Halloween is a favorite holiday for many, myself included, but it can be trickier for some of our dogs to enjoy. My favorite October memories with my own canine kiddos over the years include Preston winning a costume contest “naked” as a dinosaur, with pet-safe colored spikes, me dressing up AS Preston (with a full-on fluffy lion mane face!) on a national tv show, and attending dozens of charity fundraisers, judging doggie trick and costume contests.
For a well-adjusted, confident dog, Halloween can be filled with fun socialization experiences. But for a puppy or fearful dog, the weeks leading up to Halloween can feel more like a horror story! The good news is, YOU can make a difference, with positive-reinforcement training and environmental management.
Here are six common Halloween celebratory aspects, and how to best prepare your dog so it’s more of a treat for them:
- Lights, Camera, Costume!
Many people want to get in the Halloween spirit by dressing up in costumes, and who doesn’t love dressing up their dog?! It can be fun to show them off to others, not only in real life, but in pics posted on social media channels. Humans are very accustomed to wearing clothing, but dogs’ experiences and feelings about wearing items can vary greatly. Some dogs can also be body-sensitive, and not feel comfortable in unnecessary clothing.
It’s important to recognize your dog’s body language and signals, and be respectful. Choosing the appropriate costume is also important…some costumes may be as simple as a t-shirt, while others have components that may be harder for a dog to tolerate, like a mask or a headpiece. It’s important to prepare ahead of time with desensitization. Practice putting on one component of a costume at a time, and feed your dog really delicious treats. You can also play their favorite game while they’re in costume. By having the costume come out and on briefly, and always followed by great treats and play, you will make it a more positive experience for them. It’s important to go at their pace and not rush this. In time, you should be able to put on the entire costume and have a good time.
Make sure whatever costume you get is size-appropriate for your dog. If it’s too loose or too tight, they will have a harder time. Kind of like the pre-pandemic days when I’d feel pressured to walk a red carpet in a dress and heels… awkward! The difference is, humans have a choice about what we wear and when. So please, be mindful to take the costume off if your dog is showing signs of stress. Some dogs may be able to tolerate a costume for longer periods of time than others. Be respectful and observant, giving your dogs breaks even before they show any stress signs. This way you will ensure your dog doesn’t get too overwhelmed and will enjoy costumes for years to come.
And for those social media photos… it can be harder for dogs to give their best pose if they are uncomfortable. For best success, you can take practice photos of your dog without a costume so you both can learn how to get the best shots before that costume goes on. And once your desensitization process is complete, you can do test poses, and test shots so that, by the holiday’s arrival, you are both ready to have a great time showing off your creativity.
If your dog simply does NOT like wearing a costume… not to fear! You can still join the fun by my FAVORITE option… a naked dog costume, thanks to colored, creative grooming
For those of you whose dogs are super comfortable dressing up, they can even consider a part-time career as a canine model! Here are my girls, Penelope Supafly & Delilah Jane Sassafras, modeling for California Costumes. Can you believe they got paid to do this? Pretty awesome! You can see the finished image, along with behind the scenes action below:
Delilah aka Rambo:
Penelope aka Peacock:
- Daring Seasonal Decor
Halloween decorations can be silly or scary, or anywhere in between, for all of us. For dogs, they can certainly be strange and evoke anything from curiosity to pure fear. It’s important to NEVER force your dog to approach anyone or anything that they do not wish to approach. If your dog is backing away (avoiding) or lunging and barking, do not continue to try and coax the dog to continue moving toward it. Instead, walk away and provide space and safety for them, and have high-value treats (such as bits of hot dogs or boiled chicken–whatever your dog will LOVE) ready to give at a distance where they are more comfortable, as they look at the person or decoration.
You can take your dog out to places where there are decorations and practice having them investigate, at their pace, while getting these yummy treats. This could be in your neighborhood on a walk, in a car ride, or by going to a store that is dog-friendly (such as some Lowe’s and Home Depots, for instance) to also practice. By practicing treating your dog with DELICIOUS food as they notice these strange decorations, you can help your dog form more positive associations and be more comfortable.
- Very Hungry Visitors
On Halloween night, there will be many ravenous visitors wanting yummy human treats, so it’s important to have a plan in place for your dog to be safe. Please do not expect your dog to go to the door to greet all visitors. There are several problems with this: first, your dog might get scared; second, visitors may not want to be greeted by your dog; and third, your dog may bolt and escape.
A better approach would be to have management in place, such as having your dog in a crate or X-pen, or using a gate to contain them in another area. Another alternative would be to tether your dog to a cozy spot, with the leash connected to their harness. You can train for this in advance by teaching your dog to go to and lie on a mat, and gradually adding distractions. Have a family member or friend practice with you by visiting at the door. With lots of treats ready, you can reinforce your dog being on his or her place. You can also get a Treat & Train to work on this… it’s a great tool and it comes with a booklet on how to use it for all sorts of training!
Also, if your dog barks at the doorbell or knocking, you can desensitize them in advance by making a recording of the bell/knocks and playing it at a very low volume to start. After each sound, give your dog a treat. By playing it at a low volume, you’ll minimize the potential for barking, so you can reinforce quiet along with create a more positive association to door-related noise. Over time you can increase the volume little by little, and then ring the actual doorbell. Likewise, with knocks, you can make soft knocks around the house leading up to the front door using the same kind of process. Bell or knock at lower intensity = treat, then gradually increase the intensity and continue to give treats each time the sound happens.
If you don’t have time to desensitize your dog, you can deactivate the bell and/or hang signs asking visitors not to knock, or even have candy waiting outside so visitors can take a treat and leave without having to make you answer the door. I’ve even seen people design crazy creative, Covid-safe “candy chutes” which are perfect for creating extra space for your dog from trick or treaters!
- Hauntingly Good Gatherings
Some places, such as local pet stores, have dog-friendly Halloween events that you may aspire to participate in with your pooch. Not all dogs, however, will want to do this. Dogs are very much like humans, in that they all have differing levels of sociability. Some are more outgoing and love meeting others while some really do not enjoy being petted, or being around other strange dogs. If your dog doesn’t enjoy wearing a costume or being out in the world, please don’t force your dog into these situations. They will be more comfortable at home while you go partake in the festivities.
If your dog is a social butterfly, then it’s still important to be mindful of his or her signals. Leave before your dog gets too tired or stressed. Likewise, make sure your dog isn’t overwhelming other dogs or people either. Being observant of what is going on with your dog and others will make it a fun event for all involved.
- Safer Sweet Snacking
Please remember that Halloween candy can be very dangerous for dogs. Chocolate and artificial sweeteners such as xylitol, are toxic and can cause death. Teaching LEAVE IT and DROP IT can be very useful so that, if your dog notices something, or grabs at something, you have training in place to be proactive. At the very least, having really awesome treats your dog LOVES nearby or on you to lure them away or trade for whatever they may have grabbed, is extremely important.
- Tricks Fur Treats
Halloween tricks and inspired enrichment can be a really fun way to include your dog in the holiday. You could teach your dog to “play dead”, “strike-a-pose” like a zombie, howl like a ghost, or even carry a pumpkin trick-or-treat basket! For enrichment, you could use carved-out pumpkin or squash to make a delightful stuffed treat for them to lick while relaxing with DogTV.
So bark to me friends… do you think your dogs are feeling festive or frightful about Halloween? What ideas do you have to support them? Will you be celebrating socially-distanced, or masked up outside?
What have you done in the past that you can share with other readers for inspiration? Let us know in the comments below, and have a safe and fun Halloween!
Laura Nativo, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP