Halloween is fast approaching! For many kids (and some adults too!), that means dressing up as their favorite superhero or Halloween character, lots of candy, and even a little spooking! For our dogs, especially young puppies, or those that haven’t ever experienced this strange onslaught of the senses, Halloween can be as confusing and scary as a fireworks show!
Think about it: Costumes cover our faces and add weird appendages to our features, strange people come constantly to our front door and yell… loudly! Is it any wonder that many canines display strong anxiety to these things? We might also put our canines right in the thick of it, taking them for a walk or bringing them along as a companion for our little trick or treaters. Imagine what they must be thinking when they come across that scary witch or graveyard of skulls?!
I often talk about the concept of “setting up for success” and for occasions such as Halloween where costumes are meant to evoke strong and sometimes frightening emotions, this concept becomes very important. In the service dog world, we proof and prepare canines for many different scenarios and possibilities that they may encounter during their busy lives helping out their family. In controlled environments, we expose dogs to the lights and sounds of emergency vehicles, encourage volunteers to come dressed in their work clothes to bring along the smells of the community and we have very generous fireman and police officers take time to come to the facilities in full gear, to expose the developing puppies to funny helmets, gas masks, oxygen tanks, and utility belts covered in things that might look like toys. However, for the majority of “household” canines, their exposure and learning experiences are slightly different. Some have a very integrative life, are out in the community all the time (or as much as possible), meeting new people and new things. Others spend some, or all of their lives around a few houses, and the local park. For any dog, at either end of the exposure spectrum, going around the corner and coming face to face with a Yeti, or someone dressed up as our favorite martial arts turtle can be quite a shock, and can evoke emotion and behaviours that we have never witnessed or experienced EVER!
So what can we do? Here is a list of things to keep in mind around the Halloween season and some ways to make All Hallows’ Eve as positive as possible:
For those of us with canine-enriched lives…
- Have a good play with your dog at the local park or in your backyard well before you have to start handing out candy. Make sure their needs are met!
- Take them for a “business” run (pee and poop) before the trick-or-treaters are out and about. Usually it is still daylight at this point so you will also be less likely to be surprised by a costumed ghoul or ghost. Then take them out after when things have drastically calmed down and most, if not all, of the families have gone home.
- Usually someone stays at home to hand out candy. GREAT! Don’t leave your dog in the front room or by the front door unattended where they can be over stimulated by commotion outside and knocking/doorbell ringing. It also avoids any possible escape attempts.
- Set up a quiet and safe room for the canine. Put on the TV or turn the radio on with some nice easy listening, and pull the blinds over the window. For some, just running a fan in the room is enough white noise to block out stimulation happening at the front door. Make sure the room is safe for the dog, whatever their age. If they become stressed, they can act out on furniture, electrical cords, and doors. Set them up for success by minimizing dangerous items.
- If you are at the front door, take some time to check on them at a decent frequency. Reinforce their quiet behaviour with verbal praise and even the occasional delicious treat. (It is treat night for everyone else, after all! See below for a great recipe.) If they become anxious or unsure, spend some time to quiet them down and redirect these tense emotions towards a fun or happy thing. Get out their favorite toy or puzzle and have them work through it. Spend a little time running through their various commands so they redirect onto the task at hand, not what is going on outside.
- If your dog barks at the doorbell… Contact Canines By Design and we can help fix that, but for now, watch for people coming to the house or tape over the door bell with a sign to say “do not ring”.
- Make sure the candy and chocolate is out of reach from them. Also make sure that your children or guests know that the canine cannot have any “people” treats. Many kids like to spread out their candy on the floor to check out their “haul” after trick-or-treating. That’s fine… just maybe close the door to their bedroom first to avoid any canines snacking!
If you are out and come across a dog:
- Do not approach (even if you know the dog): Remember you are wearing a costume: Canines are very good at reading body language, facial expressions, and verbal language. We are running around having fun with raised/excited voices and covered faces (masks or makeup)… it doesn’t exactly give them a fair chance to assess the situation. If you have to go say hello, remove your mask and return your emotional level back to a relaxed and calm state before doing so. Even your own canine may second-guess that it is actually you when you are dressed up to scare!
- If you are going up to a house and you hear a dog barking from very near or right behind the door, turn around and head to the next house. While we want to give the benefit of the doubt to those caregivers, we cannot assume that the dog will be OK with us near their house and their people. They are already showing sign of arousal and they may make the wrong assumption and turn a fun night into a negative one.
MOST Importantly… Have FUN with your families this Halloween! While canines might not get the concept of dressing up and going door to door, they can still have fun and a delicious treat too! Try this easy recipe:
Simple Peanut Butter Pumpkin Canine Treats:
1 ½ cups Peanut Butter (Natural)
1 cup of 100% Pure Pumpkin Puree, canned. (Not Pumpkin Pie Filling)
1 ¾ cups Whole Wheat Flour
- Preheat over to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, stir together peanut butter and pumpkin. Sift in the flour ¼ cup at a time just until the dough in no longer sticky.
- Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper until it is about ¼” thick.
- Use your favorite puppy or Halloween-themed cookie cutter to cut the shapes. Place on prepared cookie sheets
- Bake @ 350 for 8-10 minutes (non-convection setting). Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container (2 week shelf life) or freeze for up to 3 months.
NOTE: I would like to thank Kathryn Koh for the photos she sent me to use in this blog post. Kathryn is very involved with my school, Bergin University, back in Sonoma Valley, California. She volunteers to take many of the beautiful pictures of all the Bergin dogs, she is an active puppy raiser, trainer, foster home, canine caregiver, and helps out the school anyway she can!! Many Thanks from here in Victoria!