Help Your Dog be a Pawfect Host During the Holidays

By Joan Hunter Mayer

Ah, the holiday season! A time for family, friends and hopefully, some pet-friendly celebrations too. In a previous post, we shared tips for helping your dog be a courteous guest. Now, let’s take a look at how you can help Fido be a gracious host as well. From preventing unwanted behaviors to teaching new skills – or refining existing ones, we have tips to keep your pawliday festivities fun and rewarding for your pets and your guests.

Management – aka Setting Yourself and Your Dog Up for Success

Throughout the year, and especially during the holidays, managing the environment goes a long way towards keeping pets and people feeling safe and happy. As caring pet guardians, it’s our job to try to arrange the surroundings so our dogs are not given opportunities to practice unwanted behaviors. Fortunately, a systematic approach ahead of time can mean a positively smooth-sailing holiday season (at least as far as dog training is concerned!).

The first step is training the humans in your home! Unleashing your people training skills

can help avoid embarrassing, or even dangerous, mishaps – food being left around for easy canine access, doors and gates being left open so pets can wander off, confusion regarding pet care responsibilities, and so on. Here’s how you and your family can be proactive:

  • Now is a good time to puppy-proof your home (again). Try to be thorough, even if your ‘puppy’ is an adult dog!

  • You can prevent behaviors you don’t want, such as overly exuberant greetings, by limiting space and access. For instance, if your pup has a long history of being petted when she jumps up on beloved humans, putting a harness and leash on her when someone is coming over is a helpful management strategy. Meanwhile you can be working with the humans-including visitors- so they know to only interact with your dog when there are four paws politely stuck to the floor. 

  • Also, keep in mind, just like you, your pup will have a hard time being a good host if he’s ‘hangry’ or uncomfortable. Have a schedule posted somewhere obvious to keep track of feeding and walking responsibilities. Check off what has been done, and when, to avoid missing walks or meals.

Next, plan ahead when it comes to supervising your pupper during holiday preparations and entertaining. For some dogs, confinement can be safe and fun if you utilize crates, baby gates X-pens wisely. Once your dog is acclimated to them, using these strategies can help restrict access to off-limits areas such as doors leading outside and food prep/dining areas. Just try not to overdo crate time or alone time.

Also give some advanced thought to what types of enrichment you’ll be providing. It’s our responsibility to provide proper outlets for our fur friends to fulfill their doggy needs. Keeping your dog physically and mentally active can help prevent boredom-related problems. Food puzzles, bones and chews can all come in handy here. More importantly though, what’s more enriching for both you and Fluffy than carving out some quality time to savor together? And that brings us to the next topic – training games to enhance your bond and brush up on skills.

Practicing Those All-purpose Good Manners Skills

To help your dog put his or her best paw forward this holiday season, use simple, dog- and people-friendly training techniques. As we walk you through our top training tips, it can be fun to think about how they might be applied to teaching a specific behavior, such as polite greetings.

Tip # 1: Be kind. Practice humane, positive reinforcement reward-based training techniques developed from the science of animal behavior. These science-based teaching methods are simple to follow and effective. Plus, they make learning fun and rewarding for pets and people!

As in all our relationships, one of the kindest and most important things we can do is learn to listen. But most of what your dog has to “say” is communicated through dog body language – her facial expressions, body poses and postures. What is your dog communicating (or trying to communicate) to family members and guests that come to your home? Recognizing, understanding, and responding appropriately to your dog’s emotional response to visitors is a matter not only of kind consideration, but safety too!

Look for signs of stress. Some of the key areas of your dog to watch are her head, eyes, mouth/tongue, legs, and tail. If holiday commotion is a bit much, be sure to have a quiet, cozy spot where Fluffy can relax and rest, or enjoy safe enrichment activities, undisturbed – but not banished.

 Tip #2 Discover What Motivates Your Dog. Successful positive reinforcement begins with figuring out what motivates your dog. Whether it’s food, toys or real-life rewards, such as “Go say hi!” the common denominator is that good motivators encourage learning and participation because they are things your dog enjoys. Providing anything your pooch finds rewarding helps establish a more enjoyable learning environment and aids in building and maintaining a mutually trusting canine-human relationship, elevating life with dogs to the next level.

So, make a list of rewards your dog really loves. Be creative. Remember to look at what’s rewarding from your dog’s point of view, not your own. Great! You now have a list of powerful motivators for your dog and you’re ready for Tip #3.

Tip # 3 Reward Any and All Behaviors You Like and Want. But, what is a reward, technically? In short, a reward is anything your dog wants. However, context matters! If your dog just ate dinner, your treats might not be worth as much as a game of tug. If you’ve got fresh salami in your pocket, the opportunity to greet a new person might not feel as rewarding to Fido as staying right by your side with his nose glued to your hip.

Novelty is also important. Use new or unfamiliar rewards when training more challenging skills or when you’re in areas with increased distractions. Be sure to incorporate rewards other than food into your training too. You can use things like fuzzy toys, a squeaky ball, a game of fetch, and real-life rewards. For example, if you’re entertaining guests, reward your dog’s calm attentiveness on his mat (or “place”) by releasing him to “Go Say Hi” to the visitors – as long as they’re okay with it!

Tip #4 – Learning is a Lifelong Process

One of the most important things you can do when you train your dog is to think about the scenarios in which you ultimately want the behaviors to work. Then gradually work towards that goal, practicing a little each day, in a variety of locations under a variety of circumstances.

Here’s why. Often when we ask our dogs to do something and they don’t do it, we assume they’re “blowing us off” or “being disobedient.” The truth is, more often than not, this response is just a lack of understanding of what you’re asking for because something is different in the training environment. It may sound like a recipe for frustration on your end, but the good news is you are way ahead of the game when you realize what’s happening in your dog’s brain when he’s struggling to perform a behavior in a new context: he’s simply struggling to generalize.

You may fully understand how to tie your shoes whether you’re in your kitchen, your backyard, or your office. People are pretty good at generalizing behaviors. But your dog might not get that the rules for polite greetings while on leash walks also apply to greeting visitors at home. However, if you re-teach the cue or concept starting from square one, it won’t take nearly as long for your dog to learn a known behavior in a new context. In other words, Fido will pretty quickly get the idea and have that beautiful “a-ha!” moment.

Putting It All Together

With some strategic management, a pawstive approach to teaching and refining skills and a few dress rehearsals, your best friend can be a fetching host for any holiday gathering!

And with that, cheers and woofs to you and your inquisitive canines for a wonderful holiday season.

The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!


Written by Joan the Dog Coach

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer who founded "The Inquisitive Canine." More information can be found at

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