Dog Training Techniques for the Holiday Season

Expert Trainer Tips to Prep Your Dog for the Festivities

By Jodie Havens, CPDT-KSA, Project Manager – Pet Training

The holiday season is a fun and joyful time, but it can also be a little stressful, not only for you but for your four-legged friend, too. From your dog’s point of view, all the rushing around, ringing doorbells, surprise guests and loud gatherings may cause them stress, which could lead to undesirable behaviors.

During the holidays, our normal schedules get disrupted. Kids are often on winter break, friends and relatives visit or you plan to travel with your dog. In all these cases, your dog may be exposed to unfamiliar people and situations as well as temptations in the form of holiday decorations and foods. See this article for Holiday Safety Tips.

During the holidays, your dog will look to you for safety and support. For shy or nervous dogs, this may mean setting up a retreat for them where they can safely relax away from visitors or celebrations. Boisterous dogs may have to be crated or put on a leash to prevent them from getting too over-stimulated.

Should I Crate My Dog During Holiday Celebrations?

Putting your dog in a crate might keep them from tearing up your holiday decorations, but If your dog hasn’t had their regular walk or playtime and you put them in a crate while you go out, it’s possible they might develop other undesirable behaviors—things like barking or avoiding the crate.

Remember, their crate is their safe space and you need to ensure your dog actually enjoys time in it. For example, if you know that a holiday gathering or winter weather is going to prevent you from taking your dog for a long walk, consider other, less time-consuming activities to make sure your dog isn’t bored like teaching them a new trick or giving them a long-lasting chew toy before you put them in their crate.

In conjunction with plenty of mental and physical stimulation, crating is a great way to manage your dog when unsupervised, but it should not be an excuse not to train. And when the holidays roll around, wouldn’t it be fantastic if your dog sat quietly instead of barking at or jumping on guests? Or would actually “leave it” rather than stealing that tasty tidbit off the counter?

Here are some tips on how to manage and train your dog to avoid problem behaviors during your holiday.

Training Techniques for Your Dog’s Unwanted Behaviors

We tend to fall into a pattern of focusing on the negative things our dogs do and correcting them rather than teaching our dogs what we want and consistently rewarding those behaviors through reward-based dog training.

Science has proven that behaviors that are rewarded will continue. Now is the time to think about the behaviors you might want from your dogs during the holiday season. Having a plan and teaching your dog what you want ahead of time sets both of you up for success. Here are some training steps for working with your dog:

  1. Manage the behavior. Do not allow your dog to practice the unwanted behavior. For example, if your dog gets into the trash, the management solution would be to place the trash can out of sight and out of reach of your dog. Management means utilizing tools (like putting the trash can out of reach) and remaining proactive. It takes dedication from the entire family to ensure that management tools are used consistently. Since this technique has the risk to fail, steps should be taken to train your dog, so you don’t rely only on management.
  2. Choose an alternate behavior. An alternate behavior is a behavior that will prevent your dog from practicing the unwanted behavior. Choose one that meets the same need as the unwanted behavior but is incompatible with the problem. (Example: If your dog barks at guests, give them a toy or chew when guests arrive to keep their mouth busy.)
  3. Teach the alternate behavior. Once you’ve identified the alternate behavior, you will need to teach it to your dog. It will take many repetitions before a new, improved habit is formed. You can work on this at home, join a PetSmart Training class or take private sessions with one of our Certified Dog Trainers for best results.
  4. Continue to practice. Once your dog shows signs of understanding the alternate behavior, you will need to continue to practice and manage the situation, so your dog doesn’t go back to practicing something you don’t like.

Now let’s put these steps into practice by looking at some specific unwanted behaviors you may experience anytime, but especially during the holidays.

How to Train Your Dog Not to Jump on People

Dogs who jump on guests are generally seeking attention. This is a learned behavior. If your dog jumps on a guest and everyone yells at them, they just got attention. Similarly, if they get pushed off, they are still getting attention because they are being touched. For many dogs, even looking at them constitutes attention. Worse yet, many well-meaning people will pet your dog when they jump up seeking attention. So, dogs get reinforced in a variety of ways for this attention-seeking behavior.

