Megan’s Musings: Halloween: Less Tricks, More Treats


The world can be scary for our dogs on any given day due to the variety of new situations, people or objects they can run into. Many of our holidays are stressful and potentially scary for dogs, but Halloween is one that can be just as scary for dogs as it is for some people. All of the sudden, dogs are faced with strange things on lawns that may move or make noises, bizarre looking creatures they have never seen before and there is a lot of excitement in the air that can make them nervous. However, Halloween does not need to be scary for your dog! In fact, this is a great opportunity for training and socialization. In this post, I am going to share some of the key areas you should focus on for preparing your dog to ensure everyone can have a safe and happy Halloween! Fill this Halloween with more treats and less tricks for your dog!

Seeing your dog in a costume may be too cute to resist, but could actually be quite stressful and unenjoyable for them. Do not just put a costume on your dog right before taking them out in it. Take the time to slowly introduce the costume to ensure they are comfortable to wear it and to avoid them fussing at it and trying to remove it.

  1. At first, let you dog investigate the costume; let them approach, smell it and touch the material. Reward them with small treats for these interactions and to begin introducing it as a positive item.
  2. If there are multiple parts of the costume, put one piece on at a time. Reward your dog with treats, praise calmly and start with only short intervals.
  3. Ensure your dog is comfortable and does not fuss. If at anytime, they fuss or show signs of stress, you are putting the item on too quickly or for too long. Take your time with this as you slowly introduce the costume to your dog.
  4. If you are not making progress, talk with your trainer, try another costume or just realize they may be ready for a costume yet this year. By listening to your dog and working at their pace, you will see much more progress over their lifetime then you will if you try to force them into being comfortable.

Halloween has become a time when people are filling their yards with new and scary decorations. All of these new items suddenly appearing on the neighbourhood walks can be overwhelming for your dog. And do not forget about the impact the decorations in your yard may have. It may seem amusing and silly to us, but for your dogs, these can create extreme stress and anxiety. Be sure to take the time to slowly introduce your own decorations and pair them with food rewards to ensure your dog is comfortable with all of them.

For decorations at your home:

  1. Ensure they are powered off and place them a safe distance away from your dog. Reward your dog with treats for approaching the items and toss treats towards them if they are too nervous to approach.
  2. Work at your dog’s pace and do short sessions. Take the time to introduce the decorations, especially with any that move or make sound, so that they do not startle your dog and cause them to be even more afraid of them.
  3. Be sure to take the time to introduce decorations appropriately before putting them up in your home or yard. Reward frequently, keep sessions short and work at your dog’s pace.
  4. If they are too nervous of an item, do not put the item out or keep it at a distance your dog is comfortable with. Work with the other decorations and continue to socialize your dog so that they may be more comfortable for future Halloweens.

For decorations when you are out on walks:

  1. Cross the street if you dog is nervous, and work at a distance they are comfortable with. Reward them for looking at the decorations, offering you attention and if they approach.
  2. If they are unsure, lay a trail of treats to get closer, but do not rush to get right up to the decoration on the first attempt.
  3. Take your time, keep sessions short and ensure your dog is comfortable and taking treats.
  4. If they are too nervous, avoid these houses until after Halloween when the decorations have been put away and work on ones that your dog is not so nervous with.

Having the doorbell ring all night with strange creatures on the other side can be a terrifying experience for your dog. Even if your dog is not scared of the trick-or-treaters, it can be a frustrating time for you if your dog becomes too excited with the doorbell. Children may also be scared of dogs, so it is important that your dog is not at the door to greet them when you first open the door. The first step to ensure success is to teach door manners by following the below steps:

