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Thanksgiving and avoiding stress PDF Print E-mail

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 11/23/08
By: Gail T. Fisher

Poor Barney the “First Dog.” It seems that Barney, the Scottish Terrier, has bitten two people recently, and the video of him biting a reporter was in every paper and on every news story that night. Imagine what it’s like to live in the White House as the First Family’s dog, feeling the stresses and pressures his beloved owners are experiencing. In addition to preparing to move out in two months (moving house is tremendously stressful for dogs), it can’t be a tranquil and hassle-free time in the Bush home. So it’s no wonder that Barney is not feeling warm and cuddly to strangers reaching out to pet him. After all, he didn’t invite them to—they just assume he wants to be friendly, when his body language was screaming, “Let me alone!”
Animals—and people—have what’s known as “critical distance”—the social distance within which they comfortably accept friends, family, and intimates. (Think of the Seinfeld episode about the “close talker” who invaded social distance.) When a “non-intimate” invades a dog’s critical distance, the dog will either move away, tolerate it uncomfortably, or take action to increase social distance. In dog behavioral terms, the purpose of aggression is to increase social distance, i.e., by growling, snarling, or snapping—all of which say, “Move away!”
Critical distance is not an absolute, and changes in different contexts. For example, even though most dogs don’t love hugs, a dog may tolerate being hugged when he’s relaxing with you. On the other hand, if the dog is in the middle of eating dinner, a hug would likely be met with a less-friendly response.
Even dogs that live together, get along beautifully, and even sleep side-by-side can have issues with critical distance in specific contexts or environments. Best friends will still guard toys and food from each other, and if one dog tries to insinuate himself too closely into the other dog’s “space” while he’s eating or chewing a bone, for example, it might lead to a fight. It isn’t that the dogs are vicious, aggressive, or bad—they’re dogs.
A common invasion of a dog’s critical distance space occurs in tight areas such as doorways when the dogs are passing each other, or are going into or out of the house. Another potential danger zone is during homecoming, when the dogs are greeting their owner. We often have a client report that their dogs will have a spat in these close quarters or under these exciting circumstances.
With the holiday season, and the arrival of family and friends for Thanksgiving this week, there is often an increase in three elements that can lead to problem behavior: stress, disruption to the household and the dog’s schedule, and lots of excited greeting. Before the excitement starts, consider ways to help your dog. Here are some strategies to minimize your dog’s stress:
  • Shut your dog away from the chaos, giving him a treat-filled Kong toy, closing him in his kennel or in a bedroom. When things have settled down a bit, you can consider letting your dog out to participate in the festivities.
  • Stick as closely as possible to your dog’s normal schedule and diet. It’s OK to give your dog small amounts of turkey and some of the trimmings (sweet potato and green beans are great – avoid sugars and high-fat treats). Do I need to mention don’t give your dog turkey bones?
  • Consider and protect your dog from situations and environments that may be problematic. By being proactive and planning ahead, you will both protect your dog and prevent him or her from getting into trouble.
With some forethought and planning, both you and your dog will enjoy the holidays together. Happy Thanksgiving!

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2008. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.

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