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Let Me Entertain You! Successful Holiday Parties for Pet Owners

Originally published 12/01/2011.

Pets and parties?

I love the movie A Christmas Story. My favorite characters are, of course, the Bumpus Hounds. The Hounds are a ragtag group of bloodhounds that break into the neighbor’s home with one mission on their collective mind: stealing and consuming the holiday turkey.

dog begging for holiday meal

Pet owners laugh at the Bumpus Hounds because we can relate—poorly behaved dogs can put a damper on holiday fun very quickly. Would you like to welcome friends and family to celebrate the holidays, but worry that your dog will jump all over your guests’ party clothes with muddy, snowy, salty paws? The night before your big party, do you struggle to sleep and/or experience nightmares of your dog(s) recreating a Bumpus Hound event by stealing food off your counters or out of guests’ hands? Do you imagine what could happen if one of your guests holds the door open too long and your dog bolts out into the street?

With preparation and training, the worst-case scenarios can be put aside. It is possible to welcome guests into your home and feel confident that you can make the party fun, safe, and enjoyable for you, your guests, and your dog! Relying on training and management skills at the holiday season removes one item from your list of things to stress out about. You may still need to worry about decorating, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and wrapping, but you won’t need to worry about being embarrassed by your dog’s unwanted behaviors.

Five to follow

Each year we host a “Christmas Eve Eve” party where 30 or more friends descend upon the Lomonaco home to celebrate the season. The following tips are ones I use with great success to manage my own dog at our annual party:

  1. PLAN AHEAD! When you make your shopping list and prepare for the variety of delicious food and beverages you will serve your human guests, don’t forget the dogs! Plan holiday treats for your pets, too. I like to prepare:

    • Frozen stuffed Kongs—Depending on your dog’s diet, stuff Kongs with yogurt or canned dog food mixed with kibble, various raw foods, or plain canned dog food. I suggest at least two Kongs for each dog.
    • Because the distraction level will be high at the party, the level of food reinforcement should be comparatively high.
    • Training treats—Because the distraction level will be high at the party, the level of food reinforcement should be comparatively high. Dressed in holiday finery, you may not want to wear a treat bag or keep slimy hotdogs in a pocket. Instead, consider filling a few small containers with yummy treats. Store the containers where the dogs cannot access them, but where it is easy and quick for you to treat and reward good behavior.
    • Chew toys—If your dog likes bully sticks or marrow bones, make sure you have some on hand.
  2. SET UP FOR SUCCESS! My dogs are more relaxed when they are well-exercised. A dog should have ample and appropriate exercise before a big event, so when you create the party-day schedule, make sure you allocate time for a hike with your dog or some other physical exercise.

    Since stress is cumulative, I don’t schedule big events immediately after other events that may be stressful for my dog—no kitchen remodeling, vet visits, unpleasant grooming procedures, boarding visits, or similar commitments in the week before (or after) the planned event, whenever possible.

  3. CREATE SAFE SPACES! Dogs can get overwhelmed quickly by the activity and noise of a party. Your dog needs a safe space to go to and relax in. Even if your dog is not a resource guarder, he will enjoy a Kong or chew toy more without strangers approaching or touching him. Crates make wonderful safe spaces. Make your crate a great party “safe spot” by:

    • Placing the crate in a separate room (not in the middle of the party to be bothered or approached)
    • Supplying a safe, desirable, and appropriate chew toy
    • Offering a comfortable bed or mat to lie on (if your dog won’t eat it!)
    • Using a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) plug-in near the crate or sprayed on bed
    • Playing Through a Dog’s Ear to encourage calm
    • Using a ThunderShirt. If your dog responds favorably to a ThunderShirt, this would be a good time to bring it out!
    • Kongs are a great way to keep your dog busy and happy.

      Kongs are a great way
      to keep your dog busy and happy.

    If your dog tends to bolt toward an open door, consider crating him with a Kong while your guests arrive, and then allowing him back into the room to greet the guests.

    Manage your dog’s stress throughout the party, as you want your dog to feel safe at all times. Learn to recognize canine stress signals; be sure to give your dog a break if he appears stressed.

    While all dogs need a safe space, fearful dogs may prefer not to be a part of the festivities at all. If your dog tends to be uncomfortable with new people in the home, on the night of the party restrict him to his “safe space” (with a locked door and frequent visits from you), or send him off to a “slumber party” with a favorite friend or relative.

  4. TRAIN YOUR GUESTS! Be wary of “bootleg reinforcement” opportunities, when your dog “steals” food from your guests as reinforcement for unwanted behaviors. You may be working very hard to teach your dog to sit politely to greet people, ignore food on tables or other surfaces, or not bolt out the door. Your guests, not knowing the rules, may reinforce undesirable behaviors inadvertently, undoing your hard work.

