23 Aug 2014
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Holiday Jail Time for Dogs

Teaching your rowdy dog to enjoy his playpen now could save your holiday party.

Holiday Jail Time for Dogs

If your dog is a perfect angel amidst the chaos of a holiday gathering, you can skip this installment of my Weekly Yip—unless you happen to know someone else whose dog’s behavior is less than exemplary in such situations.

Teaching a dog to resist stealing hors d’oeuvres off the coffee table, leaping into the laps of guests uninvited, jumping up to greet each new guest as they arrive and how to wait patiently while humans take forever to eat dinner at the dining room table takes time—but the holidays are coming up fast. My advice, if whipping your dog’s manners into shape before your holiday gatherings seems like a tall order, is to focus on management and busy work this year. You can plan to work on overall manners as a New Year’s resolution for 2013.

One of my favorite management tips is to set up a couple playpens in areas where you and guests will spend the most time together. Keeping your boisterous dog in a playpen in your living room while guests mix, mingle and snack on appetizers will prevent your dog from feeling isolated while also preventing her from making mischief.

If you worry about the aesthetics of a metal doggy jail cell being a damper to the holiday atmosphere, make it part of your holiday decor by adorning it in ribbons and bows liberally laced with whatever chew deterrent works well to prevent your dog from nibbling on them. I like metal pens over plastic ones because they can be more easily configured into various shapes and sizes than their plastic counterparts.

If you are concerned that your dog might feel miserable in confinement—barking, whining, jumping up on the fence—then start teaching your dog to love her playpen immediately! Set up the playpen now, and plant delicious surprises in it for your dog to discover. Only give your dog access to her favorite things to chew on or play with inside the pen. Outside the pen, she should have just average chewies and playthings—things that are more fun than chewing furniture, but not nearly as enticing as the items they get while inside the pen.

Do lots of playpen training sessions, starting with just a minute or two here and there building up to a couple hours. Make sure your dog won’t need a bathroom break during the session. Plan to feed your dog’s meals to her little bit by little bit for all acceptable behavior in the playpen. I call this technique, “Notice the Good Dog.” Dog stands with four feet on the ground without barking, feed. Dog looks away from guests, feed. Dog sniffs the ground, feed. Dog looks at or touches a toy, feed. Dog sits or lies down, feed. Keep raising your criteria for a food reward higher and higher in little tiny steps. Shaping calm behavior in your dog this way takes patience, careful observation and good timing, but it’s a very effective way to train.

Give your dog plenty of busy work in the playpen, which will give you even more opportunities to “notice the good dog” and feed her a reward. I love puzzle toys for dogs! They provide so many benefits—mental stimulation, physical activity, entertainment, fun… Some of my favorites are the KONG Wobbler, the Tug-a-Jug by Premier and any number of the Nina Ottoson toys including the Tornado, Spinny and Dog Casino.

Remember that your dog may need some guidance in order to figure out how to work a dog puzzle toy.  When I recently introduced a dog to the Dog Tornado, for example, I put treats in all the levels, and left the top layers just askew enough so that he would discover that they are twistable as he tried to lick out the goodies. To make it even easier for him to solve the game, I rewarded him for experimenting with it—a reward for looking at it, sniffing it, nosing it, pawing at it, tipping it over—then a jackpot when he twisted a level in a way that exposed a treat compartment.

I made the next round of the game more of a challenge by making sure none of its compartments were exposed even a bit. Later, when it is easy for him to spin all the layers around to snatch the treats out of every compartment, we can make it even harder for him by smushing wet dog food into the compartments, planting a few treats in the wet food here and there, then freezing the whole toy. If we need to make it even harder, we can put a little water on top of the wet food next time before putting the toy in the freezer, so the dog essentially has to lick through a layer of ice to get to the frozen canned dog food with a treat planted in it.

I don’t mean to suggest that dogs lacking in manners should spend their entire time during a holiday gathering locked up. If you have guests who will play along, you can bring your dog out for short but frequent periods during which you can completely focus on teaching your dog the proper canine party etiquette. You can also let your dog out when there are no temptations around for her to fall for.

So, while you probably don’t have enough time to teach your dog to be a perfect lady or gentleman around holiday visitors before this year’s party, teaching your dog to love hanging out in a playpen in the middle of (or at least near) the party action is a much more reasonable goal in the amount of time that remains. (Please note that if your dog will be anxious or frightened amidst a party atmosphere, you should keep your dog in a Zen Zone away from all the action, rather than in a playpen near your revelers.)

This little doggy-jail trick just could be the measure that saves your dog from embarrassing you in front of you guests this year (or worse—ingesting something dangerous when no one is looking), allowing everyone present to enjoy a very happy holiday.

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