Taking the BOO out of Halloween for your Dogs

Truth be told I love Halloween, it might actually be my favorite holiday but it can be a potentially stressful time for even the most confident of dog

Truth be told I love Halloween, it might actually be my favorite holiday but it can be a potentially stressful time for even the most confident of dogs. There's so many things going on that aren’t part of a dog’s day to day life that it's no surprise their stress buckets can be fuller than normal and even overflow! So let’s look at some of the stressors our dogs can encounter. 

There are:

  • strange inflatable and flashing objects in front yards that can spook dogs on walks
  • different decorations in your house which can unsettle sensitive dogs
  • there can be fireworks(depending on where you live) which many dogs find unsettling and scary
  • your doorbell is probably going to ring more on Halloween night than it does any other night of the year and many dogs struggle to cope when they hear that sound
  • people unknown to you and your dog will arrive at your door dressed up in strange outfits
  • you might even dress up yourself and expect your dog to as well!!

You are hosting a fancy dress party.

Once we start thinking about all that Halloween brings, I think we can all agree, it’s really no surprise that many of our dogs get stressed out and a little bit frazzled.

Now I’ve no idea what Halloween will look like this year due to COVID 19 but I’d rather help my dog be prepared and manage the situation as best I can.

So what should you do to help your dog at holiday time?

Well, there's lots of things you can start doing NOW, so that when it comes to Halloween, or any of the holiday periods, you'll be more prepared than you ever have been.

Build their confidence

Many dogs can lack the confidence and optimism needed to manage in novel or unusual situations. These are the dogs that can have a very fixed routine and just like us not getting our morning coffee may struggle if something suddenly changes. That can be us putting on a Halloween costume, decorations in the yard or even some inside the house. These dogs can also be hypervigilant and notice the smallest changes. Have you a dog that notices and can spook at a leaf on the side walk that wasn’t there the day before? If so, how are they going to react when there’s a blow up pumpkin in your neighbors garden?

Decorations are already out in our neighborhood and I think the 15ft inflatable ghost has been the most noticeable one to date. These can definitely be scary for a nervous dog so playing confidence games and thinking about your walking route and time of walk is a great idea.

For nervous dogs building their confidence and optimism through games like cardboard chaos and noise box is a great place to start. Check out my confidence games playlist on you tube for more games to play with your dog.

Safety First & Management:

Fireworks can spook even the most confident of dogs so ensuring your dog is safe inside on Halloween is always our top priority. Your front door is likely to be open more frequently so ensuring your dog does not have free access to the open door is always top of my list. Limiting access to the front door through the use of baby gates or leaving your dog in another room when you go to the door are two of my top recommendations.

If you've a dog that is sensitive to the noise of fireworks and/or the doorbell then counter conditioning and desensitization can help along with building their confidence through the games. It's never too early to start this training as it does take time. A scared dog has a higher probability of running away/bolting at loud and sudden noises. For that reason it can be a good idea to either ditch your evening walk or do it earlier so that you avoid any fireworks going off while out on your walk.

If your dog has slipped its leash or harness in the past, why not consider using a harness with two straps that go under their chest and stomach area such as the Ruffwear flagline or webmaster range and/or having two points of contact: a leash attached to their collar and one to their harness.

Of course, our dogs will need access to outside for potty breaks so make sure your garden fence and gates are secure and that there are no gaps under the fence caused by your dog digging. Fence boards can come undone over time and smaller dogs especially can get out this way even when your fence looks secure. Regularly check all your fence boards to make sure they are secured as a preventative measure. It really goes without saying but it’s best not to leave your dog outside unattended on Halloween even in a secure yard and for nervous dogs I recommend taking them outside on a leash, even in a secure area.

No-one wants to think about their beloved dog getting lost on Halloween night but occasionally things just happen. If this is the case making sure that your dog is microchipped and wearing tags is the best way to get them home to you as quickly as possible.

It’s pretty likely that the candy you’ll have ready for the trick ot treaters will include chocolate and if you're offering a healthier option many sugar free candies can contain xylitol. Ingestion of either chocolate or xylitol can be extremely dangerous for your dog so make sure and keep them out of your dog’s reach. No one wants to end up at the emergency vet on Halloween!

Hang a sign:

In previous years I have left a bowl of candy with a sign in my driveway or even sat out in my driveway to prevent trick or treaters coming to my door.

Now in light of COVID 19 I’m not sure how parents will feel about their children grabbing treats from a communal bowl this year so you might want to modify it so that you have treats ready in little pre made up bags for the children to collect.

Many neighborhood have groups on Facebook or Nextdoor and checking them to see the time when most plan to be out trick or treating is a great way to help plan your night.

I’ve multiple dogs in my home and keeping them all quiet and relaxed when the doorbell seems to be ringing constantly can be a challenge, especially if there are foster dogs present. When faced with a struggle such as this, I like to manage the situation and prevent my dogs rehearsing the unwanted behavior of barking.

