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9 Tips for Getting Dogs to Behave on Thanksgiving

The food, the visitors, the commotion -- Thanksgiving can be chaotic, exciting, and full of temptation for even the most disciplined dogs or cats. Bone up on obedience and reinforce good manners to help ensure the gathering goes off without a hitch, then follow these dos and don’ts to encourage great behavior from your four-legged friends.

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Photography by: Ben Kirchner

1. Do exhaust your dog before guests arrive. A tired dog is usually a well-behaved one: “Take it for a jog or an extended game of fetch so it’ll be calmer and more likely to take a nap during a visit,” says Katherine Miller, an animal behaviorist for the ASPCA. Just be sure to gradually wind down the activity level. “Abruptly ending playtime may leave it excited and begging for more,” she says.

2. Do shield pets from the initial action. Holiday activity in your home can rile up, stress out, or frighten even mellow dogs and cats. As guests arrive, Miller recommends comfortably sequestering your animal in another room: Leave its bed, toys, and treats (or, for a cat, litter, water, and food) within reach. When things have settled, let it come out and mingle.

3. Do make sure ID tags are up to date. This should be the case anytime, but during the holidays especially, when people are coming and going and a pet might slip out the door. If you and your pooch are traveling for the holiday, tape the new address to its ID tag.

4. Do ask people beforehand about any allergies. The reality is, if you have pets, allergens collect everywhere -- in rugs, drapes, upholstery, clothing -- so a highly allergic guest might have to decline your invitation. However, you can try to minimize the allergens by regularly vacuuming (including upholstery) with a device that includes a HEPA filter, using a low-dust or clumping litter and cleaning the box often, dusting and wiping down your walls, and brushing your pet frequently. (Vacuuming can temporarily stir up allergens, so avoid doing it on the actual day of the party.)

5. Don’t assume guests want a furry dog perched on their lap. You may regularly cuddle with your pet on the sofa, but your guests may not be thrilled to have all that fur snuggled up next to them. “If your dog tends to hog the prime seating, it can be hard for it to understand that the behavior is unacceptable when company arrives,” Miller says. Place its bed on the floor near its usual spot, and put a toy (like a food-stuffed Kong) nearby to keep it busy. If a guest is willing to gently play with the pooch, it will feel part of the party and be more likely to stay off the furniture.

6. Don’t leave food at a level where your pets can steal it. All those hors d’oeuvres on your coffee table are a major temptation. Miller points out that many pups are trained with the “down low for dogs, up high for humans” rule for food -- and, as such, they can easily think the coffee-table height is a sign that the treats are intended for them. Keep the dog in another room during this course, or place the edibles higher up and out of its reach.

7. Don’t let friends and family feed your pets from the table. Yes, those puppy-dog eyes can be hard to resist, but guests shouldn’t succumb, since this rewards and encourages begging, Miller says. Instead, give your pet dinner in its bowl at the same time you sit down to eat your meal. “This will distract the dog and minimize begging -- at least until the dog’s food is gone,” she says. After guests leave, reward the good behavior by putting just a few small tidbits, such as turkey or sweet potato, in the pet’s bowl, Miller says.

8. Don’t change your pet’s routine while you’re away from home. Your dog may not have had an accident in your home since its puppy days, but take it out of its comfort zone and every chair leg in your host’s home can become a target. Avoid accidents by maintaining your dog’s feeding and walking routine, Miller says. “Dogs have an internal clock like we do, and they usually go to the bathroom at the same time. Changing things up can cause stress,” she explains. When your family is in a new environment, take the dog on lengthier walks or mimic the patterns, such as walking in a circle, that it makes when ready to relieve itself. Miller also suggests bringing some bottles of water from home, since both cats and dogs can be sensitive to new water. And when traveling with a cat, Miller says to use the same brand of litter (and litter box) that it’s used to: Smelling the usual litter will help prevent accidents.

9. Do travel with a crate. Leaving your pet unattended at another house can spell trouble. Bring a travel crate in which your dog or cat can stay anytime you’re out. (You shouldn’t assume your hosts want to pet-sit.) If your pet hasn’t used a crate in a while, practice using it ahead of time by feeding your pet meals inside it and leaving yummy treats to entice the animal to stay. “Just let it out long before it wants to get out,” Miller says. “That way, your pet will only associate the crate with good things.”