We all want our dogs and cats to enjoy the excitement and joy of Halloween with us!  But can they?  Yes, if we set things up so that they can enjoy our celebrations in their own way.

Halloween is frightful

This month, Halloween commands a lot of attention.  How does your dog respond to all the decorations?  Some pets seem to like being around big groups of people and sniffing the costumes.  Some enjoy being petted by anyone with hands, even if they are wearing a mask or makeup with crazy hair and billowing clothing.  Don’t count on this response, though.  These pets are few and far between.  Curiosity in the face of Halloween costumes requires confidence and the help of early socialization to the strange and amazing things in the world. 

Only put Halloween costumes on dogs after conditioning them to voluntarily participate in the activity. They can learn to love it! Here, Leo the Golden Retriever and Angus the English Springer Spaniel model witch hats.

Neighborhood Halloween decor

All the elaborate decorations in neighborhood yards can really be a challenge for some dogs. It seems the decor gets crazier every year, and it’s lots of fun for the humans! As you take your dog for walks during October, be sure to use your observation skills to keep an eye on his or her body language. If your dog shows a “surprised” look when you come upon a giant skeleton, give him a treat to associate that new thing with something good! You’re also supporting him expressing his “surprise” while staying with you, using operant conditioning so that his behavior choice gets him a treat.

Some dogs may show something more than surprise. Barking and lunging are how dogs may try to get something scary to go away, and they may use these techniques on your neighbor’s Halloween decorations. Remember, dogs don’t have the luxury of a logical explanation for very weird stuff on a familiar lawn. Using those observation skills to note your dog’s first reaction, BEFORE he barks and lunges at a witch or a pumpkin, allows you the opportunity to give him a treat as mentioned above. If you miss precursor signals like stopping, stiffening, perked up ears, or staring, you’re missing an opportunity to let your dog know you’ve got his back and you will help him get out of the vicinity of the scary thing. If he can’t get away, he’ll be forced to defend himself. You know those things are just plastic; he doesn’t.

If your dog reaches the barking and lunging point, step between him and the scary thing, gently turn him around as best you can, and create distance between yourselves and that yard. If your dog is small enough, you can pick him up and make tracks across the street.

  1. Don’t worry about the direction you were planning to go; make a beeline for the farthest distance you can get to, in any direction. Your dog needs your help to reduce his fear at this point; the walk is no longer the point.
  2. Look around quickly for a parked car or big tree to “hide” behind; a visual barrier can help your dog feel safe again.
  3. If it’s safe, go up to a neighbor’s garage door, in front of the cars in their driveway; you can “hide” there while your dog gets his wits about him (and you, too!)

Once you’re ready to start walking again, avoid that yard! Now is not the time to expose your dog again; not after he was so scared and stressed that he felt the need to defend his life. But do remember to use some Reactive Dog Training Techniques to set up practice sessions for him, far enough away from the scary stuff so that he feels safe.

Support your dog

If you have a pet who has demonstrated voluntary participation in the activities surrounding Halloween and other holidays, please be sure to continually support him. Remember, dogs are always learning through association and consequences, or classical and operant conditioning. Learning is continual, as are your opportunities to influence what your dog learns.  Above all, be sure not to let anything bad happen! Don’t let your dog’s wonderful confidence and those great interaction skills get squashed by something unfortunate.  Offer treats in new situations. Make sure no one pushes your pet too hard by actively trying to scare her or doing something else humans tend to think is silly and no big deal. Your dog’s temperament can suffer because of traumas no one meant to inflict.

What if your dog is already a bit of a fearful dude?  Look ahead to what is planned, the training he’s had, his previous experiences, and the management options you have to choose from.

Albert the English Springer Spaniel models the latest fashion in Honeybee costumes!

What are the plans?

Are you taking your human kids trick-or-treating?  It may be best to leave your dog at home.  If he has a costume to show off (meaning you’ve conditioned him to wearing costumes and he voluntarily participates in doing so) perhaps you can take him to a well-known neighbor’s house or two and then take him home before you start the official trek for candy.  The stimuli your dog will be exposed to on a trick-or-treating journey are too many, too varied, and too unpredictable for you to ensure your dog’s success with a group of kids to supervise at the same time.  Even the most tolerant dog can be pushed over-threshold when hordes of kids dressed as goblins combine with billowing ghosts and giant skeletons. How could you and your dog possibly be ready for anything you may encounter, with the variety of decorations and costumes out there?

Besides taking kids out to collect candy, Halloween festivities could include a boisterous party at your home with tons of people, loud voices, costumes, and intense activities or a quieter party with a few friends. You may be expecting to answer the door to give out treats. Perhaps you plan on a couch-potato adventure with a scary movie, leaving your porch light off so trick-or-treaters will pass your house by. 

What are your pet’s needs?

Because your pet is an important part of your life, it’s likely you’ve considered his or her needs in your planning.  Does your dog enjoy interacting with people?  How does she behave when the doorbell rings or someone walks up to your door?  What typically goes on in your neighborhood on Halloween?  Are there likely to be lots of trick-or-treaters?  Loud parties on your block?  (It seems like fireworks play a role in every holiday these days!)  Cats’ needs in these areas must be considered in the same way.

How have you prepared your dog for these events?