Halloween night is not the best time to work on training your dog to ignore the doorbell. Why is this? Well, we want to set our dogs up for success, which means we train for the situation and not in it: start your training early so you’re prepared!

You may have a dog that doesn’t usually react when the doorbell rings but when it happens for the tenth time in 30 minutes that might be too much even for them, so be prepared for some unexpected barking or other unusual behaviors!

Halloween costumes

Fancy dress costumes can definitely stress some dogs out (and who can blame them). If you need to bring your dog to the door for any reason make sure they are leashed to reduce the probability of them running out an open door. Some dogs may bark and lunge when scared so it’s a good idea to limit their access to the front door. They may appear fine for the first few interactions but if they find this stressful you may find that at some point during the evening they act in a way that surprises you. Just like humans, they can take so much, but once their stress bucket overflows you are likely to see some unwanted behaviors occurring. Although running away, cowering, shaking, barking or lunging are the most noticeable behaviors indicating our dogs are not comfortable in a given situation, lip licking out of context, turning their head away, panting, sniffing and even out of context over enthusiasm can all be signs of stress in our dogs.

If your dog is stressed by the costumes or simply meeting people on walks then changing the time or ditching your evening walk to prevent them meeting lots of trick or treaters that will want to pet the ‘cute doggy’ is the best and safest option for everyone!!

So if you aren’t sure how your dog is going to react my favorite option is giving them a nice long lasting chew in their safe space instead: that could literally be the best Halloween for them!!

Vet Support

Some dogs may need a little extra help to get through the holiday periods and if this is the case please speak to your vet now about appropriate medication for the upcoming holiday period. Not all prescription medications work in the same way so always be specific about your dog’s struggles so that the vet has the necessary information to prescribe the correct medications for your dog. ​

Doggy costumes: Dressing up is a stressor for many dogs and they don’t feel comfortable wearing clothes and additional ‘Halloween’ accessories. Although we all want our dogs to participate in the holidays, just take a moment to consider if your dog really needs to dress up. Those lower level behaviors such as lip licking, panting, turning away etcetera can all be indications they are not comfortable wearing costumes.

No matter how much we want our dogs to be involved in our all family activities we have to realize that they may not want to be involved in all of them. If your dog doesn't like dressing up then that's fine, and don’t force him to have a photo with you in your fancy dress outfit if he looks uncomfortable. Just because your dog lets you dress him up doesn’t mean he is comfortable or relaxed. If in doubt leave the costume in the drawer!

Doggy Zen: We all know people that want to be the center of attention and love to go to parties and those that would rather stay home and read a good book so you probably won’t be surprised to hear our dogs are very similar. Genetics, breeding strategies and environmental factors all contribute to dogs exhibiting different behaviors. With this is in mind, providing a safe space for all our dogs is an excellent idea. Even the most robust of dogs needs quiet time on a daily basis. If your dog doesn't already have a safe space, consider building the value for one. This can be a quiet room (bedroom closet or study) or a specific bed or crate that they can head to when they need quiet time. Why not combine the two and place one of their beds in a quiet room. This will allow your dog to get the quiet time they need on an ongoing basis and provides them with a safe haven if you are having guests over. When building value for a ‘safe space’ go at your dog’s pace, don’t rush them: you never want to force your dog to stay somewhere they are uncomfortable.

Think about where your dog usually heads to for some quiet time and see if you can replicate that in other ways. Dogs that head under the bed or table may prefer a covered crate, whilst others may prefer chilling out on higher areas so a raised dog bed may be an excellent choice for them.

Having created your doggy safe zone you may want to think about ways to help your dog settle and relax here. Providing them with a long lasting chew helps promote passive calming behaviors. Dogs chew to relax and lower arousal levels so adding an appropriate chew to their safe space is a great way to help them naturally relax and create their perfect doggy zen space. Giving your dog something suitable to chew on can help to calm them and keep them occupied when trick or treaters come to your door. ​

You may also want to consider playing some music or keeping the TV on in their room so that the sound of the doorbell is less noticeable for them. If you are expecting fireworks close by make sure to leave lights so that the flashes are less pronounced and noticeable to our dogs. If possible why not hang out with your dog as much as you can on Halloween night: I know it’s not possible for everyone but for those that can here’s a few options:

  • Take turns being on door duty and hanging with your dogs
  • Take a few days away with your dog to ‘avoid’ the hustle and bustle
  • Play some simple games including nose work with your dog
  • Do something with your dog that they enjoy: it could be cuddles, being brushed, massage, etc

So by now you should have the basis of a plan for Halloween: you’ve time to top up any training you need and make a plan. You may not have everything just right for Halloween but as the saying by John Heyword goes"

‘Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour’

Starting now will still make a difference for this Halloween and as you keep moving forward and working with your dog, each holiday will be a little better than the one before!!!

Happy holidays everyone!