Party + fearful dog: or, why I love planning

I almost forget what it was like to host a party before Lyra. Did I fuss over the table setting? Did I worry that I might drink too much and giggle? Or forget to put sugar in the cake?

Lyra now dwarfs all other considerations. Thankfully, I am married to a man who remembers things like “put turkey in oven”. Otherwise I would have to give up on Thanksgiving and Christmas — and visitors, generally — which would be a shame, as our house is the sensible choice for family gatherings: big enough, and in the middle, geographically. Plus, I like people.

Lyra likes most people, too. She has a habit of jumping up, when they arrive, but we’re making progress. So what is the big problem? What follows is a description, and a step-by-step guide to managing a party (of 13 people and one visiting dog) in my home.

General problem: Lyra is friendly and wants to get close to visitors; however, she can get anxious if someone reaches to pet her. She gives very little warning; in fact, I am only beginning to pick up on the slight tension in her face and eyes. It takes a split second. She might be happy (or look it) for three pets, then react to the fourth. So far, she has not bitten. She tends to pull back quickly. Sometimes she growls while pulling back. On a few occasions, she has air snapped or given an air punch with her nose (e.g., when someone rubbed her ears quickly). She recovers the moment the person stops. I should also add that often she doesn’t react at all, and has never done so with me. In other words, the problem lies in unpredictability (there is no single type of person who triggers the reaction; I’ve been looking for a pattern and haven’t found one) and in the rapid progress from fine to not. Do I think she would do damage with a bite? No — unless severely provoked (like any dog). But I don’t want her to (1) bite at all, for everyone’s sake, (2) feel scared enough to bite, or (3) learn that it’s her only resort.

Issues specific to this party: (1) a visiting dog who is good with people and dogs: Lyra is fine with dogs generally, but can resource guard people or bones (from other dogs, only), especially when stressed; (2) a guest who doesn’t like dogs; (3) a guest who is allergic to cats; (4) a guest we’d never met before, and (5) a guest recovering from surgery, and several others who’d not cope well with being knocked over (which, though unlikely, could happen).  

Simple solution # 1: Ask people not to pet the dog. Oh, never mind. People forget. And Lyra makes it very hard because she looks like she wants to be stroked. My guess is that she does want it — until, suddenly, she doesn’t.

Simple solution # 2: Put a muzzle on Lyra. Um, no. She is happy to wear a muzzle, and does, for short periods (like at the vet’s), but not for hours on end. More to the point, a muzzle will not protect her from her own feelings. She may not be able to bite, but she may still get scared. A muzzle is a great tool in some situations — but not this one.

Which leads us to my ….

Dog management flow chart

Three groups of guests were due to arrive at different times on the one day. In order of appearance:

Group A: three people and their dog; due at 11:30 am. Allow contact because all three are dog people who are Lyra-savvy.

Group B: three people, one not keen on (possibly nervous about) dogs; due at 1 pm. Allow managed contact.

Group C: three people, one of whom we’d not met before, another recovering from surgery; due at 2 pm. Allow no contact.

Target: meal at 2 pm, people able to enjoy themselves and visit each other, no setback for Lyra re. fear of being touched, and no injuries.

Here was the plan, with notes on how it played out:

Requirements: fenced yard, dry weather, three gates, crate, leashes, bones/hooves/chew stick/ balls, basement + good knowledge of both dogs.

9 am: Walked Lyra on a very quiet trail with least likelihood of triggers, and gave her a chance to run in a field. It’s her favourite kind of outing and tends to put her in a happy mood. (Success)

Dogs enjoying the yard in a parallel way

11:25 am: Group A gave me a 5 min. warning before arrival. Took Lyra into back yard with her favourite ball — which I already knew the other dog would not try to take, as he prefers soccer balls. Soccer ball ready.

11:30 am: Group A arrived and came straight into back yard with their dog. Lyra was happy to see them, and wanted to resume play with her ball. Gave soccer ball to other dog. (Success).

12 noon: Took both dogs for a walk to park (one dog per person). Let them sniff and mooch about. (Success)

12:30 – 2 pm: Kept dogs in back yard. Gave each dog a hoof. (Partial success. Lyra would take the other dog’s hoof from time to time, but there was no open confrontation. Other dog would have preferred to be inside.)

1 pm: Put cat in bedroom with litter box, treat ball, and toys just before Group B (with cat allergy) arrived. No one from Group B opted to visit dogs in yard; I asked my kids to stay out with dogs while I greeted Group B, and finally Group C. Blocked off top of stairs to ensure no dogs could access people or kitchen (where food was sitting out). (Success)

2 pm: Group C arrived. Took both dogs into basement: put Lyra in back room with her bedtime crate and two safe zones, and a food toy with turkey; put visiting dog in crate with frozen kong. Upstairs, meal commenced.

Gating off the dining area

Notes: It was really in the last phase that things fell apart a little. I thought the dogs would be ready for a nap, or happy just to chill with their treats. Neither dog was very happy (both like to be part of activity). So we began to improvise. I visited Lyra now and then with small treats — like cooked carrot, and a chew stick. She was not very unhappy, just restless and keen to come upstairs. So was the other dog, who had visits from his owner. One of my kids sat with Lyra outside — with a plate of cake and a cup of coffee — which worked well (with the other dog in the front hall, happier than before) until the other dog wanted out, and Lyra got “guardy” with her chew stick. (Again, no confrontation — but I don’t like her practising this behaviour.) I took the stick away, and things settled down. Finally, we took Lyra back downstairs with her chew stick, while the other dog came into the main room (most of the food gone by then). After Group C left, I brought Lyra upstairs to see the remaining people, but kept her on a leash to keep some control of her movement. After Group B left, released the cat 🙂

Results: Lyra did not react (negatively) to a single person. She did a little resource guarding (all show, no contact) with the other dog but they otherwise got along well. Both dogs would have been happier upstairs — but I can’t think how that would have worked, given the food and number of people. I was able to focus on guests a lot of the time — when not visiting dogs or arranging for their care in the back yard. On the whole, then, it worked — but only because the other dog’s owner and I were able to improvise, thanks in large part to kids willing to help.

Conclusion: I need to spend more time crate training Lyra; to work her up to being happy in a crate or confined area even when interesting things are happening within earshot. She loves her crate and her safe zones, but not enough to ignore a party. However, I am very pleased that she was not at all distressed by the visitors themselves. I am also happy that I didn’t once feel worried. Bothered, a few times, but never worried — because of the “no access” rule with Group C.

Bottom line: Every minute spent planning ahead, and breaking down the problem, is worth it — even if things don’t go exactly according to plan. It helps to have a bottom line: everyone will be safe as long as … (fill in the blanks).

Lyra at the end of the day …

When all the guests had gone




4 comments on “Party + fearful dog: or, why I love planning

  1. This sounds excellent, Megan! I’ve done the management dance too, but never to this extent or with two dogs. Glad it went well and Lyra could chew it out and the end of the day.

    • Thank you, Janet! I should get Lyra a backpack to carry all the charts and plans for next time 🙂 Really, though, it ended up being very worth while — even if I did forget to hand out chocolates at the end 😛

  2. as a professional trainer of 21 years who specializes in aggression i must commend you on your efforts!!!! I wish my owners would put in half that much effort. to remain that hypervigilant to that degree of success is very rare. kudos to you and your team and good luck in the future!

    • Thank you. That means a lot to me — as I so often feel that I’m not figuring things out quickly enough to help Lyra. Management is our friend in the meantime 🙂

Leave a Reply