I confess that Halloween is my favorite holiday. I enjoy the creative costumes, haunted house attractions and horror films. For me, the creepy nature of the holiday is fun.
Behaviorally healthy dogs may accept Halloween activities like trick-or-treat visitors in costume as just another silly thing humans do. For many other dogs Halloween celebration can be truly frightening.
Years ago I trained a cute Dachshund puppy named Manny. I was a rookie trainer and he was a star student who excelled in the group training environment, but when he later went through adolescence he became fearful of things.
Manny perched daily at the living room window waiting for scary things to bark at. He was afraid of mail delivery, people passing by on the sidewalk and kids riding bikes. When visitors came to the door he was especially alarmed and this concerned his family.
On October 8th (2012) the owners called me for private consultation to help Manny overcome his fears. They lived in a neighborhood with many children, and Halloween trick-or-treating was a strong community tradition. Visitors wearing costumes could be expected from late afternoon through early evening, knocking on the door or ringing the doorbell and shouting “Trick or treat!” when the door opened.
The owners understood that would be tough on Manny. I developed a training, behavior and management plan. We worked with Manny several times before October 31 and he made steady progress.
On the day after Halloween the family reported having 70 costumed visitors, and Manny remained content during what could have been a night of horror for him.
Fast forward to 2018 and the majority of my dog clients have generalized anxiety, fears and phobias. The approach of even a single person near their home is enough to trigger a fear response for many of these dogs. Each startle activates the HPA-axis and releases adrenaline, noradrenaline and possibly cortisol.
The resultant “flight or fight” response prepares the body for action. Blood pressure, heart rate and respiration increase. Blood flows from the brain and digestive system to muscles, impeding access to the frontal cortex while the amygdala and limbic system hijack behavior.
The dog becomes reactive and it’s behavior is intense. It takes time for a frightened dog to recover homeostasis, and recovery is interrupted by each successive frightening stimuli. Sustained activation of the HPA-axis is harmful to health and causes distress.
Now that we understand what can go wrong, let’s take steps to make it go well.
Helping your dog survive Halloween
• Remove your pet from the environment where trick-or-treaters will be. If you work in a business place (or own one) consider spending time with your dog there instead of at home, or seek shelter with a friend or relative who lives in isolation. (Living in the countryside I have not had a Halloween visitor in 25 years.)
• Give your dog plenty of exercise and play throughout the day.
• If you stay home you may station a family member outside the front door with a supply of treats, greeting trick-or-treaters so they do not knock, ring the doorbell or enter.
• A family member can entertain your dog in a room away from the activity, engaging in play and training games. Food-filled puzzles and toys are great fun and engage the seeking system in the brain, releasing dopamine.
• Play calming music or use a white noise machine to mask neighborhood sounds.
• Enhance the environment with an Adaptil diffuser, spray or a dog collar.
• Consult your veterinarian ahead of time for a prescription to reduce anxiety on Halloween.
• Employ a force-free behavior consultant to help desensitize and counter-condition your dog to triggering stimuli, such as people passing by the house, approaching the house, wearing costumes, knocking and doorbell sounds, and so on. Ideally a family living with a dog suffering anxiety or fear will already be working with a qualified professional. The Pet Professional Guild has a search tool to find professionals in your vicinity.
• With the abundance of candies associated with Halloween, extra care should be taken to prevent dogs from eating them. Chocolate, raisins and sugar-free candies with Xylitol are especially toxic.
Halloween costumes for pets
It may also be tempting to take a dog to a Halloween costume party, which has become popular in many local communities. Last year I attended such an event and observed about 30 dogs in costume inside a pet supply store where they were required to pose for a photograph.
Based on my interpretations of canine body language, one-third of the dogs seemed to enjoy the experience. Another third appeared to be merely tolerating it, while the rest were clearly stressed. Some barked, growled and lunged at nearby dogs.
Of all the pet owners present, only one of them acted as their dog’s best advocate and removed their pet from the environment upon seeing stress signs. He was a client of mine so he probably had a better understanding of canine stress than others, who did nothing to help their dogs.
If your dog truly enjoys wearing a costume and engaging in Halloween social activities then have fun with it. However, many dogs would be stressed and unhappy in those circumstances. Making pets suffer for our entertainment is not fun, or humane.
As always, be your dog’s best advocate…and enjoy the holiday.
Horwitz, Debra F. (2013) What Makes Anxiety Such an Insidious Cause of Behavioral Illnesses in Dogs and Cats. Applied Animal Behavior Conference (Madison, WI)
O’Heare, James. (2007). Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals. DogPsych Publishing
Sung, Aailani. (2017) Recognizing Fear, Anxiety and Stress in the Veterinary Patient. Applied Animal Behavior Conference (Madison, WI)