A relaxed, comfortable dog is essential for people to have a positive party experience when they come to your home. It’s also the best way to ensure that your guests will want to return and that your dog will want to welcome them.
Here are some of Matt Beisner's tips for safe, social behavior around new faces:
1. The pre-party
You want to have a party, your dog wants to have a good time, so let’s make it happen. Setting your dog up for success is the best way to lay out the welcome mat.
Start the pre-party with your dog(s) well before your guests arrive. Get them out of the house for a low-stress walk, a hike, a long “sniffari” or into some enrichment activities that will allow for chewing, licking, sniffing, running and/or play. That will likely get some of your dog’s basic needs met, reduce their stress, ease your mind and get them ready to help host a howlin’ good time.
2. Plan the perfect hangout
If you’re hosting a party outdoors, choose the best possible “hang out” spot for your dog. One where she can see the activities without having to be a part of them, free from foot traffic, with the ability to leave (i.e. “go away from the pressure”) when/if she needs to. It’s smart to choose a location that your guests, particularly children, won’t have easy access to. It can also be helpful to add a flexible gate around her area to further deter unwelcome visitors.
A cot (raised dog bed) can provide extra comfort, making for a cooler place to lay, reducing irritation on the skin (for dogs with allergies), and affording your dog the stress decompression that often comes with being elevated off of the ground.
If your dog is comfortable wearing a harness, you might try using a secure 6-10ft line attached to the back of her harness, giving your dog freedom to move and you the relief in knowing that you probably won’t end up finding her camped out by the grill.
Make sure your dog has ready access to fresh water, shade, and a bathroom area. Assign yourself or someone you trust to keep an eye on her. Dogs can stack stress, which can later lead to behaviors that are hard to manage, especially when the party is rocking.
If your party includes the indoors, you can use much of the same set up, with the advantage of being able to rely on baby gates or closed doors to help reduce your dog’s stimulation. A nearby box fan can be a great noise reducer because of the way it cuts sound. Dogs also benefit from noise machines, air purifiers, calming music or a relaxing channel (e.g. ‘Through A Dog's Ear’ on Alexa or Google Play) as background noise. Whatever your set up, be sure that you or someone you trust is available to regularly check on your dog.
If your dog feels challenged (over-stimulated, stressed, anxious, afraid, aggressive) by the presence of visitors then try adding the Off Duty set up to your plan.
Off Duty: Imagine the best bone or toy your dog could ever have (a “Super Toy”). Stuff or slather it with something he’ll want to lick for a while. Put it in the freezer overnight. Then 15-20 minutes before your first guest arrives, give him this “Super Toy” in his designated “hang out” spot. Don’t let anybody bother him when they arrive. If your dog is into the “Super Toy” he’ll probably feel a lot less stimulated - and stressed - by the people who are showing up at his house. When he’s done he may even be ready to mingle.
Pro Tip: The best way to maximize the value of the “Super Toy” is to present it to your dog ONLY when a guest is coming over!
3. Prepare for the scare
If your dog seems comfortable, curious or interested let her naturally flow out and back into her hangout area, Make sure that she can retreat at any time. Dogs, like people, need breaks, and just like people, they may not take them when they’re feeling (over) stimulated.
Think of the guests who are most likely to engage with your dog and the least likely to listen to you. It’s a party after all and people want to feel included, so try something that will give them and your dog a “win”. Have a supply of bite-sized, high-value (read: stinky) treats at the ready. If your dog shows curiosity in a guest, ask the guest to throw treats AWAY from themself, over your dog’s head. If your dog gets the treat, then repeat, until your dog seems calmer, at which point it might be time to let her sniff, lick or say “hello” to your guest. Drop plenty of treats if this happens.
If she doesn’t move to the treat, try having your guest drop a treat closer to her. If she takes that then your guest can gradually toss treats further and further away from themself, over your dog’s head. The idea here is that when your dog practices going away from “the pressure“ of having to engage, something good happens. In time it’s likely that your dog will see the interaction with this new person, and future guests, as positive.
Pro Tip: if your dog isn’t taking any treats then they are probably not high-value enough, or your dog is too stressed to engage. If it’s the latter, help your dog get back to her hang out spot and give her some time and activities that will help her decompress; something that allows for chewing, licking, sniffing - or just resting. Remember, your dog is relying on you to make sure she has the best time at the party possible.
P.S. Be sure your dog isn’t getting too many treats on party day. That can lead to an upset stomach and a poopy party foul.
4. Play fun games
These are great games to play with your dog anytime and even more fun when you can get friends involved.
