Puppy Diary #11: Mastering the Holidays with a Puppy

holidays with a puppy
holidays with a puppy

Dear Diary,

Each year, from October 31 through January 1, our lives are punctuated with special events, festivities, and merrymaking. While we as humans can understand concepts such as, “It’s Halloween, so the doorbell is going to ring 100 times tonight, yet there is no cause for alarm,” our pup Sommer does not have the same capacity. If only I could explain the reason and assuage her fears! But alas, the same goes for lovingly wrapped gifts under a tree. Anything on the floor is fair game and a potential plaything, right? And while we’re at it, I can imagine her asking herself, “What’s up with having a spruce tree inside the house? What is this madness?” It’s fascinating to try to see the holidays from a pup’s point of view.

As we rounded the corner and headed into the last few months of the year, our family was nearly giddy with anticipation. Sharing the holidays with a pup would mean memorable moment after memorable moment. Imagine our pup in a Halloween costume! Playing with ribbons from discarded Christmas wrapping! Tasting a bit of the Thanksgiving turkey! At the same time, I realized that the holidays would be full of potential pitfalls. (Remember the dreaded emergency room visit that happened when Sommer mistook a bottle of Advil for a delicious treat? No one needs a repeat of that episode!). I didn’t need Sommer breaking into a bag of chocolate Halloween candy – that much is certain – and I was determined to not only enjoy the holidays with our pup but to keep her safe, too.

Our first stop on the holiday gauntlet was Halloween, and to be honest, it was the one that filled me with dread. As I’ve mentioned, answering the door has become a two-person job in our house, as one person manages the dog and the other greets our guest. The prospect of the doorbell ringing incessantly was not an appealing one, to put it mildly. And I wasn’t the only one concerned: Many dogs don’t do well at Halloween. According to Bark Busters, the world’s largest dog training company, Halloween is the time that they hear more about dogs dying or straying. That makes sense because if Halloween is intended to scare or startle us, it will certainly do the same to a pup.

In our house, Halloween also meant guests, as our kids often would invite friends over for dinner, followed by trick-or-treating and then a scary movie, which would engender delighted screams and howls. All of that excited energy could be overstimulating for Sommer, and that wasn’t even considering the doorbell ringing and costumed kids yelling “trick or treat!” Chocolate too is toxic to dogs and must be avoided at all costs. When the kids got home from trick-or-treating, I made it clear that they were welcome to empty their bags and trade candy, but that it had to be done on the dining room table rather than the family room floor.

My goal was to make sure the kids had their fun while keeping Sommer as calm and protected as possible. Fortunately, Sommer has been around kids her whole life, so despite the fact that kids can be unpredictable, loud and aggressive in their behavior, groups of kids don’t faze her. Still, the last thing I wanted was for Sommer to get spooked and dart out the front door!

Sommer was able to greet the kids’ friends and enjoy being around the dinner activity. Once the kids headed out trick-or-treating, I took Sommer upstairs where we relaxed in the master bedroom while my husband handled door-answering duties. She whined and paced a bit at first, but then settled down with a chewy stick. Once the heaviest period of trick-or-treating passed, Sommer and I came downstairs and she was able to greet the occasional group of kids at the door without incident.

The remaining holidays of the year were less treacherous than Halloween, thank goodness! Whether Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or Boxing Day, the holidays mostly involved managing a pup’s manners around guests and steering clear of potentially toxic items. Now, I have friends who close the dog off in another room when hosting guests. Or, they might even send the dog to someone else’s home for a playdate or overnight. And believe me, I understand! Either option makes sense if your dog is likely to be overwhelmed by visitors or could get underfoot in the kitchen. (One thing you do NOT need is to trip over your dog while carrying a platter of Thanksgiving turkey to a table of guests).

