We’re coming up on one of my favorite holidays, Halloween, but it is not necessarily the favorite holiday for pets. Here are a few behavioral tips to help your pet have a stress free holiday.
A note about costumes
If you want to dress your dog in an outfit, please make should make sure your dog is comfortable. Dogs will communicate this with their bodies. Some signs of a happy dog are: relaxed body muscles; loose lips or even open mouth with loose tongue; rhythmic panting. If wearing an outfit causes your dog to feel stressed, he may be more likely to become reactive – especially when on a leash, in the dark, with so many strange sights and sounds and kids running around. Some signs that a dog is not comfortable include: his tail may be down, his body may be tight, he may have a tense mouth, you will see the whites on the sides of his eyes, his ears may be back, he may yawn or lick his chops.
Exercise your dog well BEFORE Trick-or-Treaters arrive
By doing this you will raise the value of rest and lower the value of excitable behaviors.
Teach behavior skills IN ADVANCE of the holiday
If your want your dog with you when opening your front door or while sitting at the street, the time to be teaching behaviors such as settle, sit/down, stay, and calm greetings is before that first doorbell on October 31.
Teach dog positive associations with Halloween noises and possible sights
In advance of the holiday, you will help your pet by teaching him positive associations with the strange costumes and noises that will be around. Practicing pairing noises with a tasty treat while your dog is not stressed will help to teach him those noises and sights are good things.
Systematic desensitization is a positive approach to not just overcoming fear, but also to teaching the animal to re-associate the fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting stimulus. (This process is called counter conditioning.) With systematic desensitization, you gradually expose the animal to what is scary to it and the criteria for advancing to the next step is your watching his calm behavior and only moving forward at a pace that does not elicit even the mildest of fear responses. The beauty of this is that the animal is always in total control. And empowerment builds confidence. If you need some guidance for doing this successfully, please seek professional help
Dogs with any kind of reactivity and/or fear issues should be out of sight
You may have the best of intentions, thinking you are helping your pet to get used to different sights and sounds but if your dog has an established fear response, you could actually be increasing your pet’s emotional response. The time for successful counter conditioning is not in the height of an environment where the dog is overwhelmed with stimulus.