Give Em’ Some Space

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

With the holiday season in full throttle at the moment, it is natural to start thinking about how our dogs feel about the impact of the season and effect it has on them.

It's easy to focus on the holidays themselves, but what about the in between moments of the holidays?  You know, the stress of getting the tree up and decorations out.  Making sure all the Christmas shopping gets done, the right presents get purchased.  Hosting the parties with multiple people at your house, extended family visits from long distance relatives that your dog only sees maybe once a year.  All of these new, only happen once a year, somewhat stressful activities can very much take a toll on your dog.  Think about it.  Your routine is probably somewhat different this time of year.  Your house looks and smells different.  And there are potentially strange people coming in and out for several weeks with whom your dog has little or no relationship with.  Even if you have purchased the proverbial Christmas dog toy to put under the tree for your pooch, the holidays may still be stressful for your dog.

So how do we help our dogs to cope with the stress of the season?  What I tell my clients is to give em’ some space.  There are two ways we can give our dogs space.  First, let me talk about personal space.  I often think about the fact that I am not a “huggy” person, meaning I am not one to initiate a hug with someone else, but there are people who ARE huggy.  They do not mind people in their space on a regular basis and actually gather satisfaction and meaning from the interaction.  Other people are very uncomfortable when someone enters their space and you will see them “yield” space in order to keep the person out of their space.  There is sort of an unwritten rule that you do not enter a person’s space unless you are invited.  At least it is an unwritten rule in the human species, however, when we think about dog/human interactions, it would appear that from the human’s perspective that the same rule does not exist.  How often do people (and think about the folks visiting your house during the holidays) approach a dog head on and lean over to start petting them, all the while saying “hi, how are you, you little cutie?”  We (at least most of us) would never approach a stranger (of the human species) in such a manner, but we do it to dogs on a daily basis.

Let’s imagine that we all have a “space bubble” around us.  We are all taught from an early age not to invade other people’s space bubbles, unless we are invited.  In fact, just last month, my four year old son was in a public place with some other boys and girls his age and he went up to one child he did not know and started squeezing her.  Before the other child’s mother intervened, I quickly instructed my son to let go of the child.  While a child my son’s age might be able to get away with such an interaction without upsetting the hugged child, an adult would not probably get the same response by hugging a total stranger.

So what is the point?  We, as a human species have a pretty good respect for our own spacial boundaries and the spacial boundaries of others.  We need to transfer this same respect to our canine friends.  The best way to put a dog on the defense is to invade their space without being invited.  The best way to encourage a non defensive interaction with a strange dog is to invite them or wait until they come on their own into your space.  It is helpful to observe how a dog takes space and yields space.  You will see some dogs continually yield space, yield space and yield space, and the human will constantly invade space, invade space and invade space.  All the while the dog’s anxiety level is building, leading to a potential “not so friendly” outcome.  Be aware of this when new people come to your house for the holidays.  If your dog’s stress level is already high and a new person invades their space right away, help your dog out and just let the family member or friend know that your dog just needs a little space right now and to let the dog come to the person on the dog’s terms.  If your dog is acting skittish or nervous around the person, it might also be a good time to pull out some of that leftover turkey and let the person try and hand feed the dog to create a positive association with that person.

Second way to give your dog some space – create it for them.  I’ve been doing this for years with my own dogs.  If I’m having multiple people over to my house for a party, I set my dogs up in the “dog room.”  The dog room can be an extra bedroom, your own bedroom or even a finished basement area.  I put their dog beds in there and access to water.  The idea here being that it is a quiet zone for your dog to relax and not get stressed out by all the hustle and bustle of people walking all over your house.  This is also really important if you own small dogs like I do.  They are always at risk of getting stepped on inadvertently by house guests who are mingling.  When the party dies down and there are only a few people remaining, then that is a great time to let the dogs out of the dog room to mingle in a lower stress environment.  Now if your dog has separation anxiety or is going to more stressed out by being by themselves in a room while you are playing host, then other measures should be taken until the dog is confident with the owner not in sight.  For instance, I have one colleague who is a professional trainer who is actually hired to hang out with the client’s dog during parties!  Not only does that keep the dog in a lower stress place with just one person, but the dog gets to work on his tricks with the trainer at the same time!

So remember, you as the owner have the ability to help your dog get through the stress of the holidays in a positive manner.  Our dogs need their personal and physical space needs met just like we humans do.  Help them out, give em’ some space!

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Positively Expert: Cathy Bruce, CPDT

Cathy Bruce is a VSPDT and a CPDT and the owner of Canine Country Academy, LLC in Lawrenceville, GA. After a successful career as a Broadway singer/actress, she decided to pursue her love of dogs. As a dog trainer, she strives to educate owners on how to better communicate with their dogs using only positive methods.


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