Navigating (Holiday) Gatherings with Kids, Dogs & Family Members

December 1, 2023

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Holidays, as wonderful as they are, can be stressful for parents and dogs when friends and family are visiting and routines change.
Planning ahead of time when you’re expecting visitors or you will be visiting someone who has a dog, will keep everyone safe and comfortable.

You are hosting

When deciding what to do with your dog when there are visitors, consider the following:

➜the temperament of your dog
➜the type and length of visit
➜everyone’s comfort level

Here are a few ideas on how to proceed:

A brief greeting with the dog and visitor, then separate.
Separate as visitors arrive, then let the dog come out for a quick
greeting, then separate again.
Completely separate from the start and remain separate until
everyone leaves.
Let the dog hang out with everyone, but separate during tricky times
(like serving a meal, kids holding food, or kids running around).
Let the dog hang out depending on everyone’s (including the dog’s)
comfort level.

Make your guests aware of the safety rules regarding children and dogs.
This is especially important if an adult will supervise your child and dog for any length of time when you are NOT in the room or the house.

I recommend writing down the rules ahead of time and reviewing the list with the caregiver while showing them exactly what you mean by, e.g., “keep separate for meals” or “call the dog away.”

In my Preparation Course, Toddler Course, and Crash Course, I have included a Caregiver’s Checklist that goes over every possible scenario, and you just check off what’s relevant to your

Make sure your guests, especially young children, do not have access to the space and cannot reach or poke at your dog, i.e., if they are crated or confined in another room. This is especially important when your dog has a chew or bone. If you have a baby and the visiting kids are older, know that the standard babyproofing items won’t be enough; they can almost certainly open any babyproofing trap.

Respectfully communicate with any adults what the rules and routines are. Acknowledge that they may have a different system in their home or other experiences, but this is your home/dog/kid and the setup they’re used to and most comfortable with.

If you feel socially pressured or awkward about explaining separations to your guests, be prepared with a few phrases ahead of time.

For my private clients, I recommend using me (or their veterinarian) as an excuse.

  • “Per our trainer’s recommendation, we will take the dog to his dog area now.”
  • “Per our veterinarian’s recommendation, we are giving the dog some alone time.”

Involve your guests in training

    “So glad and helpful you are here! We get to practice alone time training when we have guests over. Thanks guys, for your help.”

If you notice that your dog shows (subtle) signs of stress that are ignored or dismissed by your relatives or friends, trust your gut and separate your dog.

Check out the Ladder of Aggression below.

It is designed like traffic light signals:
Green means the dog is: Worried, Conflicted, Anxious, Unsure, Uncomfortable.
Orange means the dog is: Very Worried, Scared, More Serious, Very Uncomfortable.
Red means: STOP NOW! BACK OFF NOW! If you don’t stop, I will bite.

You are visiting

The ultimate solution will depend on many factors.
➜Are you bringing your dog/s?
➜Do they have a dog or dogs?
➜How many dogs total, and do all dogs get along?
➜Are any of the dogs protective of any resources?
➜Does the host have young children? If yes, they most likely have gates.
➜The size and layout of the apartment or house.
➜The length of the visit.

Prepare the grandparents, relatives, and friends ahead of time and involve them in planning.

  • Discuss the existing management tools.
  • Order a baby gate or a playpen and have it delivered to their house.
  • Decide ahead of time where the dog/s will be sleeping, eating, and hanging
    out when the kids are up (very important when you have a newly mobile
    infant or toddler). Can the dogs be separated, or will they bark nonstop?
  • If your baby is a light sleeper and they have a barky dog, bring
    a white noise machine with you or play white noise from your
    computer/an app.
  • Share your safety rules regarding children and dogs.

In the not-so-rare case, the rules above aren’t possible for your family; keep reading to see how my husband and I would handle holiday visits with non-cooperative family members.

Not Cooperative Family Members/Friend

  • Before each visit, my husband and I reminded them to remove their dogs’ food from the floor and have the dogs contained or outside. They frequently didn’t listen, claiming the dogs “were great with kids.” The dogs’ body language said the opposite; they were definitely not comfortable with young children. One of us would go inside first and check the floor for kibble and other food items.
  • We kept the visits short and never stayed overnight.
  • When our children were little, we would bring a baby gate or a playpen to keep them safe.
  • We kept our bodies between the children and the dogs.
  • We went over the rules of interaction with our children.
  • If we brought our dog, Lola, we made sure she was extra tired before the visit or would go for a walk with her and the other dogs to limit our time together inside (all 4 dogs were very barky as well).
  • We supervised, always.

Dr. Nkieru Orajiaka, Board-certified Pediatrician and ER doctor, says that each holiday there is an increase in dog bites to little kids. Other people in the house, change of routine, noise, lots of yummy food, often not enough exercise because everyone is busy cooking or taking care of kids, or due to cold weather. Dogs are often underexercised, overstimulated, and overhandled, and therefore more likely to become quickly stressed, easier to upset, and faster to react.

What to do if a bite happens

Hopefully, this blog post will help you keep everyone safe, but just in case, I’m adding Dr. Nkieru’s recommendation if a child gets bitten by a dog.

  • ⁠Stay calm
  • Cover the area with a wet gauze or clean cloth (dry cloths may stick to the cut)⁠
  • If bleeding a lot, apply some firm pressure to control bleeding⁠
  • Give pain medication if in pain⁠
  • Do not give anything else to eat or drink until checked out (in case your child
    needs to be put to sleep to be treated)⁠
  • Confirm dog immunization⁠
  • Confirm your child's immunization (for Tetanus)⁠
  • Remember, the child will need oral antibiotics if there is an open wound.

Dog bites get infected easily.⁠

1 in 5 dog bites needs medical treatment. ⁠You should still call your doctor for medical care and recommendations, even if you think it's a small bite.⁠

Get on the same page with your partner

When you have children and dogs, you may receive a lot of (unwanted) advice from relatives, and your approach to child-dog safety may be criticized.

As part of the planning, Sheina Schochet, a licensed therapist and founder of Love After Baby, recommends getting on the same page as your partner regarding visitors- what your boundaries are, how to communicate them and to back each other up. Each of you should take responsibility for communicating with your own family.

For the moments when it starts feeling too stressful, have some self-care strategies at the ready to make it a little easier. That can be a quick walk around the block, going to your room for a phone break, or noticing a few things (or people) in the room you’re really grateful for.⁠

⁠Ultimately, remember that you’ve come together to have an enjoyable holiday as a family. There may be differences, but these are people you and your partner love and a big part of your life. You may not see eye to eye on everything, but love is the root of it all. When all else fails- remember it’s only temporary (until the next holiday ;)).

I wish you a wonderful, happy, and safe Holiday season.
Dominika and Dog Meets Baby Team