Surviving the Holidays with Your Dog

The holiday season can be a time of great joy and celebration with those we love, dogs and humans alike. Making sure your dog is set up for success during your holiday celebrations will help you get the most “merry” out of this time of year.

By Kat Stevens-Stanley, local dog trainer and partner of The Pet Beastro

Bandit Lola Xmas 2010

The holiday season can be a time of great joy and celebration with those we love, dogs and humans alike. Making sure your dog is set up for success during your holiday celebrations will help you get the most “merry” out of this time of year.

While most of us head into this season hoping to experience joy and warm hearts, this time of year can also bring stress for some of us. Routines may be changing as you are planning get-togethers and holiday parties, your normal working hours may vary, and the hustle of getting last minute things done before the year's end can bring its challenges. When you are stressed, you may become less patient with your dog or more reactive to unexpected situations.

Your dog may pick up on your change in mood. When we are stressed, our dogs can be stressed, too. Be aware of the signals your dog is becoming uncomfortable or anxious. Check in with your dog when you can, and sure he is feeling alright, and do your best to keep his stress level at a minimum.

Lit Candles

Many of us enjoy decorating our homes for the holidays. If your decorations include use of lit candles, be sure to always supervise pets while they are in these areas. Dogs who are not used to lit candles in areas may accidentally knock them over, creating a difficult to clean candle wax mess or worse, start an unintended fire.

Christmas Trees and Lights

If decorating a Christmas tree is part of your holiday tradition, consider skipping garlands that are made with edible items, like popcorn, that may be attractive to your dog. In our house this year, we moved our tree closer to our front door than where we’ve kept it in past years. I assumed that because my toddler is older, I was safe placing breakable ornaments throughout the tree (as opposed to only near the top as in years past). I quickly learned this was not the case as one large dog’s very happy, helicoptering, tail wag knocked two of my most treasured breakable ornaments to the floor when a guest arrived! Be selective on where you place your ornaments, especially if you have breakables and a dog with a happy tail!

If this is your first holiday with your dog, you may not know how your dog will react to seeing a tree lit up indoors. Supervise your dog when first putting up new displays to make sure they aren’t fearful or confused. I have heard stories of dogs who urine marked real trees when they came home – probably not something you wanted as part of your holiday décor. If you walk your dog in the evening, take note that lit up and animated outdoor displays can be conflicting for some dogs. Some décor may also be alarming during daylight hours. Some dogs may barely take notice, other dogs may be spooked or unsure. If your dog is the latter, put some space between you and the display (crossing the street if needed) to make sure your dog is not stressed while walking.

Holiday Costumes

Much like Halloween, if you’d like to dress your dog up for the holiday in reindeer antlers or a holiday sweater, be sure to take their feelings about costumes into consideration. Some short-haired dogs do get cold in Michigan this time of year and love a sweater to keep them warm (think Pit Bulls, Greyhounds, Pugs, and German Shorthaired Pointers)! Other dogs may be anxious to get it off as soon as possible. I think dressing up a dog as part of a holiday photo is fine, but if your dog is ready to take ears or jingle bell collars off right away, don’t force them to continue wearing it.

Parties and Guests

If you are hosting a holiday party, providing your dog an outlet and a quiet place to rest is wonderful. Some dogs love to be a part of the action, but many do not. Giving your dog a quiet place to rest and relax with an activity like a food-stuffed toy or long-lasting chew mean you have the ability to relax and enjoy your guests without having to worry about what your dog is doing.

Visiting children can be a particular stressor for many dogs. This time of year, my Internet news feeds are full of images of children and dogs posed together for holiday photos. We love our children and we love our dogs. They are both cute, so it’s natural to want to photograph them together. Be sure to watch for stress signals while children (familiar or visiting) are interacting with your dog. Stress signals include: lip licking, tongue flicking, yawning, heads turning away, dogs wanting to leave the action, scratching and, the more obvious, growling. Children (and adults too) should be discouraged from hugging and draping arms around dogs, even for photographs. A motto I often share with families is, “one hand's enough, two hands too rough.” Encouraging children to only use one hand at a time while touching a dog (provided they are old enough to do this without another adult’s hand guiding their touch) decreases the likelihood that they will grab and hug a dog. If you choose to let your dog be part of your holiday party, supervise, supervise, and supervise! This can be challenging when you are hosting several guests and children are present.

Toxic Foods and Plants

If your party includes food and drinks, having your dog relaxing and enjoying herself in another area means you don’t have to be concerned that your dog has indulged in too many rich holiday foods – many of which can make your dog feel ill. Some of the plants that are commonly used in holiday decorating can be toxic to your dog. Skip the mistletoe and holly or be sure to have it securely in a location that your dog does not have access to. ASPCA’s list of toxic plants is available to check out here.

Many of our holiday traditions include giving and receiving gifts. If a new dog is in your future, remember that a puppy is for life – not just for holidays. So, if you are considering getting your family a new dog or puppy this season, make sure that the holiday aside, you are fully ready to commit to the 10-15+ years that a new dog can bring. If you have young children in your home, new toys with lights, movement and sound can be super alarming to dogs. Always supervise your dog around new toys and baby/young child equipment.

Happy holidays!

About the Author

Whether the new dog you’re bringing home is a senior, adolescent or a puppy, Kat Stevens has a customized class for you. Kat’s private in-home classes can help you learn new skills, solve undesirable behaviors and further deepen the bond between you and your dog. To find out more about making an appointment with Kat, please contact her on the web at, or on Facebook at Kat can also be reached directly via email at


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