Every now and then there’s an incredible dog with an experienced owner who can go everywhere together: the holiday party at the in-laws, the kids’ out-of-town soccer tournament, the weeklong group vacation house with two other unknown dogs. This dog can also be left unsupervised around the remodeling crew or the fancy cheese plate on the low table, and it’s a piece of cake for him to hang out calmly when the doorbell rings and strangers enter the house.
That dog drives me crazy.
Why? Because that dog makes everybody else think their dog should be able to do those things. Then they try it, and a Bad Thing happens. The owners now think their dog is problematic.
You know who’s problematic? We humans, when we don’t anticipate that some parts of our lives are not suitable for sharing with our dogs. Rather than thinking, “Wow, it’s amazing that my dog can navigate most of human life really well,” we think, “Dang it, what’s wrong with my dog that he can’t handle the annual holiday party without causing a disaster?”
I’d bet good money that the majority of emergency-room visits for dog bites at this time of year are a result of what we dog trainers call “trigger-stacking.” This is when a long car ride + sister-in-law’s unfamiliar house + crowded spaces + unknown people + humans weirdly stressed + no exercise + oops, kitty cat! + young people squealing = bite!
Please do your dog a favor: Stop thinking you need to (or even can!) train any and every dog to handle anything and everything. It’s not fair to impose the same set of behavioral expectations on all dogs. We don’t expect all humans to handle every social situation with equal aplomb!
Instead, with your dog’s specific skills and limitations in mind, think through situations ahead of time, and make adult decisions about whether and how to safely include the dog.
Management Keeps Everyone Safe
In some cases, leaving your dog home for a few hours, or using a trusted pet-sitter to care for her for a few days, is the best solution. In other cases, bringing her along, but using a management tool (or combination of tools), such as a crate, exercise pen, baby gate, or closed door to prevent unsupervised socializing, will be sufficient to prevent her from getting overwhelmed, overstimulated, and/or scared, and snapping at someone in order to get the space she needed.
I’m not advocating a life of separation for your dog; I’m talking about a few critical moments here and there, and sometimes just an hour or two. I love helping folks weave their dogs into as many hours of their lives that they can – as long as it’s safe and happy for humans and canines alike. However, I can’t begin to tell you how many tragic situations could be averted if owners would accept the idea that their dog isn’t currently a good fit for every single scene, and that management is the perfect way to help her through life in a human household.
- Crate her or put her behind a baby gate with a nice marrow bone when the doorbell rings. Then you’re free to greet the guest, and your dog can get a sense of things as she sniffs and listens from a nice little distance. Most dogs can be released for a calm greeting eventually – whether that’s one minute later, or 20.
- Choose a trusted pet-sitter for the holidays rather than forcing her into a situation that brings out the worst in her. It can be hard to find the right pet-sitter, but it’s sure a lot easier when you give it the priority it deserves. Start early! And when you find a good one, treat them so very well that they’ll drop anything to come back next time!
I think everyone can accept that it just makes sense to put up a temporary pen to keep the dog and the plumber from being in each other’s business all day – but I also understand that there’s more of an emotional component to leaving your dog out of the family Christmas or Hanukkah celebration. But it sure stinks when trying to make sure Fido “gets to enjoy the holiday” ends up with everyone thinking he’s a dangerous dog. Instead, do what all the best trainers do: Either leave your dog home, or employ a simple management strategy that will preserve the holiday peace.