Border Collies & Christmas: Avoid Trigger Stacking

Border collies and Christmas: One of the busiest times of year for me is after Christmas, and a lot of this is due to aggression incidents that happened over the Christmas period. There are many things that can cause stress and anxiety for your collie over Christmas, so it’s important to be aware of these things and plan accordingly.  Always remember what collies were bred for: to work in the peace and quiet of farm life. They need very sensitive hearing and eyesight to be able to see and hear sheep and the shepherd, often from long distances, from across valleys and hills. Christmas can be a very loud time for all of us, let alone collies.

They have also been bred to herd sheep that move quickly and they like to be able to control movement. Little children running around and squealing can be frightening as well as exciting for collies, and so can all the toys that can be left lying around temptingly within reach. Guests can be overwhelming and a change in routine can cause anxiety.

Border collies and Christmas

Be VERY aware of trigger stacking – and how your collie’s arousal can be influenced by things that seem very unremarkable to us.

The following diagram shows how trigger stacking can affect your collie. If you think of your collie’s arousal as a sink that fills with every exciting, frustrating, scary or painful thing that happens. Each trigger could affect your dog’s arousal for up to 3 days, so on any one day your dog will still be affected by things that have happened over the last 3 days.

Border collies at Christmas

As soon as the sink fills and starts to overflow, that’s when they may react. This reaction could be biting a person, fighting with other household dogs, or just being more reactive (aggressive) on walks than usual. Be aware of how border collies and Christmas work together to keep everyone safe!

All of the following are examples of “triggers” that could raise your collie’s arousal:

  • Moving furniture about
  • Changes to routine
  • Children being off school
  • Visitors
  • The Christmas tree
  • Visiting people
  • Christmas music when out and about
  • Drunk people
  • Over-excited children
  • Wrapping paper – presents everywhere, the exciting process of unwrapping and screwed up paper
  • Pops from crackers
  • Charades – anyone waving arms around could cause an attack with nervous dogs
  • Noisy Christmas presents eg. children’s musical instruments
  • Drones/flying presents

Here’s six top tips for getting through Christmas event-free with your collie:

  1. Ensure that they have their own safe haven: somewhere that they can go to, to feel safe. Make sure that everyone in the house knows that when your dog is in his safe haven, he must not be disturbed.
  2. Get them used to being left in a certain room, away from everyone to have calm time every so often. This isn’t the same as a safe haven. Have a cupboard full of enrichment items such as natural chews to ensure that they are not frustrated.
  3. Licking, sniffing and eating lowers arousal – give lots of frozen lickimats and kongs, use snuffle mats and go for lots of sniffy walks. These are all useful activities for calming an over-excited young collie.
  4. Never leave children or vulnerable adults alone with dogs at any time.
  5.  Avoid dressing collies up in Christmas outfits, or making them pose with the Christmas tree, or with children. This can cause a lot of anxiety: the internet is full of Christmas poses of children with dogs that look worried.

    Border collies and Christmas
    Notice the lip licking in this photo – this dog is anxious
  6. Advocate for your dog. Watch out for signs that your dog is uncomfortable. See my ladder of aggression article: any of these signs, starting with lip licking, yawning and blinking, show that your dog is trying to tell you that he isn’t comfortable with the situation.


Learn to think like a collie and help them through this Christmas!


Leave a Comment