Update: Chopper is now a permanent member of our family and pack. We're blessed to have the little guy in our lives.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. ~ H. P. Lovecraft
Halloween has so many meanings to different people. Some love it, others hate it. Some celebrate it, others don’t. Whatever the emotions regarding this holiday are, the reality is that it is a part of our American tradition and because of that, dogs that live in this society are exposed to it to a greater or lesser degree. What meaning does Halloween have to our dogs? Of course, dogs do not understand the historical origins of Halloween or the cultural aspects of it. However, they do experience Halloween and this experience can vary from a very pleasant one to a true “horror event” that a dog would rather not go through at all. What does our dog’s experience depend on? It depends on many factors, with one of the most important ones being how WE, dog owners, prepare our dogs for the Halloween experience, how we act and how clearly we communicate to our dogs how we want them to behave around trick-or-treaters. We should guide our dogs to be balanced and social in various situations, including Halloween night.
So how do our dogs react to Halloween ghosts, ghouls and witches? How can we make sure that Halloween night will not turn into a night of terror for our dogs? It’s simple: by socializing our dogs to a number of things including various sounds (such as doorbell rings, crowd noise, children’s voices, etc.) and sights (such as people wearing costumes, masks and carrying various objects and Halloween accessories). If all these images are unknown to your dog, it is quite natural for the dog to be apprehensive, unsure and afraid. This is why socialization of a dog is so important. It is the responsibility of the dog owner to teach the dog about the world, including the cultural traditions that the dog will be exposed to during his life.
As Charles M. Haye said, "Safety First is Safety Always." This includes holiday times such as Halloween, as according to a quote of unknown origin, “Safety never takes a holiday.” If your dog is an escape artist and you know that once you open a door, your dog will run out, it would be unwise to put your dog in a situation where he or she could escape and potentially get hurt (or hurt somebody). This is one of the dangers during Halloween, as the door is opened frequently and amidst the chaos and excitement, things can get easily out of control, especially if you know that you don’t have good control of your dog anyway. If this is the case, make sure your dog is controlled at all times, either kept on a leash or put in a crate during the time trick-or-treaters come. It is a very good idea to microchip your dog too. There are even collars with GPS available to put on your dog nowadays so in case your dog escapes you can track him or her down easily. No technical gadgets, however, will replace a well-behaved dog that follows the owner’s lead and respects rules and boundaries.
Other possible Halloween hazards (some of which may even be fatal to a dog) are candy, chocolate, alcoholic beverages, Halloween decorations, food wrappers, electrical cords, candles (burning candles knocked over by a dog can be a fire hazard as well) etc. Dogs are curious animals and they like to investigate objects. However, there’s a big difference between a dog that politely sniffs a jack-o-lantern and accepts that this is YOUR possession, not his or hers, and a dog that eats the whole pumpkin. No matter how funny initially this might seem to you or the visitors, it can hurt your dog and your dog might end up needing an emergency visit to the vet. Dogs that are not taught to respect which objects they can pick up with their mouths can seriously hurt themselves if they ingest toxic food or items or chew on electrical cords. If your dog has not learned not to chew or pick up dangerous items, keep your dog supervised at all times (either on a leash or in a crate) and prepare your dog for the Halloween event slowly. Your dog might have to wait until next year to enjoy Halloween fun. If your dog IS ready to join in the festivities, you can give him or her some dog treats as long as your dog does not have any aggression issues over food. Be careful though, because the presence of strangers at the time you give your dog a very valuable piece of food might lead your dog to exhibit some unwanted and dangerous behaviors. Know your dog, and if in any doubt, consult a canine professional about the best course of action to follow for YOUR dog and for YOUR situation on Halloween night.
“Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.” ~ Frank Herbert
Halloween can be a great social experience for our dogs provided they are prepared for it and taught the proper social behaviors around humans, and especially “little humans” – kids. In other words your dog needs to have good manners and be respectful of other people. It can be a great opportunity for your dog to be part of the Halloween fun and be exposed to various experiences. This does not mean that your dog has to have any physical contact with trick-or-treaters. It does NOT mean that every trick-or-treater has to TOUCH your dog. There’s no reason for that (just like there’s NO reason for your dog to touch every person) and a lot of parents out there might simply not wish for their child to touch a strange dog (and they’re right about that).
Halloween can also bring some other hazards to your dog: omni-present candy and especially chocolate, which if ingested can cause of serious health problems and may even be fatal to your dog.
Safety is as simple as ABC - Always Be Careful. ~Author Unknown
How to prepare a dog for Halloween night?
Some of our greatest historical and artistic treasures we place in museums; others, we take for walks. ~ Roger Caras
The dog should be prepared slowly, and should have already had lots of practice learning good manners in various social situations. For the Halloween experience, make sure your dog is relaxed and calm. Draining excess energy in a positive way helps tremendously prior to events such as Halloween. Exercise your dog before all the Halloween visitors start appearing at your door. Take your dog on a long walk and make sure the dog is walked in a proper way. Practice discipline during the walk so your dog walks beside you or slightly behind you and does not pull you or stop on his or her own to sniff around all the time. Allowing your dog do this encourages your dog to make decisions all the time and as a result encourages your dog to pull on the leash. Give your dog simple rules and let him know when he needs to follow (I say “Let’s go!” or “C’mon” or formal “Heel”) and when there’s a “recess” and he or she can have a break and sniff around (I say “All done”). Whatever verbal cues you use, stick to them.