The puppy socialization window is from about 3 weeks of age to about 4 months of age.  If your dog came from a good breeder or an excellent rescue group that raised him or her with careful and correct socialization procedures, if he came to you at an age early enough for you to continue the socialization process and you did so, your dog may be a well-adjusted and confident individual who can successfully handle a broad range of events. 

Albert the Springer shows off another great look in costumes, with a yellow hat and a leopard-print bandana.

Many people have dogs who missed out on early socialization or even had traumatic experiences in their lives.  We are increasingly understanding that trauma does not require being beaten or otherwise physically abused or neglected.  Trauma is defined by the individual, based on his or her previous learning and level of resilience.  It is likely these dogs are not going to enjoy all aspects of a Halloween event, if any. 

How is your training going?

If you have a fearful dog, perhaps you have already worked on conditioning him to some of the scary things in the world.  Thunderstorms come to mind, along with fireworks and visitors to your home.  How is your dog doing with these things?  Do you have a routine?  Do you notice him coming to you for support when someone comes into your house, rather than going off barking at them?  Does your dog come to you looking expectant when he hears thunder or fireworks begin, waiting for the treats to appear?  If so, you’ve got something to work with; he’s showing you his ability to make a good choice that you can help him build on.

If you have a more confident dog, do you have a couple of skills you can call on? Perhaps, “go to your mat” or “lie down”. Behaviors you can ask your dog to do help give you some control over a situation in which things might otherwise go bad. If you can get your dog to do something and give him a treat for doing so, you may be able to keep him feeling safe and out of trouble.

What is your dog telling you?

You have to be able to understand how to read your dog’s body language and what signals he’s likely to show you when he feels slightly underconfident.  You need to be able to see the first signals so you can help your dog before things get really bad for him.  If he suddenly looks very still or shifts his weight backward, pulls his ears backward or widens his eyes, you can respond quickly by getting him to safety – out of the situation that got him looking that way.  If you don’t, your dog may be put in the position of feeling like he has to defend himself against what he sees as threats, and you don’t want that.

Robin the Springer Spaniel is happy to sit very still to make sure his motorcycle helmet doesn’t fall off. He got plenty of treats while learning and performing this feat!

What have events like this been like for your dog in the past?

Ideally, you know what visual and auditory stimuli are likely to upset your dog and you have not only worked to condition your dog to them but also prepared escape routes for him.  If your dog has shown you that he has the fortitude to walk away and leave the room on his own, you’ve done good training with him!  Be sure to offer him a nice place to go to relax and chew a special bone or Kong after such a wondrous behavior as walking away – not every dog can do that.

What is your dog good at?

Perhaps your dog is good at being relaxed when the doorbell rings; if so, be sure to support him by tossing him a treat when the doorbell rings and he calmly stays away.  Then, you can hand out treats to trick-or-treaters and know that your dog is having a good time, too.  He may even start to look forward to hearing the doorbell!

Perhaps your Halloween festivities include a few friends coming over for a card game, and your dog knows and likes these particular people.  No costumes, no loud activities; you’re home free!  Be sure to include training treats and a long-lasting chew to help your dog continue to build his skill set.       

What other options do you have for your dog?    

Knowing what you can expect will help you consider what resources you need to support your dog on Halloween night.  Some may be already available to you based on how your home is set up.  Do you have a room at a distance from the festivities, where your dog can hang out and work on a food puzzle?  Does your dog love his crate and look forward to spending private time in bed with a Kong? Call on YouTube to offer some relaxing music and diffuse lavender essential oil to help your dog relax. Do you have multiple dogs?  If so, will hanging out together help them all have a good time, or will they do better in separate rooms with their own enrichment activities?  Don’t wait until Halloween night to gather the answers to these questions.  Do some trial runs before the holiday. Your dogs will learn to associate being in that room with good things (Kongs stuffed with yummy things, bones or chews that they love!) and it will be easier to get them to go there after a little practice.

Ask for our free video!

Enrichment activities to choose from are almost infinite and have so many applications!  Drop us an email using our contact form and request our Affordable Crafts and Games for Dogs video.  It’s full of ideas for enrichment for dogs and cats, using items you already have around the house.

A visit or a sleepover?

If you are having a Halloween party, consider having your dog visit a friend’s home for the evening, or even for a sleepover.  Perhaps the best option is to board your dog.  Both of these management options should be introduced to your dog prior to the event so he doesn’t experience the additional stressor of a new activity when he’s already stressed. 

Couch-sitting with a scary movie is likely to be a fun option for almost any dog, provided there aren’t fireworks going off outside or doorbells ringing non-stop, or other noisy and unpredictable chains of events. 

Daisy the black mutt loves her devil horns, but she’s further intrigued by Albert’s Jack o’Lantern headdress. Al is not sure he can keep his hat on with Daisy’s active nosiness! Al works hard to keep his hat in place because the payoff is tasty treats!

Prepare now for the Holiday Season

Just remember that your dog(s) and cat(s) do not see Halloween festivities in the same light as you do.  We’re entering a season with plenty of holidays, all associated with parties, people, and all kinds of new experiences for pets.  Check up on your dog; consider what training games might benefit him in preparation for what’s on your schedule.  Make a plan and do the training; you and your dog will both have a better experience as a result. 

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