I decided to ask a family member to be the designated dog monitor. I gave that person a bag of treats with instructions to dole the treats out liberally as encouragement and a reward for good behavior. The family member was instructed that if Sommer was misbehaving or not responding to commands, that family member had carte blanche to take action and discipline her. That seemed to work well, and the attention from someone new kept Sommer in check while I was busy in the kitchen.

As the holiday progressed, I couldn’t help but reflect on Max, the Grinch’s long-suffering dog in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. In the animated classic, Max is treated to a slice of “roast beast” and eagerly sits at the table anticipating the feast. On the flip side, there’s also the scene in A Christmas Story in which a pack of hound dogs descends upon the Parker family’s turkey, which is cooling in the kitchen. The family winds up eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant called “Chop Suey Palace.” Ah, the holidays! To avert a potential turkey-stealing disaster, I made sure to give Sommer a holiday meal, too. Boiled chicken or hamburger and rice seem to make her happy, and I feel it’s a good teaching moment for the kids, that to be kind to animals by making their day special, is something our family values.

Given all of the unusual happenings in the house, another potential hazard that I tried to guard against was stress accidents – in other words, potty accidents that might occur because Sommer was stressed by household change, or was thrown off her normal schedule. These accidents are of course impossible to prevent completely, but I did try to pay more attention to how frequently we let her outside and made sure that any time I saw her pacing by the front door, I let her out.

Finally, it was important to be aware of toxins that were dangerous for Sommer and that weren’t normally in our home. First on my list were houseplants. Pets are infamous for their ability to destroy household plants. Most don’t present a danger, but unfortunately, many plants used during the holiday season are toxic for pets. Holly, mistletoe, Christmas cactus – all can cause health issues if pets ingest them. I always buy a poinsettia at Christmastime, and ingesting poinsettia stems and leaves may cause some stomach upset and vomiting in dogs. While I wasn’t about to give up my annual poinsettia, I did make sure that I placed it high on a countertop where Sommer couldn’t reach it unless she managed to set up a ladder (haha). Happy holidays!

Lessons Learned from My Vet

  • Animal hospital emergency room visits double during the holidays! Common issues include poisoning and ingestion of toxic foods, accidents involving holiday decorations and ornaments, and dogs escaping and becoming injured or lost when the door is open for guests. As you move through the holidays, carefully consider everything that could cause harm to your pup, even if it seems unappealing to us as humans. One example is fallen Christmas tree pine needles. While not toxic, it’s not unheard of for dogs to eat them, and they are extremely irritating to the mouth and throat. Also, brief yourself on this list of foods that are toxic to your pup. Everything from avocados to grapes, garlic, and macadamia nuts can cause distress in a dog and will result in a run to the vet or emergency animal hospital.
  • Let’s face it: Pets can smell bad, and they can make our homes smell bad, too. Puppies that are not fully housebroken are especially hard on a house in terms of odor, so make sure to clean well before guests arrive. Here are some helpful tips on how to get rid of that dreaded puppy urine smell.
  • Puppy or no, many of us need to travel during the holidays. That means you’ll be faced with the difficult decision of boarding your pup, hiring a puppy sitter, or traveling with your pup. Here’s a helpful discussion of the pros and cons of each option. And if you do decide to travel with your pup and will be a guest in someone’s home, make sure to check out this primer. To ensure your pup’s safety, keep your dog on a leash when you first arrive and never leave your pet alone with the pet-in-residence.
  • Do you love to bake? If you’re baking cookies, why not bake something for your pup, too? Try this recipe and it might become part of your holiday tradition.
  • Include your pup in the family celebration! We stuffed a stocking for Sommer, and she loved opening it and being part of the excitement of Christmas. Here’s a list of fun gift ideas for your pup.

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About Puppy Diaries

Puppy Diaries is an ongoing series that explores the journey of pet parenthood, from making the decision to get a puppy, to bringing a puppy home, to the joys and struggles of training, and beyond. Laura Tiebert, our resident Pup Mom, is an experienced nonfiction writer and first-time puppy parent who lives in Minnesota with her husband, two sons and a new puppy.