Hide and Seek: Get some guests together for an easy, fun game. Make sure everyone is loaded with some delicious treats. Choose the order in which each person will call your dog. Have them hide somewhere outside, inside or both. When you are ready, count to ten with your dog by your side. The first person hiding should call your dog’s name, repeatedly, with excitement until your dog finds them. At that point the person who was found can make a big celebration of it and reward your dog with a treat. After about 5-10 seconds the next person can call your dog. And so on and so on.
If you want to add an extra challenge try this: whomever your dog finds should hide in a new spot as soon as your dog leaves them. As long as your dog - and your guests - are enjoying themselves you can keep playing what amounts to an endless game of Hide and Seek.
Pro Tip: If you have the kind of dog that is easily excited and never wants to stop playing, you may need to build in breaks so she doesn’t become over-stimulated and start jumping and barking at the other players. And be sure to have some other enrichment activities that will help her decompress; something that allows for chewing, licking, sniffing - or just resting.
Two Ball Fetch: if you have a dog who likes to fetch the ball but won’t “drop it”, try adding a second ball into the game. Toss a ball towards one of your guests (who also has a ball with them). When your dog gets to the ball near your guest, that person can toss him a treat and throw the ball they’ve been holding back towards you. This is a particularly easy and low risk game for dog-shy people and/or supervised kids because no one ever has to reach into the dog’s mouth to take the ball.
This last game is actually better suited for more low key gatherings with many one or two people who are new to the dog.
The Hang Out: Find a comfortable spot for you and your dog to relax near your guests. Your dog doesn’t need to be “sitting”, just close by. You should position yourself comfortably (literally hanging out) but not facing or looking at your dog. In this game you’ll be “capturing and praising” each time your dog looks at something - anything - in the environment (a squirrel, blowing leaf, person laughing, plane flying overhead, a bug…anything. When he looks you say “Yes!” and toss a treat his way. If he looks at you don’t return the eye contact or treat him (that’s for another fun game) just wait until he turns his attention to something in his environment. When he looks at something say “Yes!” and toss a treat his way
As the game continues watch for his body to become more relaxed. As he “downshifts'' you can now quietly say “yes” and toss a treat right to him so that he doesn’t have to move far out of the relaxed state he’s settling into It may so happen that your dog now finds himself in a legitimate state of relaxation, the presence of strangers, with you having given him any commands.
5. Leave the party on a good note.The best time to leave the party it’s when you’re still having fun. Busy environments are stressful even if they are fun, and the stress can add up. Let your dog leave on a good note – even if your guests stay beyond that point. Put your dog inside in their indoor spot with something that will help her decompress: chewing, licking, sniffing, or just resting.
6. Have your private after-party
When all is said and done, have a quiet little after-party with your dog. Provide some stress reducing, relaxing and enriching opportunities for your furry friend to fondly remember – or forget about – the day you just had. Sometimes it’s great to take a leisurely walk together, so you can both decompress.
7. Must-haves for chill parties
Wondercide makes a few plant-based products made with natural essential oils that I consider essentials for a fun summertime gathering. Before the party starts, apply Outdoor Pest Control. It comes in a convenient ready-to-use bottle with refills. You can eliminate uninvited guests; bugs , like mosquitoes, ants, fleas, and ticks, without having to shut the party down!
Set out several bottles of Wondercide’s Insect Repellent for your guests to use. For your dog, we recommend Flea & Tick Pets + Home. Both come in four fresh scents including Cedarwood, Rosemary, Lemongrass, and Peppermint. Wondercide’s family fun fear-free products make for the best kind of party: nobody bugs out and everybody goes home smelling good.
Super Host Bonus: When it’s hot outside, our Peppermint sprays provide a cooling effect on the skin, leaving your guests more likely to lounge, laugh and linger longer.
Wondercide also makes a flea and tick collar for dogs that’s a great peppermint color and scent from essential oils. It’s a great added layer of protection for your dog.
Enjoy your time together this summer!
About the AuthorMatt Beisner (CPDT-KA, FDM) is a certified professional dog trainer, the founder of THE ZEN DOG, and star of the popular international show “Dog: Impossible” on Disney+ and National Geographic WILD. Matt has spent his career dedicated to serving dogs whose behavioral challenges are a normal response to the very environments they hope to be rescued from. Matt, an ambassador of the Texas Humane Network, and a long-time supporter of the shelter and rescue community, has helped change dangerous, fearful and confounding behaviors by working with these dogs, rather than relying on fear, force, or commands to control them. “What’s good for a dog will be good for our world,” says Matt. He now lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Brooklin, their son and daughter, and their once "impossible" dogs".