Knowing how to relieve stress in dogs during the holidays is a must for dog owners. Dog anxiety caused by holiday stress is nothing to scoff at – it can cause your dog to be more destructive, have housetraining accidents, and in some cases, act out at people or dogs.
In addition to focusing on how to relieve the stress our dog is feeling, it’s just as important to prevent holiday anxiety and stress in dogs from occurring in the first place.
A little foresight and planning will go a long way. Read on and make a list of how you can change your holiday celebrations to make them more dog-friendly and less dog-stressful!
How do the Holidays Cause Dog Anxiety and Stress?
The holidays are a busy time. We are gone more often attending holiday gatherings and rushing around more to shop, decorate, and prepare.
Our dogs not only pick up on our stress but struggle to handle all the changes we throw their way.
I knew the holidays were stressful for my dogs and cats, but I didn’t realize just how many things contribute to my dog’s stress until I researched this article. Read this list and make a note of which stressors your dogs experience during the holidays:
Sources of dog holiday stress:
Read through these sources of dog holiday stress and note the one(s) your dog encounters during the holidays. It will help you decide which of the approaches to reduce stress in dogs will be most effective.
- Dogs may be left home alone more
- More people in the house; house is much busier than usual
- Busier schedules; owners coming and going more often
- House is noisier – overstimulating for our dogs
- Some holiday visitors may not be dog-friendly (dogs can sense when someone doesn’t like them or is afraid of them)
- Your dog may sense your stress or loneliness
- Smell overload – dogs can be overstimulated by all the new scents in the air
- Christmas cooking can cause upset tummies if dogs are eating dropped scraps of food
- Dogs get less exercise if owners are busy and skip or shorten walks and outside time
- Dogs get less attention when owners are too busy
- Dog routines are constantly changing because of holiday activities
Signs of Stress in Dogs to Watch for During the Holidays
Navigating holidays with dogs can be tough. The sooner you recognize that your dog is stressed, the sooner you can take steps to alleviate the stress and prevent dog anxiety issues from developing.
Try to watch your dog before the holidays, when they are relaxed and happy. Notice what they look like when they are walking around, or sitting in their dog bed. If you are used to their “normal” look you will be much more likely to notice when your dog is worried or stressed.
You need to be intentional and notice changes, like when your dog gets that flat eared “worried” look and walks away or follows you around like a shadow. Those are just a few signs of stress in dogs that you need to watch for.
This poster by Dr. Sophia Yin is a great reference to print out and tape up in your office or kitchen.
Dr. Sophia Yin Body Language of Fear in Dogs Resource
Kendal Shepherd’s Canine Ladder of Aggression Resource
Another great resource to print and refer to is the Ladder of Aggression by Kendal Shepherd. It clearly explains the steps leading up to dog bites and presents many behaviors that indicate that your dog needs to be removed from a stressful situation before it escalates to a bite.
18 Effective Ways to Relieve Stress in Dogs During the Holidays
Reducing dog anxiety is not as complicated as you would think. Read through the ideas below and note the ones that you think will help reduce your dog’s holiday stress.
1. Try to maintain your daily routines
When you bring a new dog into the house, one of the most helpful things you can do to help it adjust is to follow the same routine each day, because routines are a huge comfort factor for dogs.
The holidays are no different. Your dog will be less stressed if you maintain their daily routine. Try to keep routine cornerstones constant – feeding times, walks/exercise, waking and bedtimes.
2. Make sure your dog gets plenty of physical exercise
If you know you will be gone for a holiday get together or some holiday shopping, walk your dog a little further that day (before you leave). Doing so makes it less likely that they will pace or stress out while you’re gone.
3. Give your dog extra mental exercise
I am a big proponent of toys that stimulate your dog’s mind – they make the dog mentally tired and more mentally balanced.
Mentally stimulating toys for dogs and canine enrichment activities provide cognitive enrichment for dogs and are huge stress reducers. Feed your dog’s meals in a food toy for dogs, or play hide and seek with their favorite toy each night after supper.
Here are a few feeding toys and mentally stimulating toys your dog may enjoy.
If you are looking for more ideas, the articles below are full of dog enrichment toys:
4. Decompression walks
A great way to physically and mentally tire out your dog is to go for a decompression walk, an idea from Sarah Stremming of The Cognitive Canine. On decompression walks, dogs are allowed to explore and sniff their surroundings, either off-leash or on a long line. They are best done off your property where there are new smells to explore.
