The holidays should be a joyous time of year for celebrating with family and friends, but they also often lead to stress, especially when people try to juggle travel plans, meal preparation, gift-buying and all the other elements that make up the season.
It can also be a stressful time for our dogs because schedules alter; there may be a sudden increase in visitors; and the smells, sights, and sounds in the house change as we bring in gifts, put up a tree, and cook foods that we normally do not.
But your dog also knows how to deal with the stress and can teach you how, too, if you learn how to listen.
Dogs live in the moment, so when they experience stress, it’s situational. While the dog is experiencing stress, it will try to get rid of the cause in one of three ways — fight, flight, or avoidance. The dog will either attack the cause, run away from it, or try to ignore it.
In any case, when the cause is gone, the stress is gone, and the dog goes back to normal.
Humans, on the other hand, have a tendency to create stress by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, both of which are heightened during the holiday season. A human may worry that Uncle Joe and Cousin Ralph are going to get into another political argument and ruin the family Christmas party like they did last year, or that the one toy their child absolutely wants will be completely sold out, or that something is going to go disastrously wrong with preparing dinner.
These are not situational causes of stress because they aren’t actually happening — they are emotional. And, unlike physical causes of stress, you can’t attack, flee, or ignore emotional stress. But… when you become stressed, your dog reads your energy immediately, and this becomes a cause of stress for her. If your dog starts running away from you around the holidays, take a look at your own emotional state first, then take a moment to step back and calm down.
One of my personal mottos is this: “Life is simple. We make it complicated.” What could be simpler than getting together with family and friends to celebrate and share a good meal and presents?
“But,” I can hear you saying, “It’s not simple, and you wrote that yourself in the first paragraph. Juggling travel plans, meal preparation, gift-buying…”
I never said any of these were complicated in themselves. Just that they cause stress because we take simple things and make them complicated by worrying about what’s going to happen, and obsessing about what could go wrong.
This is a lesson I have to teach people constantly when I’m helping them to stop their dog from being aggressive toward other dogs or people. As long as they anticipate their dog misbehaving, they are sending their dog the signal, “Please misbehave.”
When working with a dog, expectation equals outcome — and this is true with everything else in life. If you expect your Christmas shopping to be a nightmare, it will be. If you expect the family gathering to be tense, it will be.
The lesson our dogs are teaching us is to live in the moment. Don’t fight or flee problems that come up, and don’t invent problems that might happen. Ignore little inconveniences and focus on the positive. Most of all, focus on what makes dogs happiest — being part of a balanced pack with a confident leader — then put yourself in the role of that confident leader and just enjoy the happiness of being with your pack, human and animal.
That is what this time of year is supposed to be about, and there couldn’t be anything simpler. Listen to your dog and let the stress go.
Stay calm and uncomplicated!
What are some of the ways in which you kick back and relax with your dog? Share your experience in the comments.