Let’s look at the steps for working with your dog to diminish jumping:

  1. Manage the behavior. This may be accomplished by denying your dog access to the new person, such as, by placing them in their crate before guests arrive or keeping them on a leash.
  2. Choose an alternate behavior. This could be “Sit,” “Down” or anything that is not jumping. Teaching your dog to “Sit” and then “Shake Hands” is another option that would still get your dog the attention they are looking for.
  3. Teach the alternate behavior. Let’s use “Sit” as the example. Consider all the stimuli happening in the environment. Usually guests don’t just magically appear in your home. They either ring the doorbell or knock on the door. Now, you want to introduce those sounds and begin to associate them with “Sit.” If your dog is over-stimulated or frightened by the knock or doorbell, you may need to spend time desensitizing them to the sounds before continuing. Doing this also helps your dog have a lower level of excitement and less likely to run to the door as it makes the doorbell/knocking less of a cue that a visitor has arrived. Once your dog can successfully “Sit” when you ring or knock, begin to practice having them “Sit” while they see a person they know. Eventually, you will put this practice together and your dog should sit anytime they hear a knock/doorbell or anytime they see a person.
  4. Continue to practice. If you don’t have time to train the “Sit” behavior, you may also consider asking your guest to ignore your dog. This is challenging for some people! Another method is to toss tasty treats on the floor while the guests come in. If your dog is sniffing around and getting goodies off the floor, they are not jumping on your guest.

How to Train Your Dog Not to Bark at Guests

Some dogs are not all that happy to see strangers coming into their home. Many dogs may view the new person as scary. Even worse, when dogs bark at a person, that person is apt to look at the dog which may make the situation more intimidating.

If your dog is extremely fearful of new people or large numbers of people, it is better to give them a safe place to be, away from the activity. Never force your dog to interact with other people or pets. In the case of long visits or overnight guests, sometimes it works best to have the dog out of the home, for which we offer playtimes at Doggie Day Camp and overnight stays at our PetsHotel.

Most dogs can learn not to bark at visitors and new people in their space. Let’s look at the steps to reduce barking at guests:

  1. Manage the behavior. Do not let your dog practice barking at strangers. This could mean having them go to their kennel/safe place when guests are due to arrive. This also means they shouldn’t practice barking at strangers when out for walk or in the yard.
  2. Choose an alternate behavior. Remember, it needs to be incompatible with barking and serve the same function. Having your dog grab a toy or work on a chew is a good choice that makes barking incompatible. Also, you may want to offer the toy or chew in another room or in a crate, out of sight from the guest. This is because typically, barking is a way to ask for space. So, by having the dog move away and then work on a chew, you have met the need of the barking and offered a replacement behavior. You may also reward an alternative behavior such as, being quiet, moving away from the scary person or allowing an initial alert bark and then rewarding them for being quiet.
  3. Teach the alternate behavior. For dogs who bark because they are anxious about strangers, you will need to begin by associating strangers with pleasant things. You will also need distance from the stranger initially, to prevent your dog from barking. Remember, barking may be your dog’s way of asking for space! You may want to use a friend to practice at first, to set your dog up for success. You could stand at the front door with the door open and have your friend walk back and forth in front of the door, while you feed your dog treats. Only feed when the friend is visible, so your dog associates the treats with the person. If your dog will not eat the treats, the person is too close and your dog needs space. It may also help to use your dog’s favorite treats. If your dog barks, the person is too close, so you will need to start at a greater distance and slowly have them get closer as your dog is successful. This scenario can also be taught with the help of a reward-based PetSmart Trainer.
  4. Continue to practice. And remember, if your dog is very anxious with new people, it may take quite a long time for your dog to be comfortable around them. To aid in the process, it’s best to instruct your guests to ignore your dog—not to look at them, touch them or talk to them.

How to Train Your Dog Not to Steal Food

Many dogs find counter surfing a recreational activity that provides an outlet for boredom, and possibly a delicious snack! They also may try to take advantage of your guests and steal food from their plate when they’re not looking. Because this behavior is self-reinforcing—meaning they reward themselves anytime they find a morsel—management is key to prevent the habit. While management is the easiest way to decrease this behavior, we also teach a fantastic cue called “Place” in our Intermediate training class or in private sessions. This may be used to not only inhibit counter surfing, but also begging at the table.

Let’s look at the steps to reduce food stealing:

Manage the behavior. This means placing your dog in another room or in a crate or pen to prevent them from practicing the behavior.

  1. Manage the behavior. This means placing your dog in another room or in a crate or pen to prevent them from practicing the behavior.
  2. Choose an alternate behavior. This could be laying on their bed away from where food might be served.
  3. Teach the alternate behavior. You can start by offering a long-lasting chew to your dog on their bed, away from the table. This will help teach your dog that staying on the bed, or whatever you designate as their “Place,” is valuable. You also must ensure that the no one in the home is feeding your dog from their plate during a meal.
  4. Continue to practice. This behavior takes time to teach. It takes consistency and patience. The investment in teaching the “Place” cue is worth it for counter surfing and table begging. It also works for guests arriving at your home and for taking your dog out and about, while traveling, visiting the vet or seeing new places.

How to Train Your Dog Not to Have Potty Training Accidents

Changes in schedules and holiday visitors can cause setbacks in potty training. Travel can also throw your dog off. Pups who are potty trained in their own homes might not do well in new locations and can even regress once you get back at home. Before training, be sure to rule out medical issues, such as, urinary tract infections than can be the cause of potty-training accidents.

