Preparing for Halloween and Dogs

I love Halloween! I currently live in the country and no longer get trick or treaters and I miss it, I love seeing the costumes and talking to the kids and prepping fun things to hand out (pencils, slime, candy, etc!). When I lived in Albany it used to be a steady stream of kids at the door, and it was also where I learned what it was like to have a dog during Halloween.

Thankfully, Owen was comfortable with people at the door, and not a huge barker. But the first knock at the door revealed there was more to it then that, I had to think on my feet and each year I learned something new, and new dogs would require new tricks, on top of the treats. So I present to you a compilation of my Halloween Tricks and Treats.

Airlock System – the first knock on the door taught me my biggest lesson – managing a dog (and cat) and five kids under the age of ten at a door was hard. Thankfully I had a vestibule leading to my door and a baby gate on hand so I could create an airlock system, or, a way to keep my animals from the door and the kids from my animals. This prevents children rushing up to my dog and startling them, or my dog rushing up to the kids and startling them. Some kids are scared of dogs and even a social dog giving kisses can be traumatic. It also prevents a dog from bolting out the door and taking off – even a dog with a great recall can get out and panic when they see streets full of monsters.

Barkers – not going to lie, when I had my biggest barker (Shadow) there was a point where we turned off the lights and pretended we were not home. And I still have a friend who does this (Hi Becky!). While her dogs are social the constant coming and going would get them worked up and push the energy a bit too high to be easily managed. There is nothing wrong with that, and for some dogs that might be the kindest option. Shadow loved people though, and I found a way to manage the barking while letting him be a part of things. So, first, I had an airlock system in place so he could not get to the door, then, we waited, and I paid attention, when a trick or treater approached I scattered some cookies just as they got to the door and Shadow was busy while the knocks happened. Eventually he stopped caring about the approach. I’d talk to him while I talked to the kids, and the kids loved admiring him from a distance – Shadow liked costumes and was happy to wear his, and be ohhed and ahhed over from a distance. For other dogs I’ve given them a frozen Kong, a bully stick, or something to keep them busy. And I would leave them in a room with the TV playing so they did not hear as much of the street sounds.

Correct ID – while I’m always careful and employ an airlock, there is always the risk of a dog getting out a door. Or if they are being walked or joining the trick or treating there is the chance of a leash dropping or of them getting spooked and taking off. Making sure the info on their microchip is current and that they have an ID tag with your correct contact info on it is important. And I make sure they have physical ID on, this means putting your dog in a collar even if they are normally a nudist at home. Microchips are great but your neighbors do not have chip readers – they can read an ID though.

Plan your walks/potty sessions – while you cannot fully schedule your dogs need to go, you can try to get them out before the chaos starts. I like to do a walk before the trick or treaters are out, or take them in the back yard for a play session. This has the dogs satisfied and a little tired, and usually prevents me needing to take them out to potty while goblins and ghouls are roaming the street. Then when things have settled down we go back out again. Should they need to go potty during prime trick or treat time I go into the yard with them and am armed with treats – ready to distract or manage if necessary.

Prepping for the Children – Halloween brings a lot of excitement, and when children are excited their emotions are high – and emotions can change. They might get overly excited or loud when they see a dog – they might squeal, jump, reach, run. They might also get scared and cry. With very few exceptions I do not let my dog have contact with the trick or treaters. First, I do not know the kids or their skill level with dogs. Second, they are all wearing weird outfits and some dogs might find that worrisome – and while they might be okay with a child petting them they might not be okay with a vampire petting them. Having a German Shepherd, a breed who can look intimidating, I found softening their look with a colorful bandana helped them look less scary – in Owen’s case he wore pink butterfly wings.

Introduce your dog to their costume before Halloween – I have a whole blog on keeping costumes positive, but it is worth reminding people that not all dogs like costumes. Starting slow and introducing your dog to clothes and costumes before the big day can really help keep things positive and let you know where your dog falls on the spectrum. It also will let you know if the costume is appropriate. Shadow did not mind being dressed, but not all costumes fit him right or comfortably. Jasper will wear some things, but hates other types of costumes. Knowing what your dog is comfortable with before Halloween helps keep things fun for you and the dog – and if your dog does not like costumes at all (Tabby) then maybe leave them out of the theme costumes or stick to a festive bandana.

Teach your dogs about “Monsters” – what I loved about Halloween was the creative costumes, but that was also what worried some of my dogs. Suddenly people did not look like people – masks in particular were hard. So leading up to Halloween I put on masks. I stood in front of my dog, let them smell the mask, see the mask, and then let them watch me take it on and off as they realized what it was.

Scared Dogs – the biggest thing I learned was if your dog is scared, respect it, and make them your priority. If people coming to the door stress them out, put them in a safe place where they don’t have to deal with it – crate them, put them in a bedroom or keep the lights off and pretend it is just any other night. As much as I love Halloween, I love my dogs more, and they come first.

Treats – have treats ready to use when needed – be it to reward, distract or manage. If you need to go light on dinner and pop their food into a Kong, or use it for treat scatters throughout the night, do it. And also watch them around the human treats – there will be lots of chocolate around and we all know the dangers of that. Keep an eye on your dog and what they might get into, especially on walks where things may have been dropped in the leaves.

When in doubt, leave them home – planning on taking your dog out trick or treating with the kids? Or to bring them to a trunk or treat or a costume party? Are you sure they are ready? Will they be worried about the costumes, the noise, the crowds and the dogs? How about the flashing lights and strobes used for safety gear? If they are not are you prepared to bring them home or spend your time managing them? Will they have fun or would they rather be home with a chew? I admit the level of work it would take to bring my dog to most people events is not equal to the level of enjoyment me and my dog would experience. It is stressful, these days my dogs stay home (and more often then not I do too).

“Tricks” and treats – skills that can make things easier. It is a little late to teach these skills from scratch but if they know them, it is a good time to do some review with lots of high value rewards to keep them fresh in your dog’s mind. And if they don’t have these skills consider teaching them for next year.

  • Recall – should your dog get lose you want to be able to call them back. Halloween will be full of distractions so even if your dog has a rocket recall get some practice in, and practice around distractions too. I like to do some on-leash recalls so they get used to doing them on the street, and around children and cars.
  • Go to Mat – being able to send your dog to a space when asked is a huge help. If a scared kids comes to the door you can send them away to a spot, if the baby gate falls you can get them away from an open door. If they are barking you can move them out of the area – it’s a great backup plan.
  • Leave It – whether something is dropped at home or you are on a walk and find an unattended Snickers bar, leave it is important. Remember the game – put a treat under your hand and ask for a LEAVE IT – reward them when they take their attention off your hand.
  • Stay – another great safety measure for your dog. If the baby gate falls or the leash slips from your hand, can your dog STAY. Can they STAY around distractions? Maybe do some stays and practice dropping your leash (in a safe place) and dancing around, pretend to trip, do things to distract and prep them for things that might happen.
  • Doorway Manners – have you been having your dog sit on both sides of the door? If so go back to paying that, or try to get some practice in. Not only does it encourage calm behavior around a door, it is a great safety measure to have in place if a door gets left open on this busy night.
  • Behavior cued by a knock/doorbell – does your dog bark when there is a knock at the door? Do they lose it when the doorbell rings? Can you teach them to do something else? One of our dogs who loved to bark was trained to run to their bed each time there was a knock at the door. How did I do it? I knocked on the wall and tossed a treat to the bed, and repeated that pattern until he heard a knock and ran on this own, then I applied it to the door. Ta da! Behavior changed.

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