Christmas with your service dog title image

Celebrating Christmas With Your Service Dog

Anyone who has a service dog knows that our service dogs are a part of the family. That means they’re a part of all gatherings and holidays, including Christmas. Christmas is full of new and exciting smells and decorations, but not all of them are safe for your dog. Help ensure that this holiday is fun and enjoyable for all members of the family (especially your service dog!), by planning ahead and taking the necessary precautions.

Christmas with a Service Dog Infographic

Mind Your Christmas Tree

Christmas TreeFor many people, a Christmas Tree is a central part of the winter holidays. There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to dogs and Christmas Trees:

  • Secure your tree firmly, so there is less risk of it falling over and injuring your pet. You can use rope or fishing line to attach the tree to a wall or the ceiling. If you have a puppy or a particularly boisterous and curious dog, you may need to put up a barrier around the tree, such as an x-pen.
  • Consider placing your Christmas tree in an out of the way location, like a corner or behind the couch, so it doesn’t present as much of a temptation to your dog.
  • If you have a live tree, keep your dog out of the tree water! It may contain bacteria, fertilizers and dangerous toxins which can make your dog ill. If possible, don’t put any additives into the tree water.
  • After you securely set up your tree, leave it bare for a few days to allow your dog to acclimate to the new addition. If the tree is less interesting at first you might be able to establish a habit of ignoring it that sticks around even after adding lights and other decorations.
  • Hold training sessions around the tree to help encourage and reward focus and calm behavior around the tree. Practice your Leave It, Down Stay, Place and Settle cues. Use it as a distraction to work on proofing your other cues and behaviors as well!
  • Ornaments – Keep all ornaments out of your dog’s reach. Small ornaments can cause blockages if ingested. Glass ornaments can be extremely dangerous if they fall and break. If your dog can’t be trusted around these items, put a barrier around your tree. Put more delicate and dangerous ornaments on the higher branches.
  • Tinsel is a sparkly and wonderful decoration that pets also find sparkly and wonderful! Unfortunately, like many other holiday decorations, tinsel poses a choking and obstruction hazard. If you choose to decorate with tinsel, make sure it’s out of reach of your dog.
  • Christmas lights can be a tempting chew toy for your dog. This can lead to electrocution from the wires, injuries from glass shards and burns from the lights. Keep lights secure and out of reach by using barriers or mounting them up high.
  • Consider putting something noisy, such as aluminum foil or plastic bottles filled with beans under and around your tree, as a warning that your dog is getting too curious.
  • If you have a live tree, keep the ground underneath it clear of pine needles as they fall off. These needles can injure your dog’s digestive tract if ingested.
  • Unless you really trust your dog, stay away from edible tree decorations like candy canes and popcorn garland. If your dog decides they want a taste they may pull the tree over onto themselves and ingest the decorations (including plastic wrappers and strings).

Gifts and Presents

Christmas GiftsIf you’re able and it’s in the budget, definitely go ahead and spoil your service dog with gifts!!! Our service dogs work hard all year round and it’s so fun to see them light up when they get a new ball or stuffy. You know your dog best, so make sure you buy appropriate and safe toys for your service dog’s size, as well as their play and chewing style.

Keep your dog safely out of the way while wrapping gifts. Wrapping paper, tape, stickers, ribbons, bows, and boxes can be very tempting toys for dogs. Scissors are obviously sharp and can cause injury if your dog is jumping around or grabs them. If you don’t trust your dog 110% to be calm and avoid these items it might be best to keep them in a crate or separate room while you wrap gifts.

As presents collect under the tree, keep an eye on your dog and their interest level. The last thing you want is gifts to be eaten. If your dog seems overly interested, put a barrier around the tree and the presents to limit access.

On Christmas morning (or whenever you open gifts), keep track of wrappings and packaging as you open gifts. Keep a dedicated trash can or trash bag available and put any debris immediately inside, out of the way of your dog. Most dogs find the packaging much more exciting than the presents and those pieces can cause choking, blockages, obstruction, cuts, punctures, and other injuries.

