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Halloween can be spooky for dogs, too

The leaves have begun to change and temperatures have dropped. Halloween is around the corner and costumes are around every turn. 

Pet parents who want to do activities with their dog may find themselves gravitating toward costumes for their canine friends. Just imagine the Instagram photo you can showcase with your dog dressed as a headless horseman or a cute little candy corn. 

Unfortunately, many dogs don’t do well with costumes and the more involved the costume, the harder it is for a dog to communicate with his/her owner, and even more importantly, with other dogs around them. Dogs rely on very subtle body language, sometimes as simple as a lip lick, an ear tilt, or a stiffened posture, to tell others they are feeling uneasy with a situation. It is easy to miss these signals in normal circumstances, so when the dog has a costume on, it becomes even trickier. Your dog might be trying to tell little Fido from down the street that he’s scared and doesn’t want him to come any closer, but because of the costume, Fido runs right up, and a fight ensues. 

So, what is the best way to still take your dog out and have fun, but keep them as comfortable as possible? 

If you want to dress your dog up, it’s best to keep it minimal. A fun Halloween scarf or a very small item hooked to a harness that sits up above and doesn’t obstruct their body are two options. 

If you absolutely have to have them in a costume, don’t pull the costume out of the package and put it directly on your dog. Take your time and use classical conditioning and desensitization to help your dog get used to the costume and learn that it’s something fun, not something scary. It’s all about taking baby steps and working up to your dog wearing the costume. 

For example, when you bring the costume home, bring your dog in and let him sniff the package. When he sniffs it, tell him “good” and give him a treat he loves. Repeat several times before you even take the costume out of the package.

From there, take the costume out, but don’t put it on the dog. Repeat the same steps with the dog sniffing the costume itself, then getting a treat.

Gradually work up to gently laying the costume on the dog for a very short time without fastening it, giving a treat, then removing the costume. Increase the time you lay the costume on the dog, while giving treats and then removing the costume. Finally, let him wear the costume for a short time while getting treats.

When the costume comes off, all treats stop. Your dog will quickly learn his costume means he gets yummy food. (If your dog isn’t food motivated, use his favorite toy or something else that he enjoys).  If you take your time (this process should take several days up to a week) and gradually work up to him wearing the costume, he will be much more comfortable.

When he is in costume, try to keep him away from other dogs and anything he isn’t already comfortable with. If he isn’t socialized to being around little kids or large groups of people, taking him out trick or treating probably isn’t the best way to introduce him to these things, especially when scary ghosts and ghouls are out. We have a much deeper understanding of the world than our dogs, so what we see as human sized witch costume is a “very tall, scary thing with a pointy hat that makes loud noises and is coming toward me” for a dog. If your dog is already comfortable with people, little kids and costumes, and is used to walking the route you will be taking, then by all means, bring them along!

Halloween is fun a time for kids and adults alike. For pet parents, it’s a good exercise to take a step back and try to look at the world from their pet’s perspective. We all like having them come with us to events and parties, so it’s always a good thing to work with them to be able to attend those events without fear or being uncomfortable.

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