Tips & Tricks to Make Howl-o-Ween a Treat for Your Dog!

For many dogs, Halloween is anything but a treat

Autumn has arrived.  Daylight comes later, night falls earlier.  The leaves, they are a changin’.  The air is crisp, cool, and refreshing.  The squirrels are frantically building their winter foodstuffs.  The dogs are pleased with the cooler weather, particularly my boy Monte, who simply wilts in the heat of the summer.

The humans are scurrying, preparing for Halloween.  A time of candy, costumes, and…some unhappy dogs.

There are a few cautions and considerations pet owners should keep in mind at this time of year to keep their dogs physically and emotionally safe.  Your dog counts on you to keep him safe.  Part of the package that comes along with “unconditional love” for our canines includes an obligation to provide for their well-being.

Dog costumes

FACT:  Humans like dressing up for Halloween.

FACT:  Some humans like dressing up dogs for Halloween.

FACT:  Many dogs hate wearing costumes.

Does your dog run away when you get his costume out?  That might be a good hint that he doesn’t like it and doesn’t want to wear it.  When he has it on, what does his body language tell you?  We’ve talked in some previous entries about the signals that dogs use to communicate when they are stressed, anxious, fearful, happy, playful, etc.

If your dog yawns, scratches, or looks away frequently, freezes in place and does not move, shakes as though wet when he is dry, displays the whites of his eyes, trembles, pins his ears back, or tucks his tail, chances are he is trying to tell you he doesn’t like his costume.  Look for any one of these signals repeated frequently or clusters of two or more signals when trying to determine your dog’s stress level.

Most dogs can learn to like wearing clothes through systematic desensitization.  This can be a lot of work, particularly for a dog who is already fearful.  Is it worth the time?

I think that depends.  Do you expect your dog to wear clothes frequently?  If so, it will definitely be a good investment of your time to desensitize your dog to wearing clothes.  Mokie has to wear a bright red jacket with reflective stripes when she is in the woods with me during hunting season as a safety precaution.  Do you have an Italian Greyhound in upstate New York?  Since your dog may need a jacket half the year, it is worth putting in the time to do some systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.

If you are thinking you’d only want to dress your dog for Halloween, I’d implore you to reconsider your decision.  Despite the fact that your dog may look ridiculously adorable dressed up as a chicken or piglet, he may not like wearing a costume.  He shouldn’t have to endure being uncomfortable for an extended period of time simply to amuse people.

I am not trying to say that ALL dogs hate getting dressed up, but I think dogs that actively enjoy being costumed are in the minority.

People costumes

Some dogs bark at every human wearing sunglasses.  Or people with mohawks.  Or bearded men wearing hats.  Or individuals who use a wheelchair, walker or crutches.  These types of reactions can, for the most part, be prevented through diligent socialization starting in infancy.

In evolutionary terms, it makes sense that any animal would instinctively react with suspicion to foreign creatures, particularly bigger animals, animals one has never encountered before.  It’s a basic instinct for survival and self-preservation.  For the most part, new creatures fall into the “guilty until proven innocent” category (“not safe” until proven “safe”).

I imagine that for dogs, seeing their people in Halloween costumes can be likened to a dog owner returning home one day to find the beloved family dog now only is recognizable by his face, but has seven eyes, the wings of an ostrich, the body of a walrus, , hooved feet, a tail like a snake, big elephant ears and tusks.  How would YOU react?!

GAH!  What the heck is that thing?!  Is that my dog?

Despite your years of companionship, suddenly your dog looks nothing like the dog you remembered cuddling when you woke up that morning.  You would be suspicious, cautious.  Would you run up to this odd beast, hoping for the friendly, smoochy greeting your dog usually reserves for your entry?  Most likely, no.  Even if your dog offers normal greeting gestures (for Mokie, wrapping her paws around my arm and for Monte, grabbing a toy and leaning into me with all his weight), these friendly overtures may not be enough to trump your suspicion.

Would you scream?  Run away?

This is how I imagine many dogs perceive Halloween.

If you’re in a costume, your dog might think you are a bit scary.  He may hackle, back away from you, run to his crate, growl. He is not being aggressive, he’s afraid, confused, or both.

Just like you would be to greet Mr. Snake-Tail-Hooved-Feet-Ostrich-Wings-Elephant-Ears-and-Tusks.  Even if you say the things you normally say to greet your dog, touch him in the manner you normally touch him, he still may be suspicious.  Nothing in his doggy life has prepared him for all humans to turn into monsters one day a year.

I often talk about incorporating Halloween costume attire (crazy wigs and masks, big sunglasses, silly hats, etc.) into classes.

In puppy classes, I’d work socialization exercises where the puppies were given many positive experiences by costumed people.  Make a game out of it.

For more advanced dogs, a mask, wig, or pair of sunglasses often puts an end to any cue response.  Why?

The natural language of dogs is body language.  They are constantly reading our facial expressions and body movements.  Subtle changes in our body language or expression can easily become part of the “cue picture” the dog perceives.  When the picture changes, so does the behavioral response.

That’s why it’s good to evaluate your dog’s cue response when you are wearing glasses, bathing suits, snow suits, Halloween costumes, masks, oven mitts, various sorts of hats, even with a paper bag over your head (you’ll need someone else to click).  Doing so will teach you the limitations of your cues…just how well does your dog understand your communications?  What changes seem to make your cue fall apart?  Work hard to clean those cues up, and to eliminate extraneous body movements.  Practicing in front of a mirror, videotaping, or have a friend give feedback will also help.

