A few years ago, a Christmas Eve altercation between my parents’ dog, Murphy, and my sister’s dog, Rex, resulted in a trip to the vet, stitches, and a cone for The Murphster. I come from a long line of animal lovers, and my family’s holiday gatherings often include seven beloved canines. In addition to rescues Murphy and Rex, we’ve got a diverse group of pup personalities in the mix, including a geriatric Wheatenesque, an in-your-face Boston Terrier, and a beautiful but unenergetic Spaniel once nicknamed “the pony keg.”
While seven dogs are, admittedly, about five too many, the holidays are a time when many Americans will be forcing their four-footers to share space, whether their dogs enjoy the company or not.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association, 37 percent of dog owners take their pets with them on road trips rather than leaving them behind. When you combine this with the AAA statistic that around 46 million Americans travel by car over Thanksgiving weekend, and the Humane Society study that tells us 43 million American households include a dog, it adds up to a lot of potential for doggy discord.
An Ounce of Prevention
To prevent canine conflict during holiday visits, provide dogs with lots of experiences that ensure they are well socialized. Cindy Carter, DVM, of The Corner Vet in Austin, Texas, says, “Some dogs will be less nervous and easy to scare because they’ve been exposed to things since they were puppies. Shelter animals may not have had that luxury, so a lot depends on how they are introduced to things.”
For example, taking dogs on car rides and having them interact with kids and other animals prior to a holiday gathering are simple ways to ensure they are comfortable outside of their normal routine. If they’ll be spending time in a crate during your holiday visit, make sure it doesn’t come as a surprise once you’re ensconced at Aunt Martha’s.
Harmony also depends on personalities and knowing their place in the pecking order, and Carter has some tips for how we can help our canine family members get along.
Show Some Respect for the Hound of the House
As hard as it might be for some dogs to step outside their comfort zone, it might be even harder when they’re forced to share their own space. Whenever possible, make things easier on the hound of the house by bringing something with a visiting dog’s scent for him to smell before the two cross paths. Safe introductions are also key, and Carter says a slow meet-and-greet in neutral territory can go a long way to helping animals figure out where they stand. “Dogs may feel the need to show ownership and protect their food and territory. They run in a pack, and if new dogs are coming into their space, they need to figure out what their pecking order is.”
Know Your Alpha, and Plan Accordingly
You can help dominant dogs get along well with others by being patient, planning ahead, and preventing conflict. Introductions on neutral territory are especially important for alphas, but comfortable indoor arrangements are also a useful tool—especially if the dogs won’t have the luxury of a lengthy get-to-know-you session.
Carter says in a best case scenario, “Separate them so they have their own space; perhaps in a crate where they can hear and smell each other but not see each other, because they may feel more threatened or nervous if they can’t get used to each other first.”
Even with precautions, you can expect a few scuffles when dogs are getting to know one another, and Carter says you should really know your dog and monitor the situation. “Know when you need to step in. They may growl and snap, but will work it out on their own because one may back down.”
However, if your dog has a history of biting and you know they will do well at a boarding facility, Carter says that might be a better option for some pets.
Don’t Expect Sparky to Take an Afternoon Nap
You can’t really blame a high-energy dog for being pesky if they’ve been cooped up in a car then watched you laze around in a post-turkey food haze. Ideally, Carter says, you “can train [the dog] to listen to commands ahead of time so [he or she] doesn’t overwhelm other pets and jump on family members.” If it’s too late for that, she recommends taking energetic dogs for a long walk before introductions are made and providing a special treat to focus on.
Make It Easy for the Pack to Succeed
Finally, Carter says not to assume that dogs will behave well with others just because their people are asleep or out of sight. To keep things peaceful when humans are away, she says, “Put them in separate areas if you leave them home alone as well as at night.” She also suggests keeping food bowls in separate areas and being watchful of toys and other things that might cause a row.
From after-dinner family walks to late night cuddling on sofas, our tail wagging family members bring so much to our holiday get togethers. While peace may require a little extra effort, it’s worth a little extra patience and preparation if it prevents a not-so-festive trip to the vet.