How to Avoid Thanksgiving Pet Faux Pas

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By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Behavior & Training Instructor

Thanksgiving usually means families gathering around a table, sharing food, drinks, and gratitude. But for many of us, it might be different this year. Whether you’re planning a trip, a socially distanced gathering, or a virtual event, you’ll need to think about how your pets fit, or don’t fit, into these arrangements. In this blog, I will cover ways to prepare your pets for entertaining situations so you can avoid frustration and anxiety. Then you can enjoy your family, friends, and food.

Polite Greetings

Even if you’re not hugging or shaking hands this holiday season, your pets may crave close interaction with your guests. Some dogs greet people by jumping up on them. Some cats greet guests by rubbing against their legs or, like dogs, jumping up on them. While this is normal attention-seeking animal behavior, your guests may find it annoying. What can you do to decrease these behaviors?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, some dogs greet guests by barking and lunging. Some cats hiss or hide from guests. This fear-related, distance increasing animal behavior can cause your guests to feel anxious and afraid. What can you do to make your pets and guests feel safe?

Management is key. 

  • Leash up your dog when your guests are around. A leash can be easily stored on a removable hook next to your main entrance. This gives you control of when and how your dog gives your guests attention. Some cats enjoy being walked around on leashes, too.
  • Tether your dog. I wear a waist harness with carabiners to which I attached my dogs. I can walk around and visit with my guests while preventing my dogs from jumping up on people. Tie your dog to a sturdy furniture leg or wall hook. Provide a blanket or bed, toys, or a chew bone or food puzzle to keep your dog active mentally. Reward any calm behavior, too. I don’t recommend tethering a cat.
  • Remove your dog or cat from your guests. Crates, exercise pens, or doors work to separate your pets from your activities. Again, provide mental enrichment like toys, chew bones, climbing apparatuses for cats, and food puzzles. Play calming music. You can find playlists for dogs and cats in one of my previous blogs. Essential oils in diffusers or sprays can be calming to animals.  Do the research and talk to your vet about what’s safe for your pets. For shy dogs or cats who prefer not to interact with strangers, removing them will reduce their anxiety. If you have a cat who nips or bites while being petted, this is the best option.
  • Manage your guests. They can interact with your dog only if she is calm and has four paws on the floor. Similarly, your guests should be calm when interacting with your pets. Slow stroking, whispering, and squatting down will keep your pet from getting too excited or over aroused. 
  • Remind your guests of the house rules for your pets. For instance, don’t feed the pet anything but treats provided.
  • Exercise or play with your pet before your guests arrive. A tired pet is a good pet.

Training is also important.

  • Treats should be kept on hand. Wear a pouch or apron, or place a can of treats near the main entrance. Think of your pet’s favorite foods. My dogs love Stewart’s freeze dried turkey livers. Cats and dogs can have a Thanksgiving feast in bite-size morsels! Turkey (unseasoned and cooked), cranberries (raw, cooked, or dried only), and pumpkin (sugarless) are safe for both cats and dogs. Check with your vet before sharing any human food with your pet.
  • Use known cues instead of saying, “No.” My mantra is “No is sit.” If my dog jumps up on me, I say, “Sit,” then reward her for sitting. Cuing the behavior before my dog gets in front of me prevents the jumping up from happening. 
  • Teach a polite greeting cue. I really like Emma Parsons’, KPA CTP, APDT, CDBC, “Go say, ‘Hi,’” method. It works for both shy and overly zealous dog greeters. It allows the dog the choice to either interact or not with your guests.
  • Use a positive interrupter. A kissy noise, squeaky sound, or click of your tongue can get your pet’s attention away from guests. Reward any head turns in your direction with treats. 
  • Show off some party tricks like “shake” or “roll over.” You can teach tricks to cats, too! Fear Free Happy Homes suggests teaching “sit pretty” and “high five” to your cats. Your pets might like being the life of the party.

Willamette Humane Society does offer in-person group classes and private lessons at WHS. Our instructors use rewards-based teaching methods to help you build a strong, trust-filled bond with your dog.

To find out more about all of our courses and to enroll, visit our website.

Table Etiquette

We all have one or more pet holiday nightmare stories. One of mine involves my mini cockapoo jumping up on a beautifully set Thanksgiving table and licking our perfectly cooked turkey. I remember my mom gasped while my dog licked her gravy covered lips. I laugh at it now but at the time, I was horrified. How could I have prevented this?

Tips

  • Supervision. Be aware of your dog’s whereabouts in the house or outside at all times while you are entertaining. This will prevent accidental ingestion of poisonous foods, bolting out the door, and rude interactions with guests. 
  • Check with your vet before sharing any human food with your pet. For a comprehensive list of appropriate foods for pets check out The American Kennel Club or Cattime.com.
  • Confinement. If you are unable to supervise, confine your pets. When food is present, put your pet in a crate, a pen, or behind a closed door. Remember to provide mental enrichment. Remote treat dispensers allow you and your guests to interact remotely with pets while never leaving the dinner table. Most have cameras and connect to a smartphone.
  • Make a pet first aid kit. The American Veterinary Medical Association says to include important phone numbers like your veterinarian, the nearest emergency-veterinary clinic (along with directions) and a poison-control center or hotline such as the ASPCA poison-control center, which can be reached at 1-800-426-4435.
  • Provide a special spot for your pet to hang out while you eat. A bed or cat tree can be placed within viewing distance of the dining table. Provide a long lasting chew bone or Kong to your dog. Give your cat a toy with catnip. Anything to keep their attention during the meal will be helpful.
  • Exercise your pet before you set the table. A tired pet will most likely sleep through your meal time.

Traveling With Your Pet

If you’re travelling with your pets, plan ahead to ensure that everyone arrives at the destination safely. Visit the ASPCA website for travel safety tips.

Once you reach your destination follow the polite greetings and table etiquette guideline above. Your hosts will be so impressed with your pets’ manners that you may even get leftovers to take home with you!

Planning a Virtual Thanksgiving This Year? 

Involve your pets in your virtual activities. 

  • Show off tricks. 
  • Reward your dog’s calmness whenever someone is talking.
  • Allow pet “photobombing.”
  • Pet snores add to the ambience of any video chat!

However or wherever you’re spending your holiday, enjoy yourself and your pets. 

Thank you for reading and, as always, practice patience.