Thanksgiving offers lots of opportunities to have fun with family and dogs, but it also poses some risks. Some of these risks are fairly obvious, but if this is your first time hosting a large number of guests and making a large number of dishes, here are some things to keep an eye on.
Holiday Foods and Dogs
Your guests may not be up to speed on some common food items that can hurt dogs. The veterinary ER invariably has a surge of visitors on or after Thanksgiving because not every visiting family member realizes that their urge to give a dog a special treat on Thanksgiving may do a lot more harm than good.
A little tidbit of lean, cooked turkey is a nice thing to share with your dog on a special day. That's wonderful on its own. However, if several guests are slipping your dog turkey under the table, it may go from fun to dangerous pretty quickly. Dogs are at risk for pancreatitis if they eat too much fat too fast, and there's a lot of fat on a turkey, especially in the skin. If dogs eat a significant amount of skin or fatty meat, they may need a trip to the ER. Signs of pancreatitis include vomiting, hunching up, vomiting, lethargy, and diarrhea. Acute pancreatitis can be fatal in rare cases, so take this one seriously and make sure your dog doesn't get a ton more fat than normal.
Most dog owners know that cooked bones can splinter when a dog chews them, causing a significant risk of perforation or obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract. However, not every guest may know this, and a well-intentioned aunt or uncle may want to slip your dog a turkey leg when they're done with it—dogs love bones, right?
Another concern is the turkey carcass you leave behind after you've carved the meat off. Some families leave it in the kitchen to be picked later, which means it's unattended during dinner. Some leave it on the dining room table, which means it's unattended after dinner. Either way, that big, tantalizing carcass can tempt even a dog with good manners to break the rules and pull it to the floor. That means the potential both for your dog to ingest cooked bones and to ingest far too much fatty meat and skin. Keep an eye on your dog and your carcass. If you're like us, you'll pick the remaining meat and get those turkey bones straight into a big pot so you can start making your turkey soup stock right away.
There are also the other common foods that are fine for people but potentially dangerous for dogs, and again, your guests may not all know not to give these foods to dogs. If you put raisins in your stuffing, for example, it's not safe for a dog to have it. Some dogs don't appear to be sensitive to grapes and raisins, but there is documented evidence that some dogs can experience renal failure after consuming a relatively small number of grapes or raisins.
Chocolate is also a concern in holiday gatherings. There is a chemical in chocolate (theobromine) that's toxic to dogs. It takes a relatively large dosage to cause poisoning in a dog, but it does happen. Theobromine is found in higher concentration in darker chocolates, so don't worry if your dog ends up swallowing a couple of M&Ms. However, if your dog consumes a very large amount of chocolate or gets at any dark chocolate or baking chocolate, you could have a serious situation on your hands.
Turkey, raisins, and chocolate seem to be to be the biggest concerns at Thanksgiving, but you can check out my list of foods that are known to be toxic to dogs or even print it out and keep it on the fridge for reference if you want to make sure your family and guests are aware of the common threats.
If you're worried about your guests' knowledge or responsibility, consider crating your pup during the actual Thanksgiving dinner itself or for any other part of the gathering in which there might be a risk to your pup. If you have a relatively small number of guests or if they're all experienced dog people, dinners like this can be a good time to work on your dog's manners or to work on teaching your dog to go to his spot while folks are eating. However, if you're not sure, there's a pretty big risk of your dog getting something that he shouldn't eat, and there's also the issue of having your dog get rewarded for begging around the table, which some folks find endearing but many of us find annoying.
One of my favorite parts of holidays is getting together with our extended Golden family. Between my parents, my sister's family, and us, there are four Goldens. Even though they get along famously, that many dogs does require a watchful eye, no matter how stable and well-behaved they are. If your guests are bringing dogs, be sure that they've had a chance to meet and get used to each other before the big day if you can. You want to set them up to feel relaxed and comfortable around each other, and the excitement and disturbance of a large family gathering can raise the anxiety level of some dogs and undermine their ability to relax and feel safe around new dogs. Try to have first greetings be outside and off leash if you can, as leashed greetings can interfere with dog body language and create problems where there don't have to be any. Indoor greetings are OK too, but again, take the dogs off the leash and try to do it before the party in a quiet area of the house.
Also realize that not all dogs really get along. You can set two dogs up to have a positive first interaction, but you can't guarantee that they'll be friends. If you have two dogs that seem to get at each other, leaving them underfoot during a noisy party is probably only going to make the problem worse. You may have to have them take turns in a crate and work on their relationship another time.
Last Christmas, as Andy and I were leaving my sister's place in Boston, we came across an old Golden in the middle of the road. Fortunately, she was docile and friendly and allowed me to leash her and walk her out of the road. Looking up and down the road, we decided to knock on the door of a nearby lit-up house to see if they knew where she belonged. Sure enough, that was her house, and the family who lived there was very surprised that she had slipped out. In the hustle and bustle of folks coming in and out, she had walked out the door unnoticed. If things had been just a tiny bit different, we might have hit her. It's not an onerous task to keep an eye on the dog if members of the nuclear family can take turns being the designated dog-watcher.
Holidays can provide some training opportunities for you and your pup if you're not also playing full-time host. You can practice greeting friendly strangers as they enter the house if you're working on not jumping or other greeting skills. You can teach your pup to go to his spot in the dining room while people are eating, and you can reward him with turkey from the table (an article on "go to your spot" is coming soon). You have to make the judgment call based on where you are in your training, how big your gathering is, and what hosting roles each family member has, and don't be afraid to let your dog take short shifts in the crate when there's too much going on. It's better for the dog to spend a little time in the crate than to get untrained, overfed, or let out into the street by your well-intentioned extended family.
If you do have your dog out and enjoying the holiday with you, which is obviously the goal, be sure to train the humans so they don't hurt or untrain the dog. Uncle Fester might think he's great with dogs, but if he's leaning way in and speaking loudly in the dog's face, you need to intervene, either by crating your dog for a while or by crating the misbehaving Uncle.
The same goes for children. Your kids might be amazing with your dog, but children really have to be trained in order to have a positive interaction with dogs. It should go without saying, but it often doesn't, that children should not be allowed to poke dogs' faces, yank their fur or tails, or climb on dogs. And the majority of dogs don't like hugs by default. Some do, and some can be trained to like it, but for most dogs, the default setting is that they do not enjoy being encircled and held. Just because the dog tolerates being manhandled by a child without biting the child doesn't mean it's fair to the dog. The humans might think it's cute, but chances are the dog is feeling stressed and unhappy.
You are your dog's only advocate when it comes to untrained humans, so step up and either train the humans or remove the dog from the situation.
Set Your Dog Up to Succeed
If you do decide, as we usually do, to have your dogs in the main part of the party for the whole thing, it really helps to get up a little earlier and take them for a long walk or hike to tucker them out before the party starts. A well-exercised dog is a much better host or guest than a dog who didn't get his daily brain and body workout.
And be sure to catch your dog making good choices. It's much easier and more pleasant to train your dog that begging leads to nothing and that lying down quietly leads to treats and petting.