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Holiday Tips: Handling Holiday Guests When Your Dog Dislikes Strangers

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The holidays are hectic enough, who wants to add a dose of dog training into the mix? While this may truly be the last thing you want to add to your list, dogs who are fearful of strangers or especially sensitive to change can often use some extra-special help during the holiday season. Without it, your typically well-mannered dog might get stressed to the max, potentially creating a dangerous situation for you, your guests and your pup.

HOW TO SPOT IT: Why does my dog react to guests coming over during the holidays?

Holidays are as stressful for your pup as they can be for you—even more! Just as humans can become short-tempered with holiday overload, imagine being a dog limited to expressing feelings only with body language and the sound of their whine, bark, or growl—and no words to ask “Who are you?” or “What is this?

Your pup is used to the house being a certain way, and if it suddenly flips for a month or two—new sights, new sounds, new smells, new people running around—this can put your pup on edge. Add to this a dog who’s protective of your home or family, or afraid of new people and any aggressive tendencies may be more likely to surface.

Aggressive behavior can be triggered by the holidays because:

  • there may be a drastic change to the environment with decorations
  • there may be strangers entering the house
  • there may be loud noises coming from a party or music
  • there may be chaos setting-up, during and after a party
  • your dog’s normal routine may be broken because of the holiday hustle and bustle

Many of these things cause stress in us humans, so it only seems natural our beloved dogs are feeling it too. Growling or barking at strangers is a common way dogs tell them, “back off,” but are not the only ones. Snapping and biting can follow with even the most mild-mannered pups.

Management and support to help your dog feel safe are important. If left unchecked, there can be terrible consequences for you, your dog and your guests. If your dog shows signs of aggression toward strangers, consult a professional dog trainer before you do other party planning to ensure you have a strategy in place to keep everyone happy and safe.

Dog anxious with guests

THINGS TO CONSIDER: How serious is stranger aggression? 

It’s pretty serious. Mychelle Blake, MSW, CDBC, notes that aggression in these cases often comes from pups who have a fear of new things, people and places. “What may seem like a benign visitor to your yard, such as the mailman, can be perceived by the unsocialized dog as an extreme threat and the dog will act aggressively to protect himself.” Likewise, dogs who had been ok with parties or crowds as puppies might be more anxious about them as they hit 1-3 years old.

If your dog is on-edge this holiday season (or ever, really), it’s time to have a conversation with your veterinarian. Certified dog trainers typically ask that you have your dog examined to make sure there isn’t anything physical or medical that is creating the aggression. (See some common age and health-related causes of fear in dogs here.)

If your pup has a clean bill of health, then it’s time to look at the mental side of things—what types of situation (such as the holidays!) trigger fear and/or anxiety in your dog?

Your dog behavior consultant will probably work with you on a mix of training and behavior management techniques to help your dog feel safe. Certified dog behavior consultant Don Hanson from Green Acres Kennel notes that classic training alone is not enough: “I explain the difference between training and behavior modification and how the goal of the latter is to change the way that a dog feels in a given situation. The vast majority of aggression cases that I see are based in fear, so resolving the dog’s anxiety is a key to ending the aggressive response.”

FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: How can I help my dog stress less during the holidays?

No matter how much you prepare and take care of your dog (and yourself!) throughout the holidays, they will probably not be entirely stress-free. But you can still find ways for everyone to stress less. Here are a few quick wins to add to your pup’s column:

Start before the party.
The unusual activity that happens when a party is being set-up can create anxiety for your dog. (Think tent rental companies with employees going back and forth, for example.) Keep your dog in a safe location away from all the activity where they can just chill and play with a toy or seven.

Give your dog her own par-tay room to prepare for the real one!
Imagine walking into a room filled with all your favorites: foods, drinks, smells, cozy blankets and shows to binge watch. Try something like that for your dog. Set up a quiet, private room or space for your dog to enjoy their favorites—bed, toys, treats and water. You can even put pheromone diffusers in and play calming music.

Not all decorations are created equal.
Tinsel, glass ornaments and extra electric cords can all pose danger to your pet. Likewise, an anxious dog may find other items to chew or destroy when they’re scared. Make sure your dog has appropriate toys and comfy places to sleep, and to limit the availability of other things. Find out what other holiday-specific items may pose a hazard to your dog from NYC’s Andrea Arden Dog Training.

Keep up your dog’s routine.
It’s too easy to skip a walk or puppy playdate when a billion other things are fighting for your attention. Keeping consistency for your pet with things like meal times and bed time, even when the environment is completely flipped, can go a long way.

HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask veterinary and behavior professionals

Ok, this is not a time to “wait and see” or “tough it out.” The sooner you ask a professional for help with your pup’s stranger anxieties, the more likely you are to have a fun, relaxing holiday. If your dog needs some additional help beyond what behavior management can do, there may be other medicines and supplements that can give an assist.

Things you may want to ask a trainer or veterinarian:

  1. What medical conditions may cause aggression? Can we rule them out?
  2. What do you recommend I do if my dog becomes agitated?
  3. What’s the difference between training and behavior modification?
  4. Are there medications or supplements we should try?
  5. Are there any brain-teasers I can use to tire my pup out?


Holiday Safety Tips from ASPCA

How to Host a Puppy Socialization and Training Party to help your dog learn to like strangers from Andrea Arden Dog Training

7 Ways to Make the Holidays Safer for Pets from the AVMA

Wintertide Follies? Help Your Dog Enjoy the Howlidays from Fear Free Happy Homes

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