Do You Want Your Service Dog on Duty?

You’ll want to decide ahead of time whether you need your service dog in working or play mode. Your decision will be based partly on whether your dog is able to respond and assist you when needed even when they aren’t in a strict working mindset. Consider your disability and what task work you may need that day.

Take into account where you will be celebrating. Will you be staying at home? Will it take place at a family member’s home or even a public venue? If you are going to be in a public place that isn’t normally pet-friendly, such as a restaurant, your decision is easy. Your Service Dog should be in working mode for public access and on his/her best behavior. If you are going to be staying home or going to another private residence, you have more flexibility.

If you plan on attending church services, such as Christmas Eve mass, remember that churches do not fall under the ADA (see Q34 in the American’s with Disabilities Act FAQ) and are not required to allow your service dog (unless your state has laws addressing this situation). If you don’t regularly attend church with your service dog or are visiting a new church, your best course of action is to contact them well ahead of time. Explain your situation and ask permission it may not be any problem at all. If you are met with resistance, you’ll have plenty of time to find another location that is more welcoming.

Once you’ve decided what is best for your needs and as a team, make sure to communicate your decision clearly to your family, friends and those spending the holiday with you. If you are comfortable, let them know what your needs will be. It might also be helpful to provide concrete ways that they can support you and your dog if needed. Make sure that everybody is on the same page ahead of time. That way, expectations are clear and any potential disagreements can be ironed out beforehand, rather than during the festivities.

Are You Traveling Out of Town for the Holidays?

If you are planning on flying or driving out of town for Christmas, and are taking your service dog, you’ll need to prepare accordingly for the trip. The holidays can render airports especially hectic, so make sure you are well prepared.

For airplane travel:
  • Be sure that your service dog has the training they’ll need to work smoothly in the airport and on the plane. This includes working amongst crowds and a very solid tuck/down-stay.
  • Be prepared for going through security. This requires a rock solid sit or down-stay and fabulous recall.
  • Find out where the airport’s pet relief stations are, in case you need one.
  • Plan out your dog’s exercise, potty and food/water routine for the day before and day of travel. Restricting food and water before the trip can be helpful in ensuring your service dog doesn’t need to potty on the plane.
  • Consider bringing a travel mat of some kind for your dog to lay on in the plane. The floor is colder than you think!
  • Make sure you have all the supplies your dog needs on the trip.
  • Review the applicable laws (ACAA and the ADA) and print out copies to have with you if needed.
  • If you have an Emotional Support Animal or Psychiatric Service Dog, make sure you bring the appropriate documentation.
  • Bring copies of your dog’s important paperwork and medical records, just in case.

Related Reading: Flying With a Service Dog: A Guide for Service Dog Handlers

Road Trip in the Snow

For a road trip:
  • Secure your dog safely in the car while driving. (Read – Safe Travels: Driving With Your Service Dog)
  • Bring a first aid/emergency kit along for the ride, just in case.
  • Make sure you have all the supplies your dog needs on the trip.
  • Bring copies of your dog’s important paperwork and medical records.
  • Plan out opportunities along your route to potty your dog and let them stretch their legs.
  • Never leave your dog unattended in your vehicle.
For a hotel stay:
  • Review the applicable laws (ADA) and print out copies to have with you if needed.
  • Consider where your dog will sleep. Bring a pop-up crate, regular crate, travel mat, bed or whatever works best for your dog.
  • Make sure your service dog is comfortable eliminating in a strange place and on various surfaces. Figure out where you will potty your dog once you arrive.

Know Which Holiday Foods are Safe and Which Ones Aren’t

Christmas baked hamMany Christmas dishes are too rich and fatty for dogs. Fatty foods such as turkey skin, gravy, desserts, butter, and oils can cause Pancreatitis in dogs. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, the organ that helps digest food and controls blood sugar. Some signs of Pancreatitis include belly pain, appetite loss, vomiting, and diarrhea.

There are also many choking and obstruction risks from things like corn on the cob, cooked turkey bones, food packaging and more. Make sure to keep the turkey carcass well away from the edge of the counter or put away where your dog can’t jump up and consume it.

It’s extremely tempting to feed your service dog table scraps during the holidays, especially when they are looking at you with cute puppy-dog eyes. Even when you are able to resist, you still have to worry about family and friends slipping your dog a treat under the table. Inform others not to feed your service dog without your permission and watch out for those who may not listen. They may think you’re being cruel and unfair, but it is far more cruel for your dog to become ill due to your (or others’) lack of discipline. Be an advocate for your dog and stand up for their best interests.

Foods that are harmful to pets and should be avoided:
  • Eggnog
  • Alliums (onions, chives, garlic, leeks, scallions) – can cause toxic anemia in larger quantities.
  • Stuffing (may contain alliums, herbs, spices, etc)
  • Gravy and fatty sides – can cause Pancreatitis and other issues.
  • Cooked bones – can splinter in the digestive tract.
  • Turkey skin – very fatty and covered in herbs, butter, oils and spices that are difficult to digest.
  • Corn on the cob – choking and obstruction risk.
  • Grapes, raisins, and currants – can cause kidney failure.
  • Walnuts and Macadamia nuts – can cause “macadamia nut toxicosis”.
  • Xylitol (a sweetener found in nut butters, baked goods, and gum)
  • Chocolate (look out for baking chocolate in recipes).
  • Nutmeg (in sweet potato dishes and desserts) – can cause seizures, central nervous system issues, and death.
  • Sage – can cause an upset stomach.
  • Alcohol (can be found in some desserts as well).
  • Yeast dough (don’t leave to rise where your dog can get it!) – the gas and ethanol by-products can be life-threatening.

If you believe your service dog may have ingested a dangerous food or another item, immediately contact your veterinarian, nearest emergency veterinarian and/or the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline: 888-426-4435.

Feel bad that your dog is missing out? Here are some safe foods for your dog to enjoy. Keep in mind, even safe foods, if your dog isn’t used to them, can cause digestive upset. So keep new foods to a minimum if you choose to offer them.

**If your dog is allergic to any of these foods or has other health complications, please refrain from feeding them unless approved by your veterinarian. 

Foods that are usually safe:
  • Pumpkin puree
  • Plain ham (no skin or bones)
  • Plain turkey (white meat, no skin or bones)
  • Green beans
  • Carrots
  • Apple slices
  • Plain sweet potato
  • Check out these cute Christmas-themed dog recipes!

Watch Doors and Exits

The holidays can be stressful for both humans and dogs. With so many people coming and going, there is a higher risk of your dog escaping. Unless you are 110% certain that your dog won’t try to run through an open door, take the proper precautions to keep them secure. Make sure guests know there is a dog present and to be aware when they are opening an outside door. Consider tethering your dog to you with a leash or utilizing baby-gates to contain them in a safe area. Watch the exits when guests arrive and leave, and know where your dog is at all times.

Put a collar and identifying tags on your service dog before the event starts. Check ahead of time to be sure that your dog’s tags are up-to-date with accurate information in case they escape. Even if you are pretty sure that nothing will happen, it’s far better to be prepared just in case.

Keep an Eye On Children Around Your Dog

2 children and a dog

Most likely, there will be some attendees that are not as dog-savvy as you. No matter how prepared you and your service dog are for the event, you still need to keep a keen eye out for the dangers that others pose to your dog’s safety. You should be especially vigilant if there are other pets and children present.

While some children know how to be polite and appropriate around dogs, many don’t. Be sure to protect your dog from children who might feed your dog something dangerous, accidentally let them escape through a door, or be physically rough such as jumping on, sitting on, pulling on or hitting your dog.

