Christmas is coming! Are you expecting visitors?
Christmas is a wonderful time for meeting family we don’t see every day, and each year brings new changes. New members of the family as people marry, have children, and even bring along their new dogs. Elderly people come to stay as they are now on their own and you don’t want them to be lonely.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to stay at home with my own small family, as I am not hugely gregarious. I like it this way and prefer to have a phone call with family or have a few round at a time rather than have a house full. I think Lily, our Dalmatian, appreciates this too. Friendly as she is, I know she would be overwhelmed if we had lots of visitors around. I think she might struggle to visit someone else’s house too. I realised this after we took her to a Cornish cottage on holiday; she was very uncertain and insecure. I guess that is what comes from living with home birds who aren’t that adventurous. She hasn’t really had to do any of this stuff in her years of living with us.
Exciting as it might be for us humans to have large family gatherings, please spare a thought for your dogs at this time. Now is the time you really need to be thinking about this! Has your dog done this before? Was he OK with it?
What might have changed?
Is your dog accustomed to yearly visitors and you are confident your dog will be fine? Even so, things change. You may have visiting children around which your dog has not met before, or, indeed, they may not have met dogs before. Or your dog might now be getting older and finding these visits less pleasant than he once did. Visitors may be getting older and less able to move, have hearing and sight changes; believe it or not, these might make a difference to your dog. Imagine aunty Mable tripping over Fido because she can’t lift her feet so high or didn’t see Fido lying there by her feet? Or imagine baby crawling along the floor into Fido’s bed, especially if temporarily left under the supervision of the aforementioned auntie Mable.
Do you have a puppy who has never seen Christmas before? Is your pup accustomed to large family gatherings?
Are you now breaking into a sweat just reading this article? Do read on, there are things you can do.
How to prepare Fido for visitors.
It’s a good idea to allocate a safe space to Fido well in advance of expected visitors. This space should be a place no one except you would need to go to; e.g. your bedroom. It is no good creating a space that your visitors will pass, especially if this means your dog may perceive no escape route and feel backed into a small space. This is likely to lead to a build-up of stress and anxiety which could increase risks that he may bite. Make sure this space is comfortable, has a bed with blankets, toys, stuffed Classic Kong and an Adaptil diffuser (a synthetic calming pheromone) plugged into a socket to infuse the space with anxiety reducing pheromones. You could play classical music quietly too. Make sure you start using this space a good few weeks before you expect visitors. N.B If you don’t prepare this space in advance, your dog will feel like he is being isolated or ostracised when your visitors come, and this would make him anxious. You should start to let him use this space for minutes at a time and gradually build up the duration. This preparation is so that you can give your dog a safe space to go to if he feels overwhelmed by any of your visitors. You can always pop up from time to time to keep him company, or let someone he knows spend some time with him so he is not on his own.
If you have elderly visitors who might be in danger of being knocked over by Fido, let him greet them on a lead first and encourage him to sit when greeting by using treats. DO let this be his CHOICE. If Fido doesn’t want to approach your visitor, then you must not push the point. If dogs feel able to control their access to strangers they feel less anxious and the risk they might bite much reduced.
If you have youngsters visiting then it is safer to keep Fido in his safe space at times when the children are playing noisily, or especially if tiny and at the crawling stage. This stage can be very scary for lots of dogs until they are accustomed to it. Even if your dog has seen tiny children before, take these precautions as dogs’ responses can change over time and the children are different so, by no means can you guarantee your dog will also be comfortable with this child even if he was last time.
Be dog aware. Make sure you are aware of how Fido communicates that he feels uncomfortable. Although you might think you know this, it is surprising how many people are not aware. A short look on You Tube is evidence of this. Cringe worthy videos of dogs and kids which make my hair stand on end are in abundance. Owners simply would not do these things if they could read their dog.
Dog Body Language to watch for (note, this is a very basic summary).
1. Clamped ears – this is especially clear on drop eared dogs. The ears should hang down loosely but not be pulled into the head if relaxed. Clamped ears indicate tension.
2. Hunched back – A sign the dog is not comfortable and is fearful.
3. Tail low or high – a very low tail generally means the dog is fearful and signalling he wants to avoid trouble but if provoked, this dog could still bite. A high tail can still be a sign of fear but in a dog that would be prepared to bite proactively; e.g. more confident in his ability to deal with the perceived threat.
4. Looking away – trying to avoid direct eye contact, trying to avoid direct interactions. Could be afraid and attempting to avoid conflict.
5. Stiff posture – if the dog appears unusually stiff this could indicate they are carrying tension. Being stressed could lead to an aggressive response as the dog is not coping.
6. Excessively staring – if a dog is staring at someone and appears a bit intense I would calmly invite him to his safe space. It shows he is unsure and seeking more information about them. If this
behaviour continues I would remove in order to reduce stress for this dog.
7. Look at his eyes. Are they bulging and showing the whites (known as Whale eye)? If so this indicates adrenalin is running higher; a sign of stress. Let him have more space.
8. Does your dog keep shaking off as if he has had a bath? This could indicate that his arousal levels keep rising and then subsiding; the shake off indicates lowering adrenalin levels so is OK if this happens a couple of times as long as he then settles down, but if it keeps on happening, then clearly the dog is not settled. You should let him go to his safe space.
9. Is your dog panting and yet it is not hot? This can be a sign of stress.
10. Is his mouth drawn back into a grin? Combined with furrowed brows and whale eyes this is a sign of stress.
11. Is his mouth pushed forward or clamped tightly shut? A shut mouth with this kind of tension may precede an outburst.
11. Is your dog walking away from people or ducking away when touched? He is asking not to be touched, it is best to listen or he may have to talk louder!
Generally, if we listen to our dogs when they signal in this way, we should be able to avoid problems. The trouble with Christmas, is that often our houses are busy and dogs don't have enough space to be able to cope which can lead to snaps and bites. A designated safe space as described above is essential for anyone having guests this Christmas.
Be dog aware and have a wonderful dog friendly Christmas with your family and friends.