    Consider including with your party invitation a brief note about helping you train your dog. For example, “Five Tips to Help Barley Stay on Santa’s Nice List” might ask your guests to pay attention to Barley only when all four paws are on the floor, not feed him from the table, etc. Inviting guests into your training, as well as in to the party, can serve a number of functions, including teaching your dog that new people coming into the house means “good things happen” for the dog. This approach helps prevent a fear of guests entering the home.

    When a dog learns that an open door predicts treats on the ground, he is less likely to bolt out the door or jump on your guests.

    Pet owners with dogs that jump on guests are frustrated because as soon as the door opens the dog’s paws leave the ground. If your dog likes jumping on people as they enter your home, consider leaving some kibble in the mailbox and asking your guests to drop a few pieces on the floor as they enter—to help Barley learn to seek reinforcement “down low” when greeting new people. When a dog learns that an open door predicts treats on the ground, he is less likely to bolt out the door or jump on your guests.

    This strategy buys you “clickable moments” where you reward the behaviors you like, such as “four on the floor” or “sit to greet.” It also allows any guest who would like to greet your dog the opportunity to bend down to his level to greet him. The dog gets the reinforcement he wants (attention) in the position you’d like (down low on the floor, all four paws on the ground).

  5. OBSERVE AND BE READY TO REWARD! Whenever possible, have one family member welcome guests into the house and another family member observe and work with the dog. Your dog should always be under direct supervision; you or someone you trust should be watching at all times. There are two reasons for this careful observation: 1) to prevent the dog from rehearsing unwanted behaviors (counter-surfing and stealing hors d'oeuvres, bolting out the door, jumping on guests with snowy/muddy paws), and 2) to reward the dog for good behaviors (choosing to greet by sitting or with four paws on the floor, resting on a mat, allowing for petting without nipping or biting, keeping all four paws on the floor near the table).

    Parties can be an unexpected way to practice basic skills with distractions! Here are some examples:

    • Welcoming people at the door is an excellent opportunity to practice “sit” with duration and distractions. For friendly dogs, reward those behaviors not with a treat, but by providing the opportunity to greet and meet a new friend! Ask your dog to "sit," and once your guests are safely in the house, release your dog to "go say hi!" If you'd prefer to avoid the door area altogether, before the party train the dog so that the doorbell becomes a cue to run to a mat or crate and settle.    
    • Dog relaxing on Mutt Mat.

      Dog relaxing on Mutt Mat.

    • Dinner time! If you are planning a formal dinner party, use everyday mealtime to teach your dog to settle on a mat away from the table—an important life skill for dogs that keeps them out of all kinds of trouble. If your dog is lying politely on his mat, he cannot be jumping on guests, snatching food from the table, or begging.
    • Hand targeting. If you would like your dog to greet your guests politely, use a hand target to control the introduction. If your dog is not fearful, have a guest present her hand and say “touch” while she greets your dog. This approach prevents bad human behavior (many people try to hug or pat dogs on the top of the head, neither of which behavior is generally welcomed by dogs, especially from strangers), AND it teaches a dog to greet without jumping, to greet with “four on the floor.” I do have a few friends who actually want my dog Mokie to jump on them; they place their hands up high so that Mokie leaps to “touch.” Mokie would much rather participate in legal jumping than be touched by strangers.
    • If you would like your dog to greet your guests politely, use a hand target to control the introduction.

    I also use hand targeting to control a dog’s movement. Do you see your dog approaching the table as if he wants to counter-surf? Immediately give a hand target cue to get him away from the food, and then have him settle on a mat. Do you need to walk by that beautiful table setting to let your dog out for a potty break? Place your hand by your hip, give the “follow” cue, and voilà—an automatic heel past the distraction of the turkey.

Manners make all merry

These five tips are just a few of many ways training can improve your dog’s manners this holiday season. Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s article Help, We’re Being Invaded! How to Train Polite Greetings, also about preparing a dog for holiday entertaining, has more seasonal suggestions. Considering all, and implementing some, of these tips increases the probability that you, your dog, and your guests will all enjoy your holiday parties to the fullest.

If you need help training, or would like even more training tips, there is still time before the holidays! Many Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partners (CTP) offer “mini-courses” focused specifically on holiday manners. For the holidays or to start the new year off right, enroll in a class to teach your dog some new skills or brush up on skills that may have deteriorated without practice. To locate a KPA CTP in your area, visit the Karen Pryor Academy Find-a-Trainer page.

Happy holidays!

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About the author
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Casey Lomonaco lives in upstate New York, where she offers editorial, writing, and behavior consulting services through her company Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training. When she is not working with or writing about dogs, she is knitting, reading, or hiking in a forest—with dogs.

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