Mutual respect between humans and canines
Men are respectable only as they respect. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Just as we require our dogs to be polite and well-mannered around trick-or-treaters, we should acknowledge that the respect between human and canine species should be mutual. Dogs, just like humans, have their own “personal space” and some dogs are more sensitive about this space being invaded. Some dogs love being touched, some dislike it and others do not like to be touched in certain areas such as on the top of their head, or in a certain way. You, as an owner, must be very aware of these things and of your own dog body language because strangers might not decipher it and it might lead to some serious trouble. It is the pack leader’s responsibility to protect the pack. If you do not protect your dog he might take the initiative and things can get ugly and that would not be fun for anybody involved. Know your dog. Observe your dog. Protect your dog if needed. Such protection might simply mean telling the overenthusiastic treat-or-treaters NOT to pet your dog. You can also move your dog to an area further away from the entry way where nobody can reach and pet your dog. Your dog will still smell, hear and see everything and the whole experience might become more neutral and less stressful to your dog in this way. People often misinterpret a dog’s excitability and hyperactivity as signs of happiness, when in reality the dog is simply coping with stress and is nervous. The excitability and nervousness are not good ingredients to add in any situation, including Halloween, which on its own is filled with the excitement of others and can feel quite chaotic to your dog.
Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.
~ Edgar Allan Poe: “The Raven”.
Dogs that are afraid of or shy around people on Halloween
What if your dog is not exactly a “social butterfly” or is afraid of people and/or little kids? What if your dog would rather hide somewhere in a corner, under a table or in his crate than be terrorized by ghosts, goblins and zombies? If this is the case, Halloween night might not be the best time to START working on your dog’s fear issues. It does not mean that those issues should not be worked on. They should be, for the well-being and psychological health of your dog. However, Halloween night might be too much of an event and might simply overwhelm and scare your dog even more if your dog is introduced to too many frightening elements all at once. Your dog might need more time to get accustomed to a variety of new distractions that are present during Halloween night. Be realistic here and do not push your dog to be surrounded by a number of new fear producers. It might be that it is not just one thing but a combination of various things that make your dog nervous and scared: voices, sounds, sights, etc. If you’re not sure what causes your dog’s fear and/or how to manage and improve the situation, consult a canine behavior specialist who understands the mind of a dog and who specializes in resolving fear issues and knows how to build your dog’s confidence.
A cheerful frame of mind, reinforced by relaxation... is the medicine that puts all ghosts of fear on the run. ~George Matthew Adams
Basic skills that will help your dog to enjoy Halloween
True obedience is true freedom. ~ Henry Ward Beacher
Basic etiquette that your dog should master to be able to enjoy more freedom and to accompany the whole family during the Halloween fun includes a few basic skills that your dog should know. These are:
- Leave it – simple as that…if you don’t want your dog to grab anything or anybody, teach him or her to leave things alone. That means no touching it and dogs touch things mostly with their mouths. On Halloween your dog might be tempted to grab some decorations or even candy. Teach your dog to control his or her impulses and to leave things alone when told to.
- Sit – sitting down is another must command to teach a dog.
- Down – the down position calms a dog down. A calm dog is a good dog. Teach your dog to lie down on command. In more chaotic situations filled with excitement such as Halloween, your dog will be able to know what to do when told to (DOWN!) and it will also help him or her to relax.
- Stay – very, very useful command for various situations including Halloween fun time. If you don’t want your dog to move towards something (for example the entry door or the Halloween visitors), tell him to STAY. The way I teach the dogs commands such as “SIT” and “DOWN”, the commands mean that the dog has to stay in these position until I release them, so “SIT” means “sit and stay until I tell you that you can get up or lie down”, and “DOWN” means “lie down until I release you and you can sit up or get up”.
- Place – your dog goes and stays on his or her very own, comfy and familiar blanket or bed. It is a great skill that is also one that ensures the safety of your dog and of everybody else. You can put your dog place (I use a doggy bed) anywhere.
- Quiet – if your dog is an excessive barker, teach him how to turn the sound off on command.
- Self-control skills – your dog needs to know how to say “no” to his or her own urges and be able to block and resist some of the temptations that might be inappropriate or even dangerous to humans and to a dog as well. Practice discipline with your dog at all times and help your dog to master putting his drives and instincts on hold and to learn how to control himself or herself. These skills can be literally a life-saver to your dog in various situations – including the Halloween event. Disciplined dogs know and respect the rules at all times and in various situations. To give an example, playtime is a natural behavior in dogs. Dogs LOVE to play and that’s one of the things we cherish in dogs: their ability to love life and love having fun. Playtime is great and is very important for dogs for many different reasons. Dogs learn a lot through play and they exercise social skills. Play enhances the relationships between dog and dog or between dog and human when they play and interact together. However, the pack leader (you) should start and end the playtime. If your dog respects the rules and responds to you when you say that the game is over (I say “Enough”) that means that your dog has good self-control skills (great job!) and that your dog RESPECTS you as a pack leader. If you try to stop the game and the dog acts as if he did not hear you and continues to play…well…your dog loves you dearly but as far as the respect part is concerned you might need to work on that some more… ;) It IS worth it as any good relationship is based not purely on love itself, but respect and trust as well. If your dog cannot respect the rules with no distractions, you can be sure that he or she will be even LESS likely to respect the rules with distractions present during Halloween night. So start working on your dog’s self-control skills with no distractions at first.
