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How To Avoid Embarrassing Dog Behavior Problems This Holiday

By Kayla Fratt

It’s every dog owner’s nightmare: the Christmas ham or potato latkes are missing, and there’s a trail of crumbs leading straight to your dog’s bed. Or grandma was knocked over by your exuberant teenage dog! Even if you’re spending this pandemic holiday season apart from your normal family gatherings, the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations are rife with opportunities for accidental canine mischief.

As the owner of a trash-eating opportunist, I’m right there with you. But never fear — you can learn from the mistakes of a professional dog trainer (me… and my clients) to avoid embarrassing problem behaviors during the holidays.

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Four Common Holiday Dog Problems and How to Avoid Them

Food theft and trash-eating. This is probably the most common dog behavior problem during the holidays. The chef is usually overworked and you may have a lot more dishes than normal. Your dog is less supervised and has more opportunities than usual to get some tasty scraps.

  1. Stop this problem in its tracks by getting your dog comfortable with a dog-proof “pup zone.” Use an exercise pen and some frozen stuffed Kongs to keep your dog happily snacking on their own goodies, far from your meal. If possible, practice putting your dog here during mealtimes before the guests show up! You want your dog to be used to this routine ahead of time. 

As a bonus, the solution offered here helps to prevent begging.

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Prevent this problem by getting your dog comfortable with a dog-proof “pup zone.” Use an exercise pen and some frozen, stuffed Kongs to keep your dog happily snacking on their own goodies far from your meal.

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Jumping on guests. Jumping on guests is definitely one of the most common problem behaviors for our dogs, but it can be much more problematic when your dog knocks over a visiting toddler or a grandparent. Many of us tend to have our hands full at holiday gatherings, making jumping up an even worse problem!

  1. Prevent this issues by putting your dog away in their “pup zone” before guests show up. Once they’ve stopped wiggling and leaping about trying to make friends, you can let your dog out on a leash to greet the guests. You can step gently on the leash to prevent him from jumping up, and instruct your guests to toss some treats on the ground. Tossing food on the ground will help redirect your pup’s focus low.

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You can step gently on the leash to prevent him from jumping up, and instruct your guests to toss some treats on the ground. Tossing food on the ground will help redirect your pup’s focus low.

Inability to settle down. If your dog isn’t used to guests (or thinks that all guests equal playtime for them), it can be hard to get them to settle down when new people are around. They’re just too wound up! This is pretty normal, especially if your dog is younger or a herding/retrieving breed.

  1. Prevent this problem by exercising your dog appropriately day-of and in the days leading up to your holidays. If you’re swamped with preparations, get help from your neighbors or family. I always take my dog for an off-leash hike or jog before we have a large gathering.

  2. If you have at least a week before the holidays, you can also work on implementing Karen Overall’s Relaxation protocol. This training program teaches your dog to lie down on a bed in an increasingly distracting environment, and it’s perfect to get your dog ready for holiday guests.

    See video below:

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Prevent this problem by exercising your dog appropriately day-of and in the days leading up to your holidays. If you’re swamped with preparations, get help from your neighbors or family.

Discomfort, fear, and/or aggression. Maybe your dog has never been great with strangers. Maybe they’re just out of practice because of the pandemic. Either way, it’s quite common for dogs to be scared of guests or even become aggressive towards them. Unfortunately, Aunt Jane — to your pup — is just as much of a stranger as any burglar! 

  1. Prevent this problem by setting up a pup zone and preparing lots of stuffed Kongs. You’ll want to get your dog comfortable with a pup zone that’s more out of the action if this is your problem; consider a back bedroom. 

  2. If you have at least a few weeks before the holidays, check the IAABC consultant list for a dog behavior specialist near you. Many consultants (myself included) are now meeting with clients over video conference and will be able to work with you to create a personalized training plan to keep your dog and guests happy and safe.

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You’ll want to get your dog comfortable with a pup zone that’s more out of the action if this is your problem; consider a back bedroom.

You’ll notice some recurring themes here. Ensure that your dog is well-exercised so that they’re actually able to rest when the guests show up. Set up a pup zone ahead of time and make sure your dog is happy to hang out behind the barrier eating their own snacks. If your pup has their own safety zone, their own snacks and their exercise needs met, you’re likely to have a much smoother holiday season. Enjoy, and fingers crossed that Fido behaves like the precious pup he is!


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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