The holiday season can bring special joy but also some unique challenges for owner-trainers. Holiday parties and family gatherings can be difficult environments for service dogs and service dogs in training. Changes in routine can increase dogs’ and handlers’ stress levels, even when the causes of the disruptions are happy ones. Additionally, people with disabilities may face greater fatigue than usual from the demands of the holiday season. This can make it harder for them to keep up with their dog’s needs. Plan ahead for this busy time by talking with your clients about these important considerations:
- Develop a game plan for family events. Make sure family and friends know how to behave around the service dog in a way that does not encourage bad habits or distract the dog from working. Doing this ahead of time, before they are in the presence of the dog, will help assure their undivided attention.
- Consider other animals the team may encounter at gatherings. If family members have pets who will be present, consider whether it is best to keep the animals separated, or if they should be introduced. Discuss the options and the logistics with your client. If the animals need to be introduced, make sure your client knows how to safely and effectively handle the introduction.
- Plan ahead for needed supplies, including extra leashes, treats, portable crates and anything else that can help family visits and gatherings be successful.
- Will travel be involved for the holidays? Airline policies have been changing by the minute, so it is important for service dog handlers to be prepared with the most current information.
- Sometimes your client’s best bet will be to leave the dog home. For instance, holiday parties are usually not appropriate environments for service dogs in training. Talk with your client about enrichment strategies, such as food-filled KONG toys for those times when the dog needs to be confined or left at home.
- Training sessions need to be maintained throughout the holiday season. Even just a few minutes each day rewarding needed skills will help the service dog stay on track. Talk with your client about ways to make training part of holiday routines.
- Check in with your client to make sure the dog is strong on needed skills like “leave it” and a long down-stay.
With some additional planning and preparation, the holiday season can be successful for service dogs and their partners!