Let’s look at the steps for getting back on track with potty training:

  1. Manage the behavior. Don’t allow your dog to have unsupervised access to areas where they’ve had accidents. Products like crates, gates and pens can help keep them out of potential trouble spots.
  2. Choose an alternate behavior. In this instance, one suggestion is to teach your dog to eliminate on cue. While it is not exactly a replacement behavior, we can’t ask our dogs to stop eliminating altogether.
  3. Teach the alternate behavior. To do this, spend the next week or so accompanying your dog to their potty places. As they eliminate, introduce your cue. Some common ones are “Go Potty” or “Pick a Spot.” Whatever you chose, say the words while your dog is eliminating. When they finish, treat and praise them in the potty area.If you do this consistently for a week or so, your dog will associate the verbal cue with the action of eliminating. You may then use the verbal cue in advance to indicate to your dog you’d like them to go now. This is very helpful if your regular schedule is disrupted, you are in an unfamiliar place or there are distractions in the environment.
  4. Continue to practice. Once potty training is back on track, be sure to periodically reward good potty habits to encourage them to continue.

Dog Products that Can Help During the Holidays

Top Paw® Crates, Gates and Pens

  • Top Paw Double Door Crates – Help create a safe place for your dog to get away from holiday visitors or to just to take a breather. Remind guests that they are never allowed to interact with your dog when they are in their crate. Make the crate a calm, comfortable place and never use a crate for punishment. When traveling with your dog, crates provide them with their own space and fold flat for easy storage.
  • Top Paw Extra Tall and Extra Wide Gates – When you’re preparing the holiday feast, keep your dog out from underfoot by using gates. Not only does this prevent begging, it can also prevent accidental ingestion of dangerous foods. Using gates to block off areas not only protects you, your guests and children that can overexcite pets, but it also takes the pressure off your dog and allows them their own area to relax.
  • Top Paw Exercise Pens – Just like crates and gates, pens can offer a safe place to keep your dog during hectic times. Collapsible for easy storage and transport, pens offer a larger space area than crates.

Adaptil® Calming Solutions for Dogs

Adaptil is a natural synthetic version of a pheromone that lactating mother dogs emit to their puppies, giving them the sense of well-being. These products create a hormonal reaction in your dog’s brain to help them feel calm and come in several formats.

  • Spray – Much like a travel size perfume, this solution can be applied to fabric in the car, on collars, shirts, leashes, bandanas, blankets and crates. It is also the fastest working of the applications that can take effect in as little as 10-15 minutes and last up to 4-5 hours.
  • Collar – This product is meant to be worn at all times. Activated by your dog’s body heat, the collar may take 24 hours for full effect and will last for 30 days, creating a constant source of the calming pheromones that can help reduce anxiety in stressful situations.
  • Diffuser – This product can be helpful for situations at home where you may need something that lasts a bit longer than the spray, but you may not have the option to reapply as needed. Much like a plug-in air freshener, the diffuser slowly releases a stream of calming pheromones within a small area. You can place one near your dog’s crate to help create a calm, relaxing area.

Only Natural Pet Calming Solutions

This brand only sources healthy, high-quality ingredients to create products that are consistent with their holistic approach to pet health.

  • ONP Just Relax Botanical Calming Dog Spray – This spray naturally calms anxious behavior in dogs and is perfect for stressful events. Spraying it on beds, crates, cars or in rooms—not your dog—it is most effective if used 30 minutes prior to a stressful event.
  • ONP Just Relax Herbal Calming Support Soft Dog Chews – These chews feature a potent dose of herbs and B vitamins to help soothe nerves without sedating or altering personality.
  • ONP Hemp Calming Support Soft Dog Chews – A powerful blend of hemp seed, chamomile and magnesium create a sense of calm for your pet. Holistic veterinarian-approved and THC-free with no sweeteners, artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

KONG® Toys

These durable and popular playthings provide entertainment and provide mental and physical exercise. Kong toys can be used for fetch, as chew toys, as puzzles and even as alternatives to food bowls.

  • KONG Wobbler – An action-packed toy that is also a mentally stimulating food dispenser. The KONG-shaped toy sits upright until nudged by your dog’s paw or nose, dispensing tasty rewards as it wobbles, spins and rolls. The unpredictable movement stimulates your dog’s natural instincts keeping even the most seasoned users challenged. You can also use it as an alternative to a dog bowl to help extend mealtime while providing exercise.
  • KONG Classic – Helps to satisfy your dog’s instinctual needs for chewing, playing, eating, etc. Its unique red rubber formula is ultra-durable with an erratic bounce that is ideal for dogs who like to chew and need to play. KONG Classics can be stuffed with tempting bits of food for are a long-lasting treat that keeps your dog physically and mentally occupied.

Recommended articles:

Air Travel with Pets

Tips for Safe Travels with Your Dog

How to Travel with Cats