Halloween is the annual holiday of fun, make believe and trickery that so many of us look forward to. In addition to planning costumes and buying treats for the kids, us pet parents need to be extra careful when considering how very overwhelming Halloween can be for our four-legged companions. Our dogs can often be triggered by all the spooky sights and sounds, particularly pups that are on the more sensitive or reactive side. But it doesn't have to be a scary night for our dogs if we do some planning ahead. Here are some helpful tips to keep your dog safe & comfortable on Halloween night.
1. Rest & Reaction Prevention
Keeping your pet calm and avoiding reactions is key, so the first thing to remember is to keep your pup inside on Halloween night. Fireworks, candy wrappers, loud noises, endless doorway activity and strange zombie-like humans walking about the streets can all add up to a bit too much for the average dog.
Provide your dog a safe place to relax inside, away from windows, doors and the commotion of trick or treater’s. Nervous, reactive or fearful dogs should be removed entirely so that they are not exposed to triggers that cause them stress. Try getting them used to being in another room, behind a baby gate or in their crate away from common areas in the weeks before Halloween.
If your dog doesn't like to be alone or is not comfortable with people at the door, hunker down with them and make a cozy night of it! Turn ‘Hocus Pocus’ on to drown out exterior noises, consider dressing them in a thundershirt for some calming compression, and keep them comfortable (bed snuggles encouraged).
Drowning out scary sounds is key. Close windows, play calming music or white noise, or turn on the TV to keep out the sudden loud noises and help your dog feel safe.
When your dog is removed from the commotion at the doorway, you can offer frozen Kongs, dog safe bones, a safe chew like a bully stick in a holder, kibble dispensing toys like a snuffle mat, or other food distractions to keep them engaged.
Do not encourage people to come to the door if you have a sensitive pup. Leave candy outside or turn lights off and make the home generally look vacant to discourage the kiddos from knocking and disrupting your dog.
2. Avoid Conflict
If your dog loves people & is easily overexcited, recurring knocks, bells, and doors opening to kiddos in costumes can be highly stimulating and lead to jumping, barking and restlessness. To ensure your dog is not scaring the kids or practicing jumping or barking at guests every time the doorbell rings, provide slightly more than the usual amount of exercise for your dog on Halloween day to help keep them sleepy and calm in the evening.
Keep in mind that overdoing exercise can cause more restlessness, so be mindful of finding the balance between too much and not enough. Avoid taking them out for walks at night at the height of festivities. Instead, sneak out for a quick potty break when things have quieted down - but be sure to watch what out for stray candy or chocolate your dog could snatch up.
Consider how to calm your dog down. Perhaps you allow your dog to come to the door only half of the time that someone rings the bell, instead of every time. Put them behind a baby gate or have someone else distract/manage them so they are not getting overwhelmed. Offering them something to chew on can also help reduce stress and arousal, giving them something to focus on when people come to the door rather than barking and jumping.
With all of the activity at the door, be super mindful that your dog doesn't get a chance to sneak out. This can be a safety issue, so if you do not trust your dog to stay inside, use a baby gate to block off the front doorway. This will mean less management for you and more enjoyment of the array of costumes!
3. Pet Safety First
Chocolate or candy wrappers can be deadly for our pups, so as much as we love the treats and extra delights around the house, managing your dog’s access to all of the goodies is the best way to avoid an emergency vet visit. Keep candy filled bowls, pillowcases and boxes of the human treats removed and out of your dog’s reach. Assume that they will get curious and hunt for that delicious smell, so remain vigilant and cautious about where you or your family members are leaving Halloween treats for your dog to find.
4. Read the Room
Learning how to understand your dog’s body language and what your dog is communicating will allow you to understand if they are stressed or comfortable with the doorway activity.
General signs of stress or discomfort include:
- Panting & drooling
- Pacing & hiding behind things
- Licking paws & hind end
- Scratching & shaking off as if they were wet
- Yawning & lip licking
- Trembling & restlessness
- Tucked tail, flat ears & hair on back standing up
If your dog exhibits these behaviors, especially a collection of them, remove them from the doorway activity, give them a safe calm place to rest, and try one of the soothing tips described above.
Do not overdo it! Although Halloween might be fun for you, it is very tough for most dogs. Rest and reset time is key to reducing their stress. Pay attention to what they might be communicating to you and take action to help them feel more at ease.
5. Train & Reward
If your dog struggles to keep calm with doorway guests, this entire evening might be an anticipated nightmare for you. Feel free to manage or remove your dog and not expose them to people coming to the door, particularly if your dog is wary of strangers.
However, if your dog is relatively confident and has some training foundation but just gets excitable when guests come to the door, this can be a great training opportunity for you and your dog! Teaching "Go to Bed" or "Place" is a handy skill to help manage your dog's excitement when the doorbell rings and keep them quiet. Halloween is not the best time to try this skill for the first time, so only give this a try if you've already been working on this command and your dog has a solid track record of responding when there are few distractions around.
To get started, move their bed away from sight of the doorway, and have them on a leash and harness. As soon as they see the person at the door, cue them (while holding the leash) or lure them to go to their bed using their favorite treats or even their kibble dinner. Reward them liberally when they go to the bed. This is hard for them!
Once they are able to stay on the bed with lots of rewards, and remain calm, perhaps you can invite them to politely greet the guest. Reward them again for not barking or for not jumping! This way, next Halloween you have an easier time with your dog understanding manners with guests at the door.
Enlist the help of a local positive reinforcement trainer to help you teach your dog to “go to bed” & “stay” on their bed with distractions at the doorway if you are keen to make this skill Halloween proof year after year.
Overall, it is very important that you consider how Halloween night may impact your dog and make a plan in advance. Buy some treats for them, a chew stick, choose a movie, some popcorn for you and have a fun night with your pup.
Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 9, Issue 5, September-October 2014, Pages 215-221; The effect of a pressure wrap (ThunderShirt®) on heart rate and behavior in canines diagnosed with anxiety disorder