Holiday Etiquette for Dogs and Owners

by Beth McEwen

The holidays are often a time of social gatherings with friends or family, and travel of some sort is an inescapable reality. Dog owners may find themselves in the challenging position of considering whether to travel with their pet or board them at a kennel. Should you decide that Fido is well-behaved enough to travel with you, here are some steps that can help your visits go smoothly.

Know Your Audience

For some of us, constant canine companionship is part our daily life, but not everyone can relate. While we can’t imagine celebrating a holiday without our fur-kids, don’t assume your mutt is welcome at every social gathering. A family with a new baby or an ailing parent might be extra-sensitive about germs, so ask beforehand if Fido’s allowed to come. Before you make your plans, have a straightforward talk with your host and ask the right questions. Even if your host agrees to accommodate your furry “plus one,” find out how she, her partner and her kids really feel about animals. Are the children of the house afraid of them? Does the family know what to expect from a four-legged visitor? If they have pets of their own, how do their animals get along with others? Is the host willing to pet-proof her house? Making a place pet-friendly is difficult at any time of year, but more so at holidays when traditional decorations can become an issue. Once you’ve got the OK, you should always be prepared to replace or repair any items your pet damages or destroys (and tuck a bottle of pet stain remover in your purse, just in case).

Practice Makes Perfect

Plan ahead to teach your dog the skills needed to be a gracious guest, and practice as much as possible. Basic obedience commands (sit, down, stay and come) should all be solid before attempting a change of venue into a high-stakes environment. If your pet is a jumper, teach them that if they jump, people will leave, but if they sit, they will get treats and attention. Since the majority of jumpers do so out of an urge to be social, they quickly learn that jumping up makes people go away. I also recommend that you teach your dog at least one “show-off” behavior. This can be waiting at the door until told to proceed (easy to teach but impressive to most people) or a trick such as “roll over” or “high five.” Anything that makes your dog more charming will help ease tensions in case of a social gaffe. For example, a colleague of mine has a client whose dog jumped up on her father-in-law, but was forgiven immediately when she gave the cue “You goofed,” and the dog responded by lying down and covering his face with his paws, as though in embarrassment.

Take Extra Care When You Travel

Arrive with a clean, well-groomed animal and pack enough supplies to keep them that way. Pack a doggy bag with your pet’s favorite toys and blanket. Include grooming tools to limit nervous shedding and a dependable lint remover. If you’re not sure that your pet’s regular food is available at your destination, bring it with you. Baby wipes are helpful after an especially muddy walk; a spare towel is handy for an end-of-day wipe-down. Have proof of vaccinations, tags and licenses on hand, especially if you’ll be traveling by air or crossing borders. Identification tags are nice, but can be lost easily. Microchip identification is much more secure. Even if your pup sleeps in your bed at home, being in a new environment will likely make him nervous. Pack a dog crate to give him a “safe space” to settle in for the night, or anytime you aren’t able to directly supervise him. In fact, having Fifi travel in the crate is the safest option. Many dogs are injured or even killed when they excitedly bolt out of the car door instead of waiting to be leashed up first. Be conscious of leash laws, and always pick up after your pet.

Arrive and Impress

Be a gracious guest. Bring a gift for your host or your host’s pet—perhaps a toy or homemade dog biscuits­— and plan to introduce animals slowly. Don’t plop your little visitor in the middle of his four-legged host’s home without a proper introduction. Likewise, don’t allow your dog to go bounding up the walkway to announce your arrival. Introducing dogs outside the home is generally less stressful for both the host dog and the guest. Keep your dog on the leash when you first arrive. Taking a walk with your host and both dogs (owners in control) before releasing them inside can be a great canine ice breaker. Avoid leaving your pet alone with the pet-in-residence; just because they tolerated each other during the initial greeting doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from then on. Supervise or separate, for both dogs’ safety.

Plan on arriving early, before the height of activity. As soon as possible after you arrive, practice the skills your dog already knows so that he can learn to do them in new places. One of the most common mistakes pet owners make is assuming that behaviors automatically transfer to new locations. Just because your dog has a rock-solid stay in your living room doesn’t mean he or she knows how to respond in the same way in your yard, at the park or at Grandma’s house. Even a couple of five-minute training sessions can significantly improve your dog’s performance and manners.

Obedience skills aren’t the only ones that may drop off away from home. Many dogs who are trustworthy when left at home alone are stressed, scared or mischievous when in an unfamiliar environment, all of which can result in house-soiling or destructive chewing or counter-surfing. The change in routine, a new place and additional people may also make dogs more likely to exhibit these unwanted behaviors. Adjust your plans and expectations accordingly.

If you know your dog has a tendency to find food or shoes, remove temptation by continuously supervising. Keeping your dog on a leash with you in the house is a great way to prevent unwanted behavior and reinforce good manners. Additionally, consider making some areas of the house off limits and utilize your crate so that your dog never gets the opportunity to display anything but his best behavior.

Staying for the Duration

Changes in routine or in environment commonly make dogs edgy or unsettled. Help channel that anxiousness and energy with dog-safe chew toys and puzzles. Dogs that are taken for regular walks, runs or hikes won’t need to release pent-up energy by chewing, digging or barking. Strive for regular walk times so your dog can familiarize himself with a schedule. Once you’ve established a routine, your pup should calm down after each walk and might even settle in for a snooze. The old saying, “A tired dog is a good dog,” is even more crucial when traveling.

Faux paws may occur, but focusing on prevention will help your dog succeed. No matter how things go, send a thank you note to your hosts to express your gratitude that you and your dog were welcomed into their home (and, if necessary, to apologize for any incidents that may have occurred). Remember, pet etiquette involves you as well as your dog. If you both mind your manners, you will be welcomed back with open arms.

Beth McEwen

Beth McEwen, owner of Mind Your Manners Dog Training, has been working with dogs and their families for almost 20 years. Learn more at




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