a door - can make it an uncomfortable place for your dog. For example, it would not be unusual for your dog to bark at the sleigh bells each time the door opens, or be suspicious of the snowman statue on your lawn. It may take some time for him to get use to the changes, so be patient with him.

Parties: Gatherings of people in your home can be intimidating to your dog. Talk about space invaders! Suddenly strangers are everywhere and your dog can be unsure of what will happen to him. This is prime dog bite territory. Even if your dog has perfect social skills when a couple of people come to visit, that can change when the dog is feeling cornered and overwhelmed in a crowd. Instead of letting him roam freely, it’s better to give him a safe place to stay. Prepare a quiet rom for him with his bed or crate in it, safe objects to chew on, and some soothing music playing on the radio. This is not the time for puppy socialization or behavior modification issues with strangers. It’s too easy for your dog to get into trouble when you’re busy entertaining guests.

Dog bites are not the only thing you need to worry about. Well-meaning guests can feed your dog things that could make him sick. Some food items to avoid are fat and bones from beef and pork, bones and skin from poultry, gravy, alcoholic drinks, candy, chocolate, grapes, raisins, and onions. When ingested, these things can cause a range of problems including vomiting, bloody and liquid stools, pancreatic inflammation, and irregular heart beat. Sometime is doesn’t take much for a small dog to have a life-threatening reaction to some of these foods.

Christmas trees, decorations and plants: These things can provide an assortment of new hazards for your dog. Christmas trees are full of them. He may find the lights and electrical cords, ornaments, garlands and tinsel particularly attractive to chew on. They can cause electrical shock, cuts or intestinal problems if he chews on them or ingests them. He can tip the tree over on himself trying to reach them. Avoid putting candy, cookies and other food ornaments on the tree. You may need to keep your dog out of harm’s way by restricting his access to the tree. If closing off the room with a door or gate is not possible, you can enclose the tree in an x-pen when your dog is home alone.

If you like to be kissed under the mistletoe, remember that this plant can be particularly toxic and potentially fatal to your dog due to it’s effect on the heart. Even if it’s hanging high up and out of your dog’s reach, be sure to pick up leaves and berries that fall on the floor. Poinsettias and a variety of plants with berries can also be hazardous to your dog’s health.

Other considerations: Keep gifts and the accompanying wrappings away from your dog. Any box can become a chew toy, regardless of what’s inside it. Your dog may be able to smell a food item, even if it’s wrapped in plastic and enclosed in a gift-wrapped box. The water in snow globes can have bacteria in it. Styrofoam can get stuck in your dog’s intestines. One of my dogs had diarrhea for a couple of days before he passed a small piece of a Styrofoam coffee cup. This material can also be found in ornaments and packing materials. Trash and garbage cans can be sources of trouble. Make sure lids fit tightly or keep them out of your dog’s reach.

There are lots of home remedies that can be used to counteract the toxic effects of certain things that your dog eats, but checking with your veterinarian or poison control center on their reliability is a good idea before you stock up on them. When in doubt about any emergency or routine medical issue, always contact your veterinarian.

Remember: Your dog is canine, not human, so he’s not expecting you to treat him any differently during the holidays than you do during any other time of the year. In fact, keeping his environment safe and his life as uneventful as possible with a regular routine and normal diet is the best way for him to enjoy the hectic season. It will make life easier for both of you.

With the above statement in mind, I will leave you with another story to think about. On the Monday after Thanksgiving one year, I was at the veterinarian’s picking up some ear medicine for one of the dogs. I overheard one of the veterinarian’s talking on the phone with a client. He was remarking that yes, a dog with diarrhea can act anxious. He agreed that a dog with the condition can also be particularly inconvenient with a houseful of guests. He also agreed that she was no doubt just trying to do something special for her dog at Thanksgiving, but next time she might consider doing something different. He recommended a couple of remedies she could give the dog. After responding with a few more ‘ah-huhs’ he stated, “Well Mrs. Smith, the bottom line is if you fee your dog half of a pumpkin pie he’s going to get the runs!”

Safe and happy doggie holidays to all!

Meredith and Sam Malone, the very tolerant doggy elf pictured above.

This article originally appeared in The Australian Shepherd Journal.