Sunday, November 18, 2012

Getting your dog ready for houseguests

With the holidays coming up, I'm getting ready to have a house full of guests, including a 3 year old toddler.  So let's talk about what we dog owners need to do to make these visits relaxing and successful for the guests and the dogs.

I have 3 dogs, and by the time you add in 3 more adults, one toddler, and two more adults who aren't staying with us but who will be here at the house when they aren't sleeping at their hotel, that's a crowded situation.  With us, that's 7 adults and one toddler.  So the first thing is to be willing to confine the dogs a lot more than usual.

Recognize that having all of these people and all of this new stimulation is a very unusual situation for your dog, so don't expect the same level of obedience and attentiveness to you that you usually get.  And frankly, no one wants to hear you correcting or scolding your dogs, so lower the bar for them, and don't ask as much of them in this situation as you might be tempted to.  "Manage the environment" and confine them.

In our house, even though my dogs are good with kids and have never bitten anyone, we have a solid rule-- if there is a toddler about, the dogs are crated or kept out in the side porch unless we are specifically supervising.  We only bring in one at a time, on leash, and we personally supervise.  We tell the parent, "It's your job to supervise the child, and my job to supervise the dog".  I ask them to try to keep the child using "our quiet voice" and avoid screeching.  What do I look for?  I make sure we don't accidentally set up a situation where the toddler is approaching a dog whose back is facing a corner or a nearby wall (accidentally cornering the dog).  I give the dog room, an escape route if she's suddenly uncomfortable. I have the dog lie down, and let the toddler approach quietly.  I'm RIGHT THERE the whole time, watching my dog's body language to see any signs of stress or anxiety.  I have treats, and I am rewarding frequently.  I want my dogs to hope children will come around because when they do, the treats flow.

If the child is old enough to offer a treat, I show them how to "make a plate" with their hand, and "lower the plate so the dog can lick the treat off".  I demonstrate first, then I have the mom demonstrate.  This serves as a "warm up" for the dog, who by now knows what to expect from the child. 

Let's talk about leash handling.  I keep the dog on leash the whole time, and hold the leash about 12" from the collar, so the dog cannot bolt up (remember, the dog is on a "down" command).  I'm squatting.  Almost all dog bite incidents with children happen in the child's face, so you don't want to be standing up when the child's face and the dog are down by your knee. You have no control at that distance. Get right in there by your dog's head, so if the child suddenly gets super excited (as toddlers sometimes do!) and explodes into movement or thrilled squealing you are already at your dog's head and can provide calm reassurance and-- if necessary- grab a collar and prevent the dog from lunging at the child.  Children at that age have not yet mastered impulse control.  If the child bursts into motion that would be a good time for the mother to scoop her up into a hug-- ie, remove her from the dog who may be wondering what the heck just happened.  Sometimes, for example, a small child will be so thrilled after giving a dog a treat (and after feeling the dog's nose touch her hand as the dog takes the treat) that the child will squeal and start jumping up and down-- landing, perhaps, on a paw or a tail. So at the first sign of that, quick parental intervention is in order.  Talk about this kind of thing in advance with the parent so the two of you can work as a team. 

Do I sound overly cautious?  I should (though I try to exude calm and not convey any concern).  I want my family to know that I take the safety of their child very seriously, and while we don't go through this routine in other situations I want to err on the side of caution in order to make sure we never ever have a scary situation.  I don't ever want my family to be hesitant or reluctant to visit our home.  And I don't want my adorable niece to have a bad experience.  When she's older and more predictable, we'll lighten up, but at this age I want to give her fun, very controlled dog interactions.  Most people don't realize what kinds of situations result in a dog snapping at or biting a child, and most people are too casual about the interaction.  My dogs don't really know this child, so that makes it all the more important to provide what may seem like a ridiculous amount of supervision. 

When we have house guests we need to respect the fact that this is a situation that isn't trained for very frequently, so our dogs are not going to be fluent at handling it well.  If they are fluent at it, you can be pleasantly surprised but please don't expect it of them.

Dog bites with children often happen when the adults are distracted by something and the poor unsuspecting child does something innocently that makes the dog uncomfortable.  We don't have children so when you add in the other guests, our dogs are not used to having so much stimulation.  They might get crabby and might be inclined to complain about stuff that normally might not bother them.  Err on the side of caution.

This is the perfect occasion to crate your dogs and give them a break from all the activity.  If they do want to come in, use a secure indoor tether, and tether them out of the foot traffic (you don't want someone to trip on your dog).  If  your dog is not used to being tethered, the time to start this training is right now, way before the guests arrive.  My dogs enjoy being tethered in the room but only if I or my husband is within sight-- if we both leave the room and leave them with the other guests, they have worried looks when we return.  And again, I would not do this with a toddler in the house-- only with adults.

The truth is that no one loves your dogs like you do, and they are coming to visit you, not your dogs.  So be willing to make some special accommodations for your guests' benefit.


  1. This was a helpful read, so thank you. Maybe you can suggest ways to handle this situation that just cropped up. I was just asked by my daughter if she and her boyfriend could bring his dog when they visit for the holidays. They'll be here several days and don't have a dependable dog sitter - they are driving about 3 hours to be here. The dog is a 80 pound Boxer and sweet and lovable, but energetic. The problem is that I have Brandy, a 15 pound Lhasa Apso who is very territorial and protective of me... so she can become traumatized by large dogs and doesn't understand how to tolerate a large playmate. They visited once before, for one night, and Brandy was not happy with that situation. She had to be kept in the bedroom to keep her from trying to fight the dog who is more than twice her size. The boxer only wanted to play. Any suggestions on how we can handle this? I hate to keep her in the bedroom for several days, and it can be very tiring and trying to keep them apart if they're in the same room. Would you just not allow visiting dogs? My daughter seems to think Brandy is the problem. She can be very noisy, barking and asserting herself - but she thinks she has to protect ME. I'm just not sure what is best for Brandy, or the Boxer, or the other guests who just want to relax and not listen to constant dog noise. Thanks.

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