Studies have proven that sniffing produces calmer behavior in dogs. Giving them the ability to move around freely and explore is mentally beneficial as well.
If you are visiting somewhere with your dog, a long decompression walk each day helps curb the stress caused by new places and new people.
Aromatherapy is trickier than one might think. If you only use the calming essential oils when your dog is stressed, guess what? The dog associates the stress with the scent of the oil, and the oil starts triggering stress, not alleviating it!
The key is to first use the oil at calm times. Put it in a diffuser when you are sitting and snuggling with your dog, or put a drop on your hands and massage your dog. As the dog relaxes, they begin to associate relaxation with the scent.
Use a collar clip-on with a few drops of a calming essential oil to help your dog relax, or put some calming essential oil in a room diffuser to create a calming environment for your dog.
It’s important not to put essential oils directly on your dog. Some dogs have sensitive skin, while others may be too sensitive to the scent.
6. Try using dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP)
I have never tried these, but I read an interesting study about the efficacy of dog appeasing pheromones that showed they were effective for reducing separation-induced anxiety, distress, and fear in stressed dogs in a veterinary clinic.
This article in Whole Dog Journal by Pat Miller titled Dog Appeasing Pheromone to Calm Anxious Canine describes the positive effects she experienced with her dogs. As Miller states in her article, it has really positive effects on many dogs, no effect on some, and in a select few the behavior worsened.
From a natural standpoint, I have mixed feeling about pheromones. These products are a synthetic version of the mother dog’s pheromones, and you are breathing them. Everything I read says they aren’t harmful to humans, so I would honestly consider trying them for my dogs, but I would probably do a little more reading first to be sure I know exactly what I’m breathing.
I called the company of the DAP diffuser Miller used and found out they do not make the dog version anymore. Here are a few products to consider if you want to try DAPs.
The first one is made by Adaptil and has a synthetic version of a dog mother’s pheromones in it.
There is a second pheromone diffuser that I found online, but the more I learned the more hesitant I felt about using it for my pet. I debated just not putting it in the article, but I want people to understand some of the things you need to think about before using a product on your pet so am including it as an example.
At first glance, the product, Relaxivet looked like a good option. It has a high review score, and customer reviews tell stories of dogs improving with its use. When I started reading the customer questions and answers, however, I noticed that multiple people asked point blank what the ingredients were and the seller avoided answering each time.
I was hoping to find out if the added “aromas” were natural essential oils or synthetic fragrances, but I wasn’t able to find that out either.
Next, I realized that the company uses the same pheromone for both cats and dogs which made me wonder. I checked at other companies and they all use a different pheromone for dogs vs cats, which makes more sense.
I would hesitate to use this in my house. To me, this is an example of being a cautious pet owner. This product might be fine. But, the lack of up-front information makes me nervous. Couple that with the fact that it’s manufactured in a foreign country for which I have no information on regulations (Adaptil is a U.S. company), and I wouldn’t want my pet, or myself, breathing it in unless I can find out more information.
I did email the company and ask if they use essential oils or synthetic fragrances, and what the ingredient list is for the product. If I hear back I will update this post.
7. Hire a dog walker
If you know you have a busy week coming up, hire a dog walker to take your dog on nice long walks so they continue to get exercised even when you don’t have the time. Bonus: once you find a good dog walker they will come in handy year-round. We all have times when we can’t get home to let our dogs out and need someone we can call that we trust with our dog.
8. Hire a house sitter
If you can’t bring your dog out of town for holiday travels, find a good house sitter to come and stay at your house. Dog boarding facilities are very stressful for dogs: there is constant noise, very little attention, and your dog is in an unfamiliar place which is stressful in itself. When you use a house sitter instead, your dog gets to stay home in familiar surroundings and avoid the stress of a boarding facility.
Bonus: house sitters also get your mail, water your plants, and take care of cats, so many times they save you money!
9. Work on basic commands before your holiday get-togethers
Commands like sit, stay, come, go to your place (for doorbell craziness), and “touch” (touching nose to your hand to distract) all come in very handy when you have visitors.
