Halloween brings with it some safety concerns for our pups but also provides great opportunities to train some really valuable skills. A bit of planning and prep work can help make sure that your puppy not only safely survives Halloween but comes away from the experience with enhanced skills.
Halloween Risks for Puppies (and older dogs).
1. Escape! With the door being opened repeatedly it is important to prevent dogs from darting out the door. The risk of a dog running out the door may be increased if a costume or small excitable person suddenly startles them.
a. Create an ‘air lock’ around the front door using an Xpen with enough room for the person manning the door to be inside and to open and close the door. Be sure the Xpen is high enough your dog cannot jump or climb over and make sure it is stable enough that it cannot be pushed over.
b. If your puppy is happy in a crate, you can settle him in his crate with a high value chew toy like a bully stick. You may want to put him in a quiet part of the house away from the door – or you may want him to be able to hear and see what is going on while he enjoys something special.
2. Embedding Fears: If your puppy is in or around a fear period, or already has an established fear of people or strange costumes, Halloween experiences may make those fears more severe. There are several fear periods during a puppy’s development but the window during which a fear period may emerge is wide and it is difficult to predict when it will happen, so owners need to be vigilant in watching for signs of a fear period in their puppies. The first fear period occurs between 8 and 11 weeks, and the second fear period typically occurs between 4-6 and 14 months and often corresponds to a growth spurt. How do you know if your dog is in a fear period? A good indicator is that suddenly your dog is displaying fear of something that previously caused him no concern and with which he is quite familiar. If Halloween happens to fall during a fear period, there is a high risk that he will develop entrenched fear of the exposures that he experiences during the event. If you think your puppy might be in a fear period, avoid involving him in any Halloween activities and on Halloween night, make sure he is in a quiet area where he cannot see or hear what is going on. A quiet room distant from the action, in a crate (if he loves his crate) and a nice safe chew item will help. You can use white noise or play classical music to help mask sounds. Be sure to supervise carefully to make sure your efforts to keep him comfortable are working.
3. Toxic ingestions: Be sure to keep Halloween treats safely out of reach. Some common toxic substances that are often available at Halloween include: raisins, chocolate and xylitol (in sugarless gum and other sugar free treats).
4. Be safe outside: If your pet needs to go outside on Halloween night, be sure to go out with him rather than letting him out into the yard unsupervised. Many children are attracted to puppies and are tempted to open gates, or give your dog a treat, or try to pet puppies through fences (which your pup may perceive as a threat). Pets left unsupervised outside may also be vulnerable to pranks or theft.
Halloween Opportunities for Pet owners
Halloween offers us some wonderful training opportunities. In order to take advantage of those opportunities, you need to have one person dedicated to training while someone else manages the door. Some of the lessons your dog might learn on Halloween include:
1. Socializing from a distance: one lesson we learned during the challenges of socializing puppies in the COVID era is that puppies can learn much from simply watching things happen around them. The puppy does not have to be immediately involved to benefit from what he sees and hears. If your puppy is under 20 weeks, you might want to set him up where he can see and hear all that is going on, but with a barrier to keep him from direct contact in the doorway. The goal is to observe, not directly interact. Ideally you would like to position your puppy where he can easily see people in costumes, but where he also has the opportunity to move further away if he is uncomfortable. Avoid coaxing / luring or forcing your puppy to come closer. If he does approach eagerly, that is great. If he seems uncertain but takes a step closer you can reward that by tossing a treat behind him so that he moves away to get it. Allowing him to move away gives him the opportunity to choose to move closer, but the relief of moving away after approaching and helps build his confidence faster and better than luring him closer. Be sure to have plenty of high value treats to help make the experience wonderful. This is a great opportunity for puppies that are already fairly confident and can gain benefit from more and new exposures. It will not to be a good experience if you have a very timid, nervous puppy. For such puppies, it is better and safer to keep them in a quiet place away from the action. Socialization for these puppies needs to be done in a very carefully controlled manner to avoid causing harm.
2. Settle: teaching your puppy to relax on cue is a great behaviour that will serve him (and you) well throughout his life. To work on this during Halloween, you want to do some work before Halloween night so that your puppy understands the basic behaviour. Here is a You tube video on teaching your dog to relax: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr1olzgidMw On Halloween night you can have a handler work with your puppy to reinforce him for relaxing while the doorbell rings, the door opens, people talk at the door, and strange people appear in the doorway.
3. Doorbell manners: Halloween is a good time to help your puppy learn that the doorbell predicts good things – and does not require him to launch into a bark fest. You will need a dedicated handler armed with high value treats to work with him. Each time the doorbell rings, the handler will immediately give the dog a treat – before he has an opportunity to bark. Lickable treats like cream cheese or peanut butter (be sure your peanut butter is xylitol free) work well to keep the puppy busy (and not barking!). If your puppy is ok with you putting a finger in his mouth, you can even place a dab of cheese or peanut butter on the roof of his mouth so that he has to work at it a bit to get it down. This will make it more difficult for him to bark. If your dog is already a barking fiend when the doorbell rings – Halloween is NOT the time to work on this as the risk of him practicing the behaviour you want to eliminate is high. Instead work on it when you have total control over when the doorbell sounds and when the other aspects of Halloween night are not in play. For Halloween night, set him up in a safe place away from the distractions and where the doorbell is not easily heard. You might even want to disconnect or disable the doorbell for the night.
4. Distraction proof simple behaviours: Halloween night provides wonderful opportunities to work simple, well-known behaviours around distractions and thereby make those behaviours even stronger. Make a list of behaviours your puppy knows well and which you would like to take to the next level – sit, down, come, touch, stay are excellent choices but you can work on any behaviour at which your puppy is already proficient. Make sure you have a secure place to work near the action. Prepare some very high value treats and throughout the evening ask your puppy for these behaviours while things are going on around him. Again it is helpful if you can have someone focusing on training while someone else manages the visitors.
A few things to keep in mind:
▪ You do need someone who can focus exclusively on training to make sure your training goals are met.
▪ Training sessions should be short with lots of breaks. Set a timer so that you do not overdo it. Train in 5-10 minute blocks (or shorter if that is all your puppy can do) and then have a play or rest session away from the action for 20-30 minutes.
▪ Work where your puppy is comfortable. Some puppies may be comfortable 3 or 4 feet from the door – others may need greater distance. If your puppy is not able to take treats, he is not comfortable and either needs more distance, or perhaps needs to be removed completely from the situation.
▪ If your puppy is showing signs of fearfulness or unease, stop, move away from the activity and help your puppy settle in a quiet area.
▪ Halloween is not a good time to ask your puppy to directly meet people / children. Costumes and decorations can be intimidating, children are often excitable and may be loud. Stressed puppies may resort to nipping or growling and may ‘learn’ that children are scary.
▪ Puppies do not learn anything good when they are frightened. Never scare your puppy – and never ask him to remain in a situation where he is afraid.
While Halloween does provide great opportunities for socializing and training, if you are unable to provide dedicated supervision or if you are unsure if your puppy is ready for the experience, it is better to keep your puppy away from the action and set him up in a safe, comfortable environment where he can quietly enjoy a treat dispensing toy or other safe chew treat.