Five Holiday Pitfalls to Avoid with Your Fearful Dog

fearful dogs reactive dogs Nov 16, 2020
Corgi with Pumpkins Holiday

This year, many of us will be missing out on family gatherings over the holidays. While this might be disappointing for us, fearful and reactive dogs everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief. The holidays are fraught with danger as far as these pups are concerned, and the fewer get-togethers, the better. But for those who are gathering with family this year, there are some common pitfalls to be aware of and avoid if you have a fearful or reactive dog. 


These problem areas are predictable, which means you can plan for them!  Every year there are preventable dog bites, lost dogs, and other traumatic events that turn what is supposed to be a joyful time of year into a stressful experience.

Here are our top 5 holiday pitfalls encountered by fearful and reactive dog parents, and concrete strategies for avoiding them:


Pitfall #1: Fearful or reactive dog is loose in the house when visitors arrive.

Why is this a problem? Many fearful dogs respond especially badly when multiple people enter their home at once, or if they’re carrying packages, luggage, or other items. If your dog tends to respond aggressively to visitors entering your home, there’s a risk they might scare, or even bite, your guests.  And a terrified dog might bolt out an open front door. If you’re never had to try to catch a scared dog on the run, count yourself lucky. This is not how you want to spend your holiday. 

What to do instead:  Settle your dog in a comfortable space behind a baby gate or closed door before visitors start arriving. See our Zen Zone Guide for details on how to set the area up for your dog. 


Pitfall #2: Children having access to your fearful or reactive dog.

Why is this a problem? Kids are drawn to dogs. Regardless of what you tell them, they are likely to seek out the dog and try to interact. Verbal instructions are not enough to keep kids safe (they’re often not enough for adults either!).  Kids are also likely to get down to the dog’s level and get close to their face, which puts them at risk of being bitten. 

What to do instead: If you have kids coming over for the holidays, you need a childproof containment area for your fearful or reactive dog.  Kids will be tempted to circumvent your safety measures, so make it impossible for them to get themselves into trouble (with the dog anyway!).  With very small children, baby gates might be sufficient, but remember that little arms can fit between the bars of most baby gates. Attach a solid barrier like plexiglass to your baby gate, or opt for a closed room door instead.  

Older children pose a bigger challenge. If the visiting kids are old enough to open doors to the dog’s room, lock that room and keep the key in your pocket, or use childproofing measures that are at the top of the door and out of the kids’ reach. 


Pitfall #3: Allowing dogs into the meal preparation and dining areas while food is present.

Why is this a problem? Many dogs will growl, snap, or even bite if a person (or another dog) tries to take something really good away from them. Even if your dog has never behaved this way, special holiday food plus visitors (especially kids) make this behavior more likely.  Food will be dropped at some point during the festivities. Avoid conflict over that turkey leg on the carpet by planning ahead. 

What to do instead: 
Use baby gates or other barriers to keep your dog out of the kitchen and dining room, before you start cooking. Chances are you’re already doing this if your dog is fearful of visitors.  

Pitfall #4: Fearful or reactive dog is loose in the house with older relatives, or anyone unsteady on their feet.

Why is this a problem? Even if they’re not fearful, big dogs can inadvertently knock people over, and small dogs can be a tripping hazard. Add on a fearful dog’s tendency to bark and startle people, or become startled themselves and try to bolt out of the room, and you have a recipe for disaster for anyone whose balance isn’t 100%.   Many dogs are afraid of equipment like crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs, which only adds to the risk of an incident. 

What to do instead: Put your dog behind a baby gate or in another room for the duration of the get together. Make sure to give them something to do while they’re separated, like a special holiday kong. 
See our Zen Zone Guide for details on how to set up a longer-term confinement area. 


Pitfall #5: Gates and doors are left open by visitors. 

Why is this a problem? Your relatives might not be as aware of the importance of firmly closing doors and gates as you are, especially if they don’t have pets at home. It is so common for pets to get loose and lost over the holidays because a guest left a door open, or a gate unlatched.

What to do instead: 
Buy some padlocks or combination locks and lock your yard gates before visitors arrive. This will make it impossible for them to accidentally leave a gate open. Set up an “air lock” at the front door using a 3-panel baby gate, if there is any chance at all that your dog will have access to that area. 




Questions about how to keep your holiday season peaceful? We’d love to field your questions in our free Fearful and Reactive Dog Support Community on Facebook or by email at [email protected]. If you're looking for more guidance with your fearful dog, check out our monthly training membership.