If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year and already have a to do list that is 1001 items, my suggestion that you add one more to make it 1002 will not be welcome, but I stand by it: Develop a plan to help your dog have a good day. The goal is to set your dog up for success by making it easy for her to do the right thing and not get into trouble. There are so many temptations on this day of feasting, but with a little advance planning, you can avoid the common horror of having your dog partake in the feast by mistake during any part of the festivities.
Other than keeping your dog completely separate from everyone and all the food throughout the preparation and the feast, there is no full proof way to avoid having your dog steal food or prevent her from successfully begging your guests for it. It can take many months to train a dog to exhibit exemplary behavior while you and the dog are distracted in a crowded, festive environment with delicious smells everywhere. The advice I have is not about training but about setting your dog up for success even if you haven’t spent your dog’s whole life preparing for this moment. Frankly, Thanksgiving is such an unusual day that you are probably better off devoting your training to teaching your dog how to handle regular events and just managing the challenges of this once-a-year holiday. There are many ways to do that.
Help your dog achieve the right emotional state by giving her lots of exercise in the morning. It’s hard to find the time for a long walk, hike or run, but you will reap the benefits all day if your dog achieves the relaxed, contented state that exercise brings. Some training for the sake of mental exercise can also help your dog to be at her best the rest of the day. Boredom is the enemy of the well-behaved dog, so make your dog’s day as interesting as possible.
Set your dog up for success by giving her something better to do than try to be on the receiving end of your feast. The foods are generally fatty, most guests prefer to eat without sharing with the dog, and there are plenty of foods to avoid because they are harmful to dogs, including onions, raisins and chocolate. (Chocolate may not be a typical part of the holiday for most people, but chocolate pecan pie has always been my favorite food of the day, which would seem less festive without it.)
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Set up a barrier to prevent you dog from being in the kitchen while you cook and in the dining room when you are feasting. Simply preventing trouble can feel like a cop out. It’s not. It’s a good solution to a problem, as long as your dog can tolerate the separation. If your dog is comfortable in a crate or another room, that is great news, and it makes sense to take advantage of your good fortune. For many dogs, being separated is a reasonable way to stop them from begging, jumping up for food or stealing it from the serving area. In my opinion, these are pretty reasonable behaviors for members of a scavenging species and don’t lead to a dark blot upon a dog’s character. Still, if you can avoid them, it is good for your dog and your peace of mind and your guests.
Stockpile some new toys and treats ready for use as you prepare and celebrate the Thanksgiving meal. If you can keep your dog interested in anything other than the delicious smells coming from the oven (and the garbage can!), you are setting her up for success. Stuff some Kongs or other food extraction toys ahead of time that you can give your dog to keep her occupied. Consider freezing a couple so that they will last even longer. (I know space is at a premium. I begged my kids to eat some cake and ice cream to make room for our turkey, some pies and the cranberries, and it was technically still breakfast time. You do what you have to do.) Plan to give her at least one toy stuffed with goodies while you cook and another during your meal. If she has something really appetizing which is hers, it makes it easier for her to deal with not receiving what the people are eating. That applies to dogs who are in a crate in another room, or with everyone.
Wrap the leftovers up and put them in the fridge or freezer as fast as possible after you are done eating. With possible temptations secured and out of reach, the risk of trouble is largely behind you. Don’t forget to put the garbage out, too! A Thanksgiving trash party will rob you of some of the feelings of gratitude this day inspires, and even worse, it may be harmful to your dog’s health.
Take a walk after dinner. It’s good for you and for your dog. The exercise is wonderful, especially after a large meal, and the chance to be outside makes most dogs so happy. After any potential holiday stresses caused by visitors or the unusual nature of the day, a walk will be most welcome. If your dog is not used to a walk at that time, it’s a special treat. If she’s used to going out at that time, sticking to this part of her routine is a great kindness to her.
Since your dog is presumably one of the joys of your life for which you are most grateful, it makes sense to do what you can to make her Thanksgiving as wonderful as it can be. It will give her one more reason to be thankful for you!