With Christmas approaching, it’s important to remember that for dogs, and for sensitive border collies in particular, all the hustle and bustle of Christmas, can be a VERY stressful time.
Unfamiliar people coming and going, the different food smells, the noises, the Christmas tree (and all the new rules about not touching it), presents, and wrapping paper, the heat, drunk people, loud games and a complete change in routine throws everything the dog takes for granted and throws it up in the air in a sensory whirlwind. For border collies that have been bred and selected for hundreds of years to work with livestock in a quiet part of the countryside, encountering only their owner and sheep all day, Christmas is difficult to deal with.
A few border collies will be fine and may actually thrive on the excitement. Some will tolerate it and be relieved when it’s all over. But many border collies will find the whole experience extremely stressful and with these dogs, it’s very important that you avoid “trigger stacking”.
What is trigger stacking?
Triggers are events, situations or “things” that cause a dog to react in a certain way. At Christmas we need to be aware of the sorts of situations or novel items that are triggering dogs to behave or feel differently to how they would usually behave or feel. For instance, having the grandchildren over can be exciting for many dogs, or cause fear and anxiety in others, particularly when the children are very excited and are restricted to indoors due to cold weather. A new heater that blows out hot air, or a battery-operated Christmas toy that moves “on its own” are both examples of items that can cause overexcitement, anxiety or fear in border collies, and there are many more. Being out on a walk when Santa’s sleigh drives slowly by, with music blaring out and charity collectors jiggling collection boxes can be extremely overwhelming for a collie and having the family round for a game of charades, with all the laughing, shouting and strange gesturing are all examples of trigger situations commonly seen at Christmas that your collie will find, at best, unsettling and at worse, absolutely terrifying.
Dogs rarely bite for “no reason”:
If each of these things were experienced in isolation, your border collie would probably be able to cope. They are loving dogs, highly intelligent and they try very hard to fit in with you and your family. However, if your dog experiences trigger stacking, where one or more of these novel, scary, or highly exciting contexts occur in succession, you will have a situation where the dog experiences an intensity of emotion that he is not used to or able to cope with. He feels out of control of the situation and is unable to regulate his behaviour as he would usually be able to do. The emotions can be positive, such as excitement or rough playing, or negative, such as fear or guarding food they may have found or been given, or their new Christmas Ronnie Reindeer toy, but the result is often the same. This is where even dogs that are usually very mild mannered and calm will raise their lip, growl or bite someone “for no reason”. And it is incidents like this, that are not the fault of the dog, that cause many dogs to be rehomed or, even worse, if the bite is severe, to be put to sleep in the period after Christmas. People are often shocked and feel that their dog can no longer be trusted, yet some simple management could ensure that it never happened. As dog trainers and behaviourists, we see this sort of situation so often and it breaks our hearts.
What can I do to prevent trigger stacking?
A safe haven
Give your dog a safe haven to retreat to, a crate is the best option for this. Cover the crate with a blanket and ensure that all members of the family and all visitors understand that NO-ONE is to encroach on the dog’s space in the crate. The crate needs to be the dog’s safe space where he knows that no-one is going to grab him, touch him, try and stroke him or poke things in his face. That also means that if he retires to his crate, you do not grab him and pull him out, even to go for a walk, if he doesn’t want to come out.
He needs to be able to access this safe space at all times and the door can remain open so that he doesn’t feel trapped or shut if he is more familiar with his crate and likes being in there.
Give him space
If your dog is a little wary of family members that he doesn’t see very often or sensitive to strange sounds or loud noises, it is kinder to keep him out of the room when all these types of events are occurring. Leave him in peace and quiet in his crate or safe space with a tasty, long-lasting treat such as a pigs ear or ostrich bone, and shut the door of the room so that he can’t be bothered by anyone. (Keep checking him to ensure he is safe while eating these treats).
If the dog is let into the rooms with the family when things have calmed down, don’t let anyone, especially children, stroke or pet him unless he seeks attention from them himself. And if that happens, closely monitor him to ensure that he is still feeling comfortable. A dog that is licking his lips or yawning is using dog language to try and tell people he’s not completely happy and if you can clearly see the whites of his eyes, his body stiffens or he is growling or lifting his top lip, he is almost at the point where he is thinking about biting. He’s using dog language to tell us that he’s had enough, but unfortunately a lot of children and adults don’t understand dog language and the dog is forced to escalate to a bite if people aren’t listening to him. Familiarise yourself with dog body language and help him by being his translator and advocate. He will love you for it!
Avoid Christmas crowds
Finally, don’t walk your dog through crowded Christmas events indoors or outdoors. The bright, often flashing lights, excited children running, crying or squealing, the scary man in the red suit with huge beard shouting Ho Ho Ho, and sheer numbers of people that gather together around Christmas is overwhelming for all dogs, but especially difficult for a dog bred to work sheep on a quiet hillside all day. Stick to quiet walks where there are fewer people and where he can feel safe. Christmas events and gatherings are NOT the place to be socialising a new puppy.
If you can foresee any problems for your dog this Christmas or need help with crate training or anything else, please get in touch with me or any other border collie specialist dog trainers. Border collies are very different to other dogs and we frequently see people who have visited general dog trainers and have been given bad advice.