Megan’s Musings: Halloween: Less Tricks, More Treats

The world can be scary for our dogs on any given day due to the variety of new situations, people or objects they can run into. Many of our holidays are stressful and potentially scary for dogs, but Halloween is one that can be just as scary for dogs as it is for some people. All of the sudden, dogs are faced with strange things on lawns that may move or make noises, bizarre looking creatures they have never seen before and there is a lot of excitement in the air that can make them nervous. However, Halloween does not need to be scary for your dog! In fact, this is a great opportunity for training and socialization. In this post, I am going to share some of the key areas you should focus on for preparing your dog to ensure everyone can have a safe and happy Halloween! Fill this Halloween with more treats and less tricks for your dog!

Costumes Seeing your dog in a costume may be too cute to resist, but could actually be quite stressful and unenjoyable for them. Do not just put a costume on your dog right before taking them out in it. Take the time to slowly introduce the costume to ensure they are comfortable to wear it and to avoid them fussing at it and trying to remove it.

  1. At first, let you dog investigate the costume; let them approach, smell it and touch the material. Reward them with small treats for these interactions and to begin introducing it as a positive item.
  2. If there are multiple parts of the costume, put one piece on at a time. Reward your dog with treats, praise calmly and start with only short intervals.
  3. Ensure your dog is comfortable and does not fuss. If at anytime, they fuss or show signs of stress, you are putting the item on too quickly or for too long. Take your time with this as you slowly introduce the costume to your dog.
  4. If you are not making progress, talk with your trainer, try another costume or just realize they may be ready for a costume yet this year. By listening to your dog and working at their pace, you will see much more progress over their lifetime then you will if you try to force them into being comfortable.

Decorations Halloween has become a time when people are filling their yards with new and scary decorations. All of these new items suddenly appearing on the neighbourhood walks can be overwhelming for your dog. And do not forget about the impact the decorations in your yard may have. It may seem amusing and silly to us, but for your dogs, these can create extreme stress and anxiety. Be sure to take the time to slowly introduce your own decorations and pair them with food rewards to ensure your dog is comfortable with all of them.

For decorations at your home:

  1. Ensure they are powered off and place them a safe distance away from your dog. Reward your dog with treats for approaching the items and toss treats towards them if they are too nervous to approach.
  2. Work at your dog’s pace and do short sessions. Take the time to introduce the decorations, especially with any that move or make sound, so that they do not startle your dog and cause them to be even more afraid of them.
  3. Be sure to take the time to introduce decorations appropriately before putting them up in your home or yard. Reward frequently, keep sessions short and work at your dog’s pace.
  4. If they are too nervous of an item, do not put the item out or keep it at a distance your dog is comfortable with. Work with the other decorations and continue to socialize your dog so that they may be more comfortable for future Halloweens.

For decorations when you are out on walks:

  1. Cross the street if you dog is nervous, and work at a distance they are comfortable with. Reward them for looking at the decorations, offering you attention and if they approach.
  2. If they are unsure, lay a trail of treats to get closer, but do not rush to get right up to the decoration on the first attempt.
  3. Take your time, keep sessions short and ensure your dog is comfortable and taking treats.
  4. If they are too nervous, avoid these houses until after Halloween when the decorations have been put away and work on ones that your dog is not so nervous with.

Trick-or-Treaters Having the doorbell ring all night with strange creatures on the other side can be a terrifying experience for your dog. Even if your dog is not scared of the trick-or-treaters, it can be a frustrating time for you if your dog becomes too excited with the doorbell. Children may also be scared of dogs, so it is important that your dog is not at the door to greet them when you first open the door. The first step to ensure success is to teach door manners by following the below steps:

  1. Ring the doorbell (your dog can see you do this as they are likely to still get excited).
  2. Cue the dog to go to their kennel or behind their gate and lure them to their spot. Do not physically pull them, but lure them. Drop treats on the ground, if needed, to keep them moving. It may take a while at first, but with practice, it will quickly speed up! *Note: your dog must be kennel trained or comfortable behind a gate. 
  3. Toss the treats in the kennel or behind the gate, and close the door/gate behind them.
  4. Walk away and wait for your dog to settle. Stay out of sight and ignore all barking or whining. If this it too much for your dog, start with just closing the gate, rewarding your dog and letting them back out. Slowly build up the time and distance and then being able to walk out of sight.
  5. Once your dog settles, walk back to them (turn and walk away if they begin to bark/whine again). Let the dog out and completely ignore them and go about your business. We want to teach them that coming out is no big deal. The good stuff happens behind the gate and we want them coming out in a calm manner.
  6. Repeat until your dog happily goes behind the gate/into their kennel and is calm. Expect that you will always have some initial barking, but the dog should quickly go to their spot when they hear the doorbell versus running to the door.
  7. Repeat all of the above with family members or people your dog knows and is comfortable with coming to the front door and ringing the doorbell. Have family members do this every time they come home and set this up with friends/family who your dog knows and is comfortable with.
  8. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!

For introducing your dog to costumes:

  1. This can be difficult to fully prepare for as there will be such a range of children and costumes coming to your dog, so be sure to follow the above door manners steps.
  2. You can prepare your dog by putting on various costume items and pairing them with food rewards. Reward your dogs for all good behaviour and if they approach and/or investigate what you are wearing.
  3. If they are too nervous to approach, take the item off and place it on the floor to start. Be sure to reward your dog for looking at and/or approaching the item.
  4. Have a variety of people put on costumes and show them as many new items as possible and then practice with them coming in the door after ringing the doorbell.
  5. Remember to keep your sessions short, reward frequently and work at your dog’s pace!

Treats To keep our dogs safe, we must ensure that Halloween treats are out of their reach! Ingredients such as chocolate and xylitol (and artificial sweetener) can not only make our dogs sick, but can also be fatal. Do not risk it and always keep treats put away somewhere safe where you can be guaranteed they cannot get them. Wrappers can also cause blockage or be fatal to our dogs if they ingest them, so ensure you throw them out as soon as you unwrap any of your delicious treats! Don’t forget to get some special dog goodies for your dog to enjoy over the Halloween holiday as well!

Fearful dog? Take them away from all of the activity if possible. If you are staying home with them, turn off all the lights so trick-or-treaters are unlikely to come to your door and enjoy time with your dog tucked in for the evening. Before the busy night of trick-or-treaters, take them out to open spaces for a nice walk at their pace and avoid the busy neighbourhood. On Halloween night, provide them with chew bones and/or stuffed kongs to keep them busy. Avoid letting them out in the backyard or supervise them if you do. Make it a goal to help your dog and get them into fearful dog classes and work with a reward-based trainer this year!

Is your dog nervous of decorations or costumes? Work at their pace. If they are not comfortable with something this year, use it as a goal for the next year. Put it away and work on making them comfortable with other items in the house and outside at a distance they are comfortable with. Remember that the risk of rushing is too great, so take your time and/or work with a reward-based trainer!

Do you have a social dog you want to involve in the festivities? If your have your dog at the door or out trick-or-treating, be sure to give them breaks. Make sure they have been exercised that day, but provide structured and focused exercise along with mental stimulation so they are not aroused/over-tired. Reward them for all good behaviour and ensure they are comfortable. If they show calming signals/signs of stress, take them home or put them in another room. Pay attention and be aware of how your dog is feeling. And if they are comfortable and behaving well, be sure to reward them frequently, so that they can enjoy Halloween with you for many years to come.

Happy Halloween everyone! Thank you for helping make it a safe and fun one for both you and your dogs!