Not to sound silly, but if you want your dog to respond to a “sit” cue despite the fact that you are serving as the rear end in a double-person horse costume for Halloween, you’ll need to practice cueing in that context.  You on Halloween.  Nice tail!

Although your dog may “know” sit, does he know it if you are masquerading as a horse’s rump?  Probably not.  Get to practicing!

Lawn ornaments

Going for a walk through a neighborhood decked out in Halloween regalia can be a scary situation for many dogs.  Ten feet high inflatable ghosts, scarecrows, animated dummies popping out of caskets, ghosts hanging out of trees, motion sensor Halloween sound machines (making howling noises, screaming noises, scary laugh noises, etc.) abound.  This can be scary for toddlers and dogs.

You can use positive training techniques to reduce or eliminate your dog’s fear of these objects.

First, find out how far away you need to be for your dog to notice the object but still be able to focus on and work with you (called a “threshold).  This may be ten or a hundred feet.  If your dog won’t eat, he is too close.  If your dog normally takes treats nicely but is nipping at your hands for treat, it likely means you are nearing his threshold and soon, he will stop eating and focusing and begin reacting. Use really good treats for this.  You want to find the distance where the dog notices the object but is still able to focus on you and able to work/train/offer known behaviors.

Once you find your dog’s threshold, you can play the “Look at That” game as described by Leslie McDevitt in her phenomenal book Control Unleashed.  Also practice cueing your dog for behaviors he loves performing at a distance and slowly work closer to the object.  Your job is to avoid stimulating your dog to the point where he is over threshold.  If you have a heavily decorated neighborhood and a very fearful dog, you may want to drive to a less-decorative neighborhood during the Halloween season.

For more information, consider picking up a copy of Patrica McConnell’s “Cautious Canine,” a short booklet which will guide you to helping your dog blossom into a confidant canine!

Many strange visitors

Just like dogs can be frightened when we wear costumes, so too can they be afraid of the many guests arriving in costume throughout the night of Halloween or at Halloween parties.

Personally, I don’t want my dogs to have any negative or fearful associations with little ones, regardless of what they are wearing.  Since I know costumed people can stress the dogs out, I prefer to go to a quiet place Halloween evening with them where we can relax.  I’m one of those suckers that leaves a basket of candy on the front porch, which surely gets stolen quickly after it is put out.

Additionally, many dogs get jumpy, nippy, etc., when greeting new visitors.  While these behaviors can be annoying when they are directed toward adult visitors, they can be downright dangerous when a young child rings the doorbell at the top of the stairs and is then plowed over by an exuberant dog.

Also, remember that dogs are more likely to react aggressively and out of self-preservation when fearful.  Costumes can be scary, people screaming “TRICK OR TREAT!” can be scary.  Constant strangers arriving throughout the night can be scary.  All of these factors can combine to increase the likelihood of a dog bite.  Watching your dog for stress signals and managing the environment through giving him a quiet place to relax will prevent your dog from feeling he needs to defend himself from scary Halloween “monsters.”

Just as many dogs do not like being costumed; many dogs do not like being door-greeters on Halloween, people at the door may inadvertently reinforce unwanted behaviors like jumping or nipping.  Many dogs may unintentionally find themselves in trouble for finally shouting what they have been hinting at with subtle body signals all along, “I don’t like this.  Get me out of here!”

Pranksters

I remember a beautiful Halloween evening a few years back.  I was surprised at the unseasonably warm weathers.  It is rare to see a Halloween in the mid-70 degrees range in upstate New York.  Those who grew up or live around here might remember many Halloweens spent wearing snow suits under your Halloween costume; which was necessary but embarrassingly dorky looking.

I got out of work, excited to go for a walk with Mokie on the beautiful evening.  I live a short distance from a lovely park in a very quiet residential neighborhood.  As we walked down the street, eggs started shattering on the sidewalk in front of Mokie.  She jumped back, afraid.  I was, to put it mildly, furious.

People do stupid stuff on Halloween that puts other people, pets and property at risk.  Companion animals are not immune from a human’s poor-decision making on Halloween or any other night.  It is up to us to supervise our animals well and ensure their safety every day and night, but especially around Halloween.  It is the season of pranks; many of which are harmless, and many of which are not.  It is always better to be safe than sorry.  Do not leave your dog unattended outside.  Do not allow strangers to feed your dog on Halloween unless you provide them with the treats.

Candy dangers

Chocolate is bad for dogs.  Raisins are bad for dogs.  Macadamia nuts are bad for dogs.  Check out Which Foods are Poisonous to Dogs from vetinfo.com to find out more about which foods your dog should avoid both at Halloween and throughout the year.  Keep candies, raisins, chocolates, and other dangerous temptations out of his reach.

Hopefully, you can see how and why Halloween can be such a scary holiday for dogs.  If you are going to be staying home and accepting Trick or Treaters or having a party, it is a good idea to have plenty of stuffed Kongs, bones, bully sticks, and toys for your dog to play with in a special area of the house where he feels safe and is able to distance himself from the festivities (a crate or a quiet room).

I love Halloween as much as the next gal.  I’m not asking that humans enjoy Halloween any less, only that we think of the well-being of our companion animals during this wonderful autumn celebration.  Managing your dog’s physical and emotional well-being during the season will prevent your dog from seeing Halloween as “howl-o-mean!”

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