Halloween Can Be Tricky for Dogs – Here’s How to Make It a Treat!
By Joan Hunter Mayer
Halloween can be a little tricky for pets, but with a little advanced preparation, we can make it a real treat for our dogs!* The first step is to make sure they are safe – and that they feel safe. Next, we can harness this opportunity to practice a few key dog training skills. And lastly, believe it or not, we’ll explore how to go about teaching dogs to enjoy playing dress-up!
When it comes to keeping your pets safe during this – and every – holiday, the most essential trick up your sleeve is managing the environment the best you can. Start by keeping any dangerous items - candy, candles, decorations dogs can chew or be injured by- out of Fido’s reach. Get the whole family on board with puppy-proofing the home, no matter the age of your ‘puppy.’
Once you’ve addressed any potential physical dangers, think about threats to your pal’s emotional well-being. If your dog is fearful of Halloween sights and sounds, you can help him out. When possible, spend time creating positive associations beforehand (perhaps with the help of a force-free dog trainer or behavior consultant). Again – look at the home environment and consider adjustments such as a sign on the door asking people not to ring the bell and creating a comfy, calm, safe area for pup to retreat to. If necessary, hire a pet sitter to stay with your pooch where he is most comfortable until things calm down at home.
There’s Nothing Tricky about Training with Treats
We expect a lot from our dogs during holidays, especially Halloween. So, it can be helpful to think about the behaviors we want and expect our canine companions to know at times like these and plan ahead. Treating your dog to some enriching training games helps train it before you need it.
For example, when the doorbell rings, or there’s a knock at the door, what would you like your pup to do? Go to a bed, mat or crate? Or perhaps practice sit-stay near the front door? Decide on a strategy and then set your dog up for success! Teach the skill. Practice it. And then apply it to real-life situations, such as these:
• Leave It – A very useful cue, when properly trained, ‘Leave it’ means, “Stop what you’re doing and check in with me for an incredible reward!” Lovingly teaching dogs this cue will help in case they accidentally end up around candy that fell on the floor, other interesting edibles they shouldn’t have, or shiny decorations that might look like tempting toys!
• Go to Your Place – The goal here is that eventually, on cue, Fluffy lies down on her mat or “place” when people come to the door, even trick-or-treaters. A fun way to shape this behavior, using people she is familiar with, is to have your kids dress up in costume and trick-or-treat at their own house for practice!
• Sit and Stay – Of course it’s even better, and safer, for your pup not only to go to a mat, but to stay there until the door is closed. So, use treats to teach your doggo to sit and stay when you go to the door and when people are coming and going. Practicing these cues gives Fido something to do that is incompatible with jumping on people or darting through an open door!
• Polite Greetings: To take it a step further, greeting people politely when cued, even strangers coming to the door, wearing funny, and sometimes scary, outfits, is a great skill to teach - or brush up on.
• Loose leash walking - To the extent it’s possible, only take dogs out who are comfortable around distractions; you might plan to adjust your dog walking schedule or route on Halloween. Otherwise, be prepared for walking by kids, adults – and even pets- in costumes and/or homes decked out with decorations designed to startle.
As you work through each of these training skills, gradually start to incorporate the challenges you anticipate such as doorbells ringing, doors opening and closing, people and pets in costumes and so on. Remember to schedule plenty of dress rehearsals before Halloween night.
We Don’t Want Dogs to Tolerate Wearing Costumes; We Want Them to Love It!
Pets in costumes… a bit of a hot button issue for some. And sometimes, it is kindest to just skip it. However, please note, we can use the same process here that we do to help a pup acclimate to a new harness for leash walks, a coat in the winter, or a safety vest for swimming. It’s a very useful (dog) training method called classical conditioning. This gradual process allows dogs to develop a ‘positive conditioned response,’ the fancy scientific term for creating happy excitement automatically when seeing or experiencing something that was once neutral. You know how some dogs see their leash and start doing the “Yay! Walkies!” dance? The sight of the leash predicts a fun outing. It’s a conditioned response.
So, back to the task at hand – or paw. When it comes to encouraging dogs to love wearing costumes, we can rehearse playing dress-up. After all, ‘dress rehearsals’ of any dog training skill are important. Repetition allows for building a solid foundation while having opportunities to troubleshoot and refine along the way.
In this situation, it’s important to start slowly, and build slowly, to help your dog acclimate to – and enjoy - his new duds! Here are the steps we recommend for dress(-up) rehearsals:
• Simply show your dog the outfit (or sweater, jacket, harness, etc.).
• Whenever the outfit (item) appears, pup gets yummy treats (dog treats, not Halloween candy!).
• Please note - the order of events is most important: outfit first, followed by treats. No outfit, no treats.
• Next gently touch your dog with the costume – or clothing item. Then give a treat.
• Gradually start to dress him. Then give a treat.
• Remember to use baby steps so as not to overwhelm your canine pal. Taking breaks between sessions is key to avoiding frustration for pets and people.
• Repeat the above steps until your dog shows interest (not concern) at the first step – just seeing the item.
• Eventually, get him fully dressed. Then give a treat.
At this point, you can make sure that the costume fits well, so he can’t trip over it, wiggle out of it, or chew it off. You also want to make sure he can move freely and comfortably in it.
And there you have it. Our tips and tricks for unleashing Halloween fun with your best friends – or best fiends - while having some fright-less fun along the way. Wishing you all a safe and happy Howl-o-ween!
*No matter where you and your inquisitive canine are celebrating, please abide by all COVID protocols. Things aren’t as they used to be, but we can still get to have some sort of Halloween fun! If trick-or-treating isn’t on the official list, you can always practice and play at home or socially distanced with other like-minded folks.
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!