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Brace Your Dog for Halloween

Have a safe holiday whether your dog joins in on the fun or sits this one out.

There’s a lot to fear around Halloween with regards to safety and your dog. Here are some of the top threats as well as some things you can do now to prevent a ghastly scene on October 31st.

Halloween decorations and dogs don’t mix.

Holiday decorations may look like fun play things or chew toys to dogs, so keep these out of your dog’s reach lest they cause an emergency room visit or worse. Make sure your dog doesn’t trip over or chew on power cords. Keep your Jack-o-lanterns out of reach, especially if you have a fruit and veggie loving dog like my borzoi, Tatsuya, who’d happily munch down a whole, raw pumpkin if given the opportunity. While pumpkin isn’t toxic to dogs, eating too much of it could cause stomach upset, and knocking a lit one over could burn your dog or even start a fire in your home. On top of all that, some Halloween decorations may frighten your pet, so introduce them in a positive way, teaching your dog how to behave around them while also making sure your dog won’t be afraid of them right from the start.

A frightened dog can be a dangerous dog.

For some reason, many of us humans enjoy a good scare—at least when we understand that it’s all just make believe. Not so with dogs. I’ve never met a dog that enjoyed being frightened and it isn’t unusual for dogs to respond with aggression when they feel threatened.

Unless your dog had plenty of fun associations with people wearing costumes (and clowning around the way Halloween revelers do) before the age of three months, there’s a really good chance that she may be scared of the trick-or-treaters who come to your door.

Now’s a great time to hold a Halloween eve dress rehearsal, to introduce your dog to costumed family members and friends role playing the trick or treat routine. If your dog is anything other than relaxed and well-behaved during this pretest, consider your options. Do you have time to desensitize your dog sufficiently to rowdy, costumed trick-or-treaters? Will you be able to get your dog’s behavior into shape in time for this year’s holiday?

If you can’t confidently say your dog will behave like an angel, consider a management option like gating or tethering your dog in the house, away from the scene of costumed visitors rambunctiously chanting for treats. If your dog will be quite agitated by the whole scene and certainly if you fear she may behave aggressively, consider getting her comfortable with a Zen zone in your home, where she’ll be protected from not only from the sights but even the sounds of the festivities.

Not all dogs think dog costumes are cute.

While some dogs enjoy dressing up as much as they enjoy all the attention their outfits draw, other dogs really don’t. They may feel nervous as we wriggle them into their outfits causing them to growl or nip at us. They may feel generally uncomfortable wearing their costume (adding to their “stress cup” level and making them generally more irritable). They may feel uncomfortable with the attention their costume draws from the humans they meet. Many dogs feel threatened by direct eye contact, hands reaching towards them (especially towards their head) and people touching various parts of their body, and a dog in costume is at greater risk for all of these.

If you plan to dress your dog up for Halloween, start introducing your dog to her costume now, slowly, pairing every stage of the process with high value treats. Only when one stage is easy and enjoyable for your dog should you move to the next step.

The process might look something like this… Show your dog the costume. Treat. Drape the costume over her. Treat. Put the costume on in stages. Treat, treat, treat. With costume on, take a short walk. More treats. When people ooh and ahh over your dressed up dog, hand them treats to offer her. If your dog fails to get comfortable at any of these stages, you should NOT proceed to the next step, and that means no costume for your dog this year! You may decide to slowly continue the desensitization process in hopes of dressing her up next year.

If you have any doubts that a Halloween costume is a good choice for your dog, skip the costume. If you still feel compelled to dress your dog to show holiday spirit, you might consider a decorative collar or bandana.

Chocolate can kill your dog.

I think most dog lovers know never to give chocolate to dogs, but it bears repeating around this king of all chocolate-filled holidays. The amount of theobromine (the chemical compound in chocolate that is so very toxic to dogs) varies in different kinds of chocolate. The darker the chocolate, the more dangerous it is. The smaller the dog, the less chocolate it takes to cause problems.

Keep all Halloween sweets out of reach of pets, and have the phone numbers for pet poison hotlines, your nearest 24-hour pet emergency center and your regular veterinarian at the ready just in case. Most poison hotlines have an 800 number, so there is no charge for the call, but they usually charge a fee for the service. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center charges $65 and Pet Poison Helpline charges $39. The Kansas State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital advertises a free consultation, but they do not have an 800 number, so you’ll pay your regular rate for the call.

Dogs are sometimes the victims of cruel Halloween pranks.

Sadly, some humans find cruelty to animals to be entertaining Halloween pranks. Although black cats are the most likely target, your dog may also be at risk. Never leave your dog outdoors unattended around this holiday, even in a fenced yard!

Have a Safe and Happy Halloween!

With the right precautions, you and your dog can both enjoy a safe and happy holiday. If you need guidance with any of the training and behavioral goals I’ve talked about here, please consult a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist who uses positive reinforcement based techniques who can show you how to help your dog overcome any fears and learn the desired behavior without causing any unintended fear-related side effects.

If in doubt, sit this one out. Play it safe—if you think there’s a chance your dog may do harm to herself or others, have her relax in her Zen zone during trick-or-treat hours. If you can’t get her used to her Zen zone in time for this year’s holiday, consider putting a bowl of candy out front and then turning off all your lights so you can snuggle up with your dog to watch a movie.

May you and your loved ones enjoy a happy and incident-free Halloween!

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