A dog that lunges at people, barks excessively (has no “mute button”), runs through the door, does not respect the invisible boundaries that the pack leader sets, tries to steal food, paws at people and demands attention in any way is not a dog that is truly ready to be a part of Halloween fun. If your dog is such a dog, you can make having a well-mannered dog a new goal to work towards so hopefully next Halloween you and your dog can share Halloween fun together in a safe and pleasant way.
The combination of establishing pack leadership with your dog, teaching him or her great social skills and teaching basic obedience skills is the great foundation for being able to enjoy a true canine companion that can ACCOMPANY you, his owner and pack leader, during holiday event such as Halloween. This is one of the reasons people have dogs – so that they can share things with them. An anti-social, ill-mannered dog that is a nuisance to society becomes a prisoner of his own behavior and maladjustment. Such a dog ends up being “stored away” in a different room or locked in a kennel because he or she is a nuisance or even a threat.
Trick-NO-threat: don’t scare the trick-or-treaters away with your dog…Entertain instead!
Trick-no-threat the trick-or-treaters and surprise them with a fun trick your dog can perform. It will bring some joy and laughter, it will make your dog a good canine ambassador to people and their kids and it will give your dog something to do, a performing job, if you will. In this way, Halloween will become an interactive event to your dog, rather than only a passive one. I am the owner of a large, massive dog, a Shiloh Shepherd that is sometimes feared because of some bad stereotypes about big dogs and/or shepherds in general or because people are not familiar with big dogs. Once she shows one of the tricks from her repertoire of more than 100, people look at her in a completely new light. They warm up to her instantly and praise her talents and skills. Many times the trick-or-treaters leave amazed by this Halloween canine performer that greets them. Teaching your dog various “tricks” (which are nothing else but various behaviors and skills, and not just “parlor tricks”) can bring a lot of joy to you, your dog and others. If your dog has mastered all the basic skills, is very respectful towards you and obeys all your rules, you can start adding more and more fun skills to his or her repertoire. Use your imagination here. You can teach your dog to hide behind you on a verbal or non-verbal cue and pretend that he is very scared once he sees the scary ghosts, witches and zombies. It will make your dog a part of the fun and will most likely bring some laughs as well. If your dog is wearing a costume at the same time (let’s say your dog is a ghost) and on cue your little “ghost” gets scared of other “monsters” that visit – that might be even more entertaining. Have fun and stay safe at the same time.
What about dogs wearing Halloween costumes?
Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story. ~ Mason Cooley
There are various opinions about dogs wearing costumes. Some people perceive it as an insult to a dog to put a silly outfit on him or her, some absolutely love it and others do not care one way or the other.
To me it’s not so much about whether your dog is wearing an outfit or not, but rather about the relationship between you and your dog and how both you and your dog feel about the dog sporting a Halloween costume. It’s also about HOW your dog is introduced to the whole concept of wearing something and how you react to your dog wearing an outfit. Think about it as a training tool – any tool used properly can enhance the relationship between you and your dog and if used improperly can damage this relationship or even have a negative effect on your dog’s behavior. If you introduce your dog to the idea of having a garment put on him or her in a proper and pleasant way, your dog will learn that a costume might be a prelude to a fun time. If you ridicule and tease your dog and/or make the whole experience of wearing an outfit unpleasant to your dog, this will become your dog’s experience – an unpleasant one. I make my dogs feel very special and proud when they put on an outfit. It is not a punishment to them to wear anything. It is fun. It is not a time for them to feel pathetic and ashamed. It is time for them to feel proud, joyful and special. They get my attention too and that’s the best thing ever and it’s a great reward on its own.
If you decide to purchase a Halloween costume for your dog, make sure it will fit well and that it will not constrict and limit your dog’s movement. It is an unnatural thing to a dog to wear anything, so make sure that the clothing item is comfortable for your dog. Another thing is that putting a costume on a dog, if it’s a completely unknown experience, should be practiced BEFORE Halloween night. Get the costume at least a few days before Halloween so your dog can practice having it on and getting used to it. Don’t keep the costume on a dog for an extended period of time. Instead put it on for very short times and then take it off. Praise your dog while he’s wearing the outfit. Make him or her feel proud. Also, never leave your dog wearing a costume without being supervised.
Happy Halloween! Stay safe and train your dog to be able to handle more freedom during holiday times such as Halloween!
A Halloween Party
On Halloween I’ll wear a sheet,
To scare the people that I meet.
All covered up from head to toe,
Even my friends will never know!