Even if your dog is well-mannered and tolerant (which a service dog should be), you can’t control how other dogs, cats or other pets may react to your dog and the Christmas celebrations. If you are visiting someone else’s home, be sure to discuss with them ahead of time how they think their pets (if they have any) will deal with the situation. Unless you are extremely familiar with the other animals, proceed with caution. Look out for resource guarding (especially with all of the high-value foods around) and body language that indicates stress from both your dog and the other pets.

Sometimes Staying Home is the Best Choice

Relaxing by the fireplaceIf you can’t guarantee your dog’s safety, and the host isn’t willing to put their pets safely away, it might be best to leave your service dog at home or to stay home yourself. This situation might also come up if the host is resistant to you bringing your service dog for any reason. This is a very difficult dynamic to find yourself in. Not everybody understands the important role that a service dog fills, especially if you have an invisible disability or if others aren’t aware of how your disabilities affect you. Ignorance isn’t an excuse for discrimination, of course, but it does happen sometimes, and if we’re dealing with a private residence, they have the right to make their own rules.

Do your best to educate if you can. In the end, though, you need to do what is best for you and your service dog. You need to make sure that you are both safe. If that means staying home, try to make the best of the situation. Find a good support system that understands what you are going through that you can vent and cry to. Chances are that there are other handlers out there at that very moment dealing with the same thing.

More Holiday Hazards to Keep in Mind

Sometimes hazards come from places that you wouldn’t expect. Here are some dangers to have on your radar:

Plants – Many festive plants are dangerous if consumed by your dog. These include amaryllis, baby’s breath, lilies, hydrangeas, sweet william, poinsettias, holly berries, mistletoe and more. Wondering if your plants are safe? Assume they aren’t and keep them out of reach until you are able to look through ASPCA’s extensive list of toxic and non-toxic plants.

Holiday decorations – Holiday decorations and gifts can be made up of small and/or toxic parts. Centerpieces might have glass pieces or be created from toxic plants (see above). Artificial snow can cause intestinal blockages.

Candles – Candles can be knocked over by your dog and lead to burns and a fire in your home. If you want to decorate with candles, use secure and sturdy holders and keep them out of reach of your dog.

Stockings – Keep your Christmas stockings securely hung out of reach of your dog. Stockings especially usually hold very small items so keep them away from your pets.

Wires – Wires from Christmas lights and other decorations can present a hazard for your dog. Keep wires out of reach or behind a barrier. Electric wires can cause electric shock when chewed. Unplug wires when you leave the house if you have to leave your dog behind or consider keeping your dog safely in a crate.

Trash – Items such as food covered tinfoil, food packaging, turkey carcasses (which may have strings and plastic bags inside, not to mention the cooked bones), toxic food remnants and more are waiting to be discovered by your dog in the trash. Keep trash cans locked and behind closed doors to protect your service dog from needing a late night emergency vet visit.

Cooking appliances and kitchen tools – Cooking Christmas dinner requires hot appliances, such as the oven or stove, as well as sharp items like knives and corn on the cob holders. Keep these tools well out of the reach of your service dog and check to be sure they are well out of harms way before opening the oven or carrying hot foods.

Purses and coats – The belongings of guests are a minefield of hazardous objects. Visitors may bring in harmful medications, gum sweetened with xylitol, cigarettes, chocolate, sharp objects, or other substances. Make sure that all coats and purses are securely behind closed doors and off the floor where your dog could get into them.

Have a Wonderful Holiday!

Christmas may present some unique challenges for you and your service dog, but by keeping these points in mind and preparing beforehand you can have a wonderful holiday.

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Service Dog Society
The Service Dog Society is dedicated to the education, training and support of service dog handlers, their friends and family, service dog trainers and programs, puppy raisers, businesses, the general public, and anybody else who has questions about these marvelous helpers.Our goal is to provide as much information as possible, in a centralized location and in an easy-to-follow format. We know first hand how overwhelming the process of getting and/or training a service dog can be, for everyone involved! Our hope is to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty that is a part of the process.