Updated: Jul 31, 2020
A woman offers to treats to a group of children dressed in various costumes that change their appearance and silhouette, including hats, masks, and capes.
One of my very favorite nights out of the entire year is quite possibly one of
the most terrifying and stressful nights for most of our canine companions:
I absolutely love making elaborate costumes and coming up with fancy make up and wigs to go along with them, and thankfully my dogs are not phased in the least. However, for many dogs, costumes are terrifying! (I won’t even go into the torture of dressing the dogs up themselves – see my post about treating dogs like dolls for that.) Dogs are very visually-oriented creatures and costumes often completely distort our outlines, thus making us unrecognizable to the dog (even if we smell and sound familiar – even creepier!). Add to that hoards of noisy children (also in scary costumes) that approach your door like evil intruders, yet they never enter (so that your dog cannot effectively determine whether they are friend or foe). Finally, there are bowls and/or sacks of delicious-smelling (but toxic) goodies everywhere and your dog gets scolded for trying to help himself to them. A very terrifying (or at the very least frustrating) night indeed!
So how do I prepare my dog for Halloween?
There are many things that can (and should) be done:
1) Teach your dog that common costume pieces and accessories (such as hats, beards, wigs, sunglasses, canes, etc) as well as lawn decorations are sources of good things – and do so carefully and positively! That means bring a bunch of extra yummy (read meaty and moist) treats with you and praise and treat your dog every time he sees something that could potentially be scary. Take it slowly and give your dog as much space as he needs. Doing this will also be beneficial in everyday life since hats, beards, big hair (or wigs), sunglasses, and canes, are all pretty common sights. (Be on the look out for my future blog post about the DO’s and DON’Ts of socializing, desensitizing, and counter-conditioning).
2) Teach your dog a good, strong Leave It. The trick is to teach him that if he “leaves” something, he can have something else. Otherwise he may decide to steal it after all!
Leave it is important so that your dog doesn’t help himself to the goodies before you can hand them out to the Trick-or-Treaters, but also for the days following Halloween. I make it a point to bring a grocery bag with me on walks for the first few days after Halloween so that I can collect the trash before someone’s dog who is not as well-trained as mine snatches it up. Chocolate and xylitol (found in “sugar-free” candies and gums) can be deadly. (Look for my upcoming blog post about the importance of Leave It and Impulse Control).
3) Teach you dog to go to a designated area (i.e. a Mat) when people come to the door. Mat training can keep you, your dogs, and your guests safe and calm, and it is also very beneficial for nervous dogs to have somewhere safe to go where ever you take them. (Yup, I have a blog post about Mat training in the works as well.)
What do I do if my dog is already terrified of Halloween?
While it is ideal for your dog to have only pleasant socialization experiences from the start, we don’t always have that luxury. If he already takes issue with the artificial headstones and plastic black cats on your neighbors’ lawns, we’ll need to create a plan for desensitization and counter-conditioning for your dog. As for the night of, you can also try the following:
Keep your dog in a central room of the house away from the comings and goings of Trick-or-Treaters, and play some soothing music (such as Through a Dog’s Ear) to drown out the chaos.
Try a plug-in pheromone device such as Comfort Zone with DAP (it takes 3-4 days to take full effect so be sure to plug it in about a week in advance) or use the separate spray on their bedding.
A Thundershirt (much like swaddling a babby may also be helpful (just be sure to make positive associations with it before using it for stressful situations). A Thundercap (a mesh hood they wear over their head) may also be helpful as it makes your dog’s vision hazy, making scary sights less visible.
A calming supplement such as Stress Free Calmplex, a supplement with tryptophan, or possibly even alcohol-free Valerian root extract may help without having sedative effects.
Please do not sedate your dog unless it is medically necessary to prevent self-injurious behaviors. While your dog may act calmer when medically sedated, it is only because he cannot move, not because he is emotionally calmer. Everything he sees and hears is just as scary as before except now he is trapped in his own body. Instead, you may want to try a calming supplement as suggested above. Just be sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding any medications and/or supplements.
Please do NOT take your dog Trick-or-Treating with you! There are way too many kids, way too many cars, and way too much candy/trash to be able to keep him safe, no matter how well trained and socialized he is.
Is there any hope to actually fix the problem?
When it comes to dogs who spook at lawn decorations on walks and run at the sound of anything that jingles, I have plenty of personal experience with that! I am proud to say that thanks to Grisha Stewart’s BAT technique and classical counter-conditioning, deflated nylon witches, “Witch Way?” lawn signs, and noisy belly dancer costumes are no longer the boogeyman for my dog. My reactive pooch is a (mostly) reformed scaredy cat, and on those rare occasions when she does spook, it is only momentary and only the first time she sees it. With some training guidance, a little work, and a lot of love, you too can achieve this success with your frightened fido!