The holiday season is always the busiest time of year! It is so hectic running from one place to another, keeping the house clean for company while simultaneously decorating every inch with tinsel and sparkling lights. Even though the holiday season can be stressful on us humans, it can be just as hard on the mental health of our four-legged friends.
Although I have always had a dog in my life, I became a true dog mom in 2017 when my husband and I adopted the cutest little pup from the SPCA. Tilly is our spoiled little princess; we treat her as if she was our child. I have never loved a little creature more than I love her — she is the light of our lives. That may sound a little extreme, but I believe that all the dog moms and dads out there relate and understand: There is very little I would not do to ensure Tilly is happy and healthy. I always consider her well-being, especially this time of year when things get a little out of routine.
Dogs are creatures of habit. They generally wake up at a certain time, and get their meals, walkies, and potty breaks, all according to schedule. Growing evidence points to dogs having a rudimentary concept of time. They intuitively know what and when to expect things that are routine to go to plan. I cannot even begin to describe the dirty looks I get from Tilly when we are late on presenting her with her evening treat, but I get those looks because to her, something is different, or wrong. During the holiday season especially, a dog’s routine is really put to the test. There are new things in their space (aka trees, ornaments, stockings, wrapped gifts, etc.); visitors are coming in and out, and their people leave for an evening out to shop or attend a holiday party only to miss out on regularly scheduled snuggle time. Although these little changes can seem insignificant to us, they can send our pups into a tail-spin (pun-intended.)
The best way to help your pet through the holidays is to be aware and try to understand how small changes in routine and activities can impact their stress levels. You know your dog better than anyone else, so it should be relatively easy to pick up on the SOS signals when something is wrong or stressing out your fur baby. Dogs do have specific body language that demonstrates stress, including a tail that is straight and bristled, raised hair near their shoulder blades, ears forward and lips curled. These could all be indications of aggression. Many dogs become aggressive or defensive when they are stressed. It is important to understand in these situations the source of the stress, and to try to remove or modify it. After we hung up our stockings this year, Tilly became very agitated when walking by them— barking and growling. After we moved the stressful socks to a new location she was perfectly fine. Although it may not make sense to us, to Tilly, those stockings were out to get her. Once they were out of her territory she was back to being a happy girl.
Other common signs of stress include avoidance of people or other pets. This could mean that your dog is overstimulated and might need a time out away from the chaos to regroup. Dogs also show stress by not eating or having gastrointestinal issues. Just like humans, when dogs get stressed they are wound up, and do not feel the need to eat. Also like humans, when dogs are anxious, they can experience constipation or diarrhea. If it is the latter, and your dog has an accident inside, please remember it is an accident. Scolding them will only make the situation worse. Your dog also might be sleeping in excess. Be sure to keep an eye on your dog if they do develop any of these symptoms and the symptoms continue, or if your dog is losing weight or becomes weak or lethargic, follow up with your veterinarian.
Some surprising signs of stress in your dog include licking their lips and yawning. Lip licking is an early sign of stress that can be easily missed. If you start to notice your dog licking, examine the situation to see what could be bothering them. This can also be an indication of nausea! When it comes to yawning this can be a little subjective. Tilly has some of the most dramatic dog yawns I have ever heard, but she has done this since we adopted her at 10 weeks old, so this is her norm. It is important to weigh what is normal for your dog and what seems abnormal. If you notice your dog is yawning more than usual or opens their mouth extra wide, it could be a sign of stress. Really, if you notice any kind of behavior that is out of character, your dog could be trying to tell you something. For example, when Tilly starts stealing socks or chewing on things she knows are off limits, I know something is wrong. She might need attention or something might be bugging her. Part of being a dog parent is investigating, as dogs cannot come right out and say what’s going on in their lives.
Some of the best ways to combat stress during the holidays and year round is to first, stay calm. Dogs are very intuitive and sense your emotions. If you are stressed, anxious or angry, dogs feel that and respond. By staying calm, you in-turn help your pup to relax. The next step is to make sure your dog is positively stimulated. One of the best ways to do this is to make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, especially leading up to a stressful event, like a Christmas party you are hosting at your home. If you are not able to go for a walk or play fetch due to your busy schedule, you can also hire a dog walker. I have used Rover and have loved their services! They can be a real life saver! Other ways to stimulate your dog include puzzle games—if they like them, that is…Tilly won’t go near one—or a special toy or treat, like a filled frozen KONG that will occupy their time. One final thing you should do to keep your dog mellow, is to develop a safe space for your pet that is out of the way of the ‘craziness.’ For some pets this could be a crate with a blanket over the top, or their bed in a cozy corner. Tilly goes to lay in our office when things get a little “too much” for her. She has her bed and baby blanket in there, and it is usually dark. She likes to look out the window in that room as well, which I think helps detach her from what is going on elsewhere in the house. Your dog might ‘tell you’ where their safe space is. For example, your dog might really want to go lay in the laundry room, although it might seem odd, that could be a place where they feel safe and protected.
Some final notes to keep your dog happy and healthy during the holiday, especially when entertaining, is to remember that this is your dog’s home, not your guests. Now, I am not saying not to be hospitable and welcoming to guests, but remember that your home is also your dog’s domain. It is important to talk with your guests about engaging with your animals. For example, not everyone knows that feeding pups leftover human treats can easily cause serious stomach upset, and many may be unaware of what foods are dangerous or poisonous to your animals. If you have kids visiting, make sure they are always supervised when playing with your pets- even if your dog is great with kids! Finally, remember dogs have sensitive ears and loud voices, or sudden sounds like fireworks or New Year’s Eve party poppers can startle and scare pets increasing their stress and agitation. If your dog is sensitive to sound, it is always okay to put them in their safe space with a yummy treat, even if that means they are not attending the party or ringing in the New Year with you.
These are just some little tactics that have worked for us and Tilly in the past. Again, you know your dog better than anyone else — you will find what works best for you and your fur babies during the holiday season! Hopefully some of these tips will keep you and your pup off the naughty list this year!
XOXO, Cait B.