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Holidays: Calming Your Stressed-Out Dog

Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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How to keep Pets Calm During the Holidays

We aren't the only ones who may experience some stress during the holidays. Our pets, which are generally sensitive to our moods and feelings as well as any changes in routine, may also experience unusual stress. And like us, some animals exhibit stress in the form of fears and phobias. Long before the holiday season starts, spend time working with your pet on some of the stressors that may manifest once the holidays arrive.

Fear of different people and/or children
Your dog may not be used to excited children or groups of strange people at parties. These situations can cause her anxiety, yet may happen frequently around the holidays. Dogs not accustomed to children or crowds may act shy, go into hiding, become aggressive, or bark excessively. The best way to avert these behaviors is to get your pet accustomed to interaction with strangers before the holiday season starts.

Here's an exercise that may help. You're going to need several helpers – some who know your dog and some who do not. First, invite one person (whom your dog is fond of but doesn't live with you) to come to the door and knock. Open the door, and have that person distribute a treat to your dog while quietly petting her.

Next, bring in several people the dog is familiar with, along with one person she doesn't know, so she'll get used to a group and have exposure to a new person. Praise her and give her a reward when she shows good behavior with guests, especially any new guests. Next, introduce one child, and then more children, until the dog is familiar with groups that show a mix of energy and noise levels. Remember to always supervise your dog around children.

Fear of noises
The holidays can bring increased noise levels to your home. If you have a particularly sensitive dog, even the banging of pots and pans during Thanksgiving can cause anxiety.

A noise phobia may be traced to a particular bad experience with a noise, but often, no triggering event can be ascertained. The owner's attitude can influence the severity of the fear. Similarly, if the owner attempts to overly comfort the animal, the animal confirms her own need to be afraid of something. The petting or comforting ends up providing positive reinforcement of an undesirable behavior, something you want to avoid when training your dog.

Products containing valerian and chamomile, such as Ultra-Calm and Rescue Remedy, are often used to help support calm behavior in pets. These two products should be given about 1 hour prior to a stressful event.

Never underestimate the power of exercise
Your pet should receive vigorous exercise daily. Having a regular exercise schedule can help minimize the effects of anxiety and fear. Exercise also helps tire the animal, both mentally and physically, and may make her less responsive to the fearful things. In addition, exercise has the effect of increasing natural serotonin levels, which can act as a sedative.

Whether your pet has fears or not, the holiday season is a time to really pay attention to her behaviors and stress levels. It will do you both a world of good.

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