Is Your Dog Ready for Santa Photos?

The silly season is upon us and, if you are anything like us, you will be seeing all those cute Christmas costumes for dogs in the shops and wondering what your significant other would say if you bought them. But have you stopped to wonder what your dog (or cat) thinks?

Wilbur says “I’d better get paid for this!” – Photo by Irresistible Desires

With Christmas just around the corner, we are bracing for the onslaught of “cute” and “funny” photos and videos on social media, showing humans laughing and having fun, while their pets try to cope with the hats, antlers, outfits, and strangers dressed in Santa costumes that are making them feel uncomfortable. Most people aren’t stressing their pets out on purpose, they just haven’t learned to notice the stress signals their dog uses to express discomfort. These stress signals can include repeated lip licking, yawning, panting, freezing/standing stiff/refusing to move, leaning away/avoidance, low ears or tail, and looking away.

It would be too easy for us to say “just don’t dress your pet up”, and where’s the fun in that? If you are inclined to get into the holiday spirit with your pet, why not spend a few minutes doing some training so they can enjoy the festive photo shoot too?

For hats and antlers, you can encourage your dog to put his head through the band for a treat. He should be free to move out of the head piece after he takes the treat. Practice a few times in a row, and you should notice that your dog is choosing to put his head through the band before you even ask, because he knows it will pay off! You can build duration (so you can get your photo) by feeding a few treats in a row while he is wearing the head piece, gradually increasing the time between treats. If he tries to swat the hat off, you’ve left it on too long! Try increasing the rate you are delivering treats at.


Costumes/t-shirts can feel more restrictive, and many dogs are uncomfortable wearing them. If your dog freezes and looks unhappy (refer to list of stress signals above), don’t persist with putting the costume on! If your dog is more relaxed about wearing clothes, then encourage him to put his head through the neck hole using a couple of treats, and then ask him to offer his paw (“shake”, if he knows that trick) so you can finish with the leg holes. Offer him plenty of treats while he’s dressed up, and don’t leave him dressed for long (unless the temperature outside/inside is cool, and he enjoys wearing coats/jackets/t-shirts).

Santa photos can be the biggest challenge of all for some dogs – what could be scarier than a stranger wearing bizarre clothes and grossly invading your personal space?! If you take your dog to a “Santa Paws” event, watch him carefully for signs of stress, and don’t persist if he is unhappy. Take treats, so you can reward your dog for approaching Santa, sitting still for the camera, and settling in line while waiting their turn. If possible, opt to hold your dog on your own lap while sitting next to Santa, or have your dog sit on the ground (or seat if they are comfortable to do so) in front of, or beside, Santa rather than on his lap. You could even ask Santa to give your dog a couple of his favourite treats!

Wilbur rocking the Christmas spirit in a low-stress way! – Photos by Irresistible Desires

If your dog sees you with the costumes and races the other way, don’t despair – there are some other ideas for getting great Christmas photos without worrying your furry friend! You can ask him to sit or lie down with some Christmas lights in the background, or decorations scattered around, or you could opt for a simple (but adorable) Christmas bow tie or bandanna attached to their collar. There is also the magic of Photoshop, where you are only limited by your imagination (and skill with the software).

Don’t have fun at the expense of your dog (or cat) this Christmas! If you think reindeer costumes are adorable, then take the time to train your dog to LOVE getting dressed up too. A cute photo is not worth stressing your dog out.


Are you speaking the same language as your pet?

Here’s a little piece of information that might blow your mind. Our pets don’t speak English, any more than we speak dog, cat, or bird! They also have their own unique way of communicating through body language, and this is something that us humans just can’t replicate (despite what some trainers would have you believe).

Most animals have evolved with their range of visual and vocal communication as a means of keeping in touch with their group, letting other individuals know where the sweet resources are, and diffusing conflict before it becomes a physical confrontation. What else do you need to survive? You can speak to your mates, find the goodies, and stop the baddies before anyone gets hurt – that is survival 101 sorted!

dog trainer body languageCan you imagine how confusing it is for our pets when they try to let us know something, using their perfectly clear language, and we completely blow them off! Maybe they’re showing stress signals to let us know they’re unsure what we want or frightened by something, and we insist on repeating ourselves (usually at a higher volume) or making them stay somewhere they feel scared. Or perhaps they’re trying to alert us to a potential intruder (like those pesky piwis that fly over the yard) and we scold them for their efforts. They’re doing what they know, and we sure aren’t helping them out!

As if our ignorance of our pets language isn’t enough, we like to think we know so much about the topic that we can successfully imitate their body language in a way that they will understand. Many trainers advocate pinning dogs down, “tapping” them with a foot or curved hand to imitate a bite, and many other unnecessary acts all with the assumption that this is how our pets naturally communicate so this must be the best way to get through to them.

Last time i looked in a mirror i looked nothing like a dog, or a cat, or a bird, and i respect the animals i work and live with enough to know that they can see i’m not the same species as they are either. At best our efforts to mimic them are confusing, and at worst they’re downright cruel.

Rather than trying to get in touch with our inner-animal, we can use scientifically-based methods to show our pets what we want them to do (through shaping, luring, targeting, etc) and provide rewarding consequences when they succeed. This is how we can bridge that language gap! Better yet, we can also learn about the species we keep, and learn to recognise what their body language means. That way, if they are happy we can encourage them, and if they’re scared we can be their advocate and make them feel more comfortable. That’s our responsibility to the animals in our care – to be clear and to work hard to provide them with physical and psychological well being.