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Paws Down: Teaching Holiday Manners

Our Thanksgiving feast is definitely among my favorite meals of the year. Not only is that time typically the one week that our entire family is together, but that day we gather for delicious appetizers, turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, vegetable casserole, pumpkin bread, and dessert. My mouth waters just thinking about it. And so does the mouth of probably every other dog who lives in a home that celebrates the holiday.

If you’re going to have a house filled with guests, the time to begin planning to help your dog succeed at being on his best behavior is not Thanksgiving Day, but NOW.

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Here are a few tips to help make Thanksgiving and other gatherings fun and safe for you and your dog.

Have a wonderful holiday!

  1. Exercise your pet in advance of company arriving. Remember, a tired dog will have much less value in jumping on people and much greater value in calm behaviors.
  2. Teach the manners and behaviors you want to see on the holidays well ahead of time. Then practice them over and over, with high value reinforcers and increasing difficulty. Distractions may be at their prime when your house is filled with guests. That level of difficulty is only achieved with a lot of advance teaching and learning.
  3. Something fun you can do to engage your dog with guests is to show off those ‘trick’ behaviors you taught him. If they were taught using positive reinforcement, those behaviors will cause your dog to feel good about doing them…and being in the room.
  4. There are times when management will be the best option. If you think your dog will be overstimulated, stressed, or anxious, think ahead about how you can help your dog through management. That could be having your dog in a separate room or a crate, or even staying with a friend. If you will be using one of those choices, spend time teaching your dog a positive association with being in that place, as the purpose will be to minimize stress. If you just need for your dog to settle in the same room, providing him a valued toy or bone (so long as he does not resource guard it from guests) may mean he will be less inclined to think about doing attention-seeking behaviors. And if young children will be part of your party, gates can keep their little hands and bodies from doing things your dog may not welcome.
  5. Speaking of children, remember, even the most docile dog will have a breaking point. Active supervision is imperative when it comes to kids interacting with dogs. When you’re watching them, you can redirect the kids (or the dog) if you see that they are getting your dog too excitable or your dog is exhibiting body language to say he is uncomfortable.
  6. On that note, familiarize yourself with dog body language in advance. Some signs to watch for in your dog that say he is not happy include: a tail held low or tucked between the legs; ears held sideways for an erect-eared dog or flattened back, with rapid panting; tense eyes that likely show the whites around the sides; tense body muscles; looking or moving or leaning away; a center of gravity over the rear legs or shifted to one side. He may also roll onto his belly in submission. If your dog freezes, becomes stiff, stands with his front legs splayed and head low, showing teeth or growling, interaction with him needs to stop immediately.
  7. For your counter-surfing dog, Thanksgiving Day will be his heaven. If you haven’t taught him what you want him to do in that situation, the simplest solution is eliminating access to the reinforcement that maintains the behavior. In other words, always be cognizant of being sure that tasty food is kept far enough from the counter edge that your dog cannot reach it, or use gates to prevent your dog from having access to that much temptation.

Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com

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