Editor's note: Ask the Dog Trainer was delayed due to Sunday's snowstorm—but we're posting today, in advance of rescheduled Halloween celebrations.
Halloween—the irresistible combination of costumes, candy and an extended bedtime has created almost uncontrollable anticipation in my kids but the dogs are getting concerned. Amplified pre-holiday behavior always worries the four-footers and by the time the doorbell starts ringing on the big day, they’re agitated and a bit unnerved.
It’s important to consider the holiday from your dog’s perspective. Your home is their den and the front door is the entrance. This is the spot from which your dog investigates all newcomers. However your dog normally reacts to visitors—protective, friendly or fearful—it’s established.
Halloween, with its endlessly ringing doorbell and costumed, sugar-amped guests, is far from normal and your dog’s behavior may be unpredictable. Protective dogs may become afraid, nervous dogs may be emboldened and friendly dogs may head for the nearest hideout. When planning for a busy Halloween, take your dog’s age, temperament and energy level into consideration.
Rule number one: tire your dog out during the day. Rule number two: buy the most irresistible bone or treat available. A tired dog with an anxiety-displacing bone will be much calmer and easier to manage when the zombies and vampires descend.
If this is your dog’s first Halloween, you’ll have the chance to shape her reaction. She’ll be looking to you to determine her response, so pre-condition her response with a treat cup. Fill a noisy cup – plastic works good – with a few treats. Toss her a treat every time you rattle the cup. A night or two before Halloween, recruit a friend to come knocking at your door, preferably at dusk. If you can further impose upon them to come in costume, all the better.
Lead your dog to the entranceway on a leash and open the door calmly. Relax your body and vocal tones. Offer your visitor the treat cup and encourage him or her to toss a treat to your dog. Don’t make a huge deal of this – direct attention to your dog may induce fear or aggression. Go for casual here…like it’s totally normal for an adult to stop by in a Spiderman outfit. After a treat or two, close the door and return to normal activities. If your helper is willing, repeat the sequence a few more times, about 2 minutes apart.
Another helpful pre-Halloween conditioning technique involves wearing a costume around the house for a few days. If you have kids, this will be easy to do – I know my kids need very little provocation to dress up and behave outrageously. To really bring your dog’s tolerance level up, consider getting a mask of your own and wear it for a few minutes every day. Put it on and use the treat cup, wear it when you’re putting the food bowls down…in no time, your dog will be very comfortable with Richard Nixon or Charlie Sheen preparing her meals.
If your dog is very protective or reactive, Halloween might be very stressful. If this is the case, consider keeping your dog away from the door. You might consider tethering her back away from the door or placing her in a distant room with gentle music playing at a volume loud enough to disguise the commotion.
Enjoy your Halloween!