10. If you travel with your dog, set up a “quiet room” at your destination
Bring a baby gate to put across the doorway. The gate will keep any other dogs or kids from entering the quiet room and create a place where your dog can relax or sleep. Be aware of and sensitive to your dog’s body language – if you see signs that your dog is worried, stressed, or uncomfortable put them in the quiet room. If they whine, turn on some calming music and give them a kong filled with peanut butter or a bully stick toy to divert their attention and keep them busy.
Important:: make sure your peanut butter doesn’t contain xylitol – it is poisonous and could kill your dog! Natural peanut butter with no added ingredients or sugars is best – look for products with only peanuts and salt on the ingredients list.
**Put a bully stick or food in this toy! **
11. Anticipate stressful situations before they happen
If your family is visiting and you know it will be loud and hectic, put your dog in a room at the other end of the house with a food puzzle or chew toy before things get loud and crazy.
12. Put toys and bones away
Whether you are hosting or visiting, pick up the dog toys and put them away (except for the dog’s quiet room). Many dogs won’t like it when other dogs, young children, or even adults take their toys. Avoid bad situations but putting these items away.
If multiple dogs are involved in the holiday get together, this is even more important. Putting toys and bones away avoids dog fights.
13. Set up firm rules for dog visitors and communicate them ahead of time
If you have family that wants to bring a dog with behavioral issues, encourage them to get a house sitter and promise to do the same when you visit their house.
If they refuse, communicate the rules to the owners before the get together (no toys or bones, no treats, dogs must stay in a certain part of the house, etc) so they have time get a house sitter if they aren’t willing to comply.
14. Divide the house to keep “problem dogs” separate from yours
If multiple dogs are involved in a holiday get-together, use gates to separate when needed.
If one of the dogs is testy or bossy, reduce dog stress and avoid possible incidents by giving each dog a separate area of the house. This is easily accomplished with a few baby gates; people can step over them but dogs will stay apart.
Put these gates up the week before the get together so your pet adjusts to having a certain area to hang out in.
15. Make sure your dog has access to water
Put water in multiple areas of the house to be sure all dogs have access to water at all times.
This means in each dog’s “quite room,” and if using gates to create separate areas for each dog, having water in each area.
16. If your dog seems growly, LISTEN to them
I can’t hammer this one home enough.
Learn dog body language from the poster above. Watch your dog when visitors come. If they seem worried, remove them from the situation and make sure they are in a location where it can’t happen again.
17. Keep dogs out of the kitchen and dining areas
If multiple dogs are at a gathering, a dropped piece of food can easily cause a dog fight.
18. Keep little kids away from dogs
I know it seems extreme. But unless you know – for sure – that the child knows how to appropriately interact with dogs (no climbing, hair pulling, pestering), it’s not worth the risk.
If you are distracted you will miss your dog’s stress signals. When a dog can’t get away from a child, and the child (and adults) ignore the warning signs, bites happen.
When bites happen, the dog gets the blame, not the child. Don’t risk that happening to your dog.
If a child really wants to interact with your dog, make it happen safely. If you can give them both your undivided attention for a brief play session it will be a win-win: the child will learn good dog interaction skills, and your dog will develop a positive association with kids.
19. Be an advocate for your dog
If you remember nothing else, remember this point.
When the kids beg to play with the dog, you have to say no if your dog is stressed.
If someone else’s dog is being a butthead, separate them. Your dog doesn’t need to deal with a dog that is crabby or annoying.
You can do this – be your dog’s hero and advocate for their well-being.
Know How to Relieve Stress in Dogs –
It Makes Holidays With Dogs Special and Memorable!
The most wonderful time of the year can cause a lot of stress for our dogs.
If you struggle with depression or anxiety during the holiday season, remember that your dog can help relieve your stress and anxiety. Read about the benefits of emotional support animals; even the simple act of petting your dog can lower your blood pressure.
By planning ahead and using the tactics above, holidays with dogs become less stressful for both you and your dog. Relieving stress in dogs takes time, but pays off in the long run by letting you enjoy your family and the holiday season.
Want to save this article for future reference? Save this pin to your Natural Dog Remedies board:
Make sure you travel safely; read about crash tested dog seat belts & crates and choose the right product for your dog.
Kudos to you for being an advocate for your dog and reducing their holiday stress.
Happy Holidays to all of you from Happy Natural Dog!