  1. Ring the doorbell (your dog can see you do this as they are likely to still get excited).
  2. Cue the dog to go to their kennel or behind their gate and lure them to their spot. Do not physically pull them, but lure them. Drop treats on the ground, if needed, to keep them moving. It may take a while at first, but with practice, it will quickly speed up! *Note: your dog must be kennel trained or comfortable behind a gate. If not, please read our post on Alone Training.
  3. Toss the treats in the kennel or behind the gate, and close the door/gate behind them.
  4. Walk away and wait for your dog to settle. Stay out of sight and ignore all barking or whining. If this it too much for your dog, start with just closing the gate, rewarding your dog and letting them back out. Slowly build up the time and distance and then being able to walk out of sight.
  5. Once your dog settles, walk back to them (turn and walk away if they begin to bark/whine again). Let the dog out and completely ignore them and go about your business. We want to teach them that coming out is no big deal. The good stuff happens behind the gate and we want them coming out in a calm manner.
  6. Repeat until your dog happily goes behind the gate/into their kennel and is calm. Expect that you will always have some initial barking, but the dog should quickly go to their spot when they hear the doorbell versus running to the door.
  7. Repeat all of the above with family members or people your dog knows and is comfortable with coming to the front door and ringing the doorbell. Have family members do this every time they come home and set this up with friends/family who your dog knows and is comfortable with.
  8. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!

For introducing your dog to costumes:

  1. This can be difficult to fully prepare for as there will be such a range of children and costumes coming to your dog, so be sure to follow the above door manners steps.
  2. You can prepare your dog by putting on various costume items and pairing them with food rewards. Reward your dogs for all good behaviour and if they approach and/or investigate what you are wearing.
  3. If they are too nervous to approach, take the item off and place it on the floor to start. Be sure to reward your dog for looking at and/or approaching the item.
  4. Have a variety of people put on costumes and show them as many new items as possible and then practice with them coming in the door after ringing the doorbell.
  5. Remember to keep your sessions short, reward frequently and work at your dog’s pace!

To keep our dogs safe, we must ensure that Halloween treats are out of their reach! Ingredients such as chocolate and xylitol (and artificial sweetener) can not only make our dogs sick, but can also be fatal. Do not risk it and always keep treats put away somewhere safe where you can be guaranteed they cannot get them. Wrappers can also cause blockage or be fatal to our dogs if they ingest them, so ensure you throw them out as soon as you unwrap any of your delicious treats! Don’t forget to get some special dog goodies for your dog to enjoy over the Halloween holiday as well!

Fearful dog?
Take them away from all of the activity if possible. If you are staying home with them, turn off all the lights so trick-or-treaters are unlikely to come to your door and enjoy time with your dog tucked in for the evening. Before the busy night of trick-or-treaters, take them out to open spaces for a nice walk at their pace and avoid the busy neighbourhood. On Halloween night, provide them with chew bones and/or stuffed kongs to keep them busy. Avoid letting them out in the backyard or supervise them if you do. Make it a goal to help your dog and get them into fearful dog classes and work with a reward-based trainer this year!

Is your dog nervous of decorations or costumes?
Work at their pace. If they are not comfortable with something this year, use it as a goal for the next year. Put it away and work on making them comfortable with other items in the house and outside at a distance they are comfortable with. Remember that the risk of rushing is too great, so take your time and/or work with a reward-based trainer!

Do you have a social dog you want to involve in the festivities?
If your have your dog at the door or out trick-or-treating, be sure to give them breaks. Make sure they have been exercised that day, but provide structured and focused exercise along with mental stimulation so they are not aroused/over-tired. Reward them for all good behaviour and ensure they are comfortable. If they show calming signals/signs of stress, take them home or put them in another room. Pay attention and be aware of how your dog is feeling. And if they are comfortable and behaving well, be sure to reward them frequently, so that they can enjoy Halloween with you for many years to come.

Happy Halloween everyone! Thank you for helping make it a safe and fun one for both you and your dogs!

Megan’s Musings: Learning from Belize Dogs

miaMe and Mia at the Pickled Parrot

I have to say it. Belize really is un-belizeable. I had the privilege of spending 10 days there in January and had a wonderful holiday. I loved the heat, the people, the scenery and especially loved watching the many dogs roaming the streets, hanging out freely in the restaurants and running along with the children. Having lived in Indonesia when I was young and spending time there as an adult, I have been fascinated with the behaviour of these local dogs for many years. I am always impressed with how they live within these communities and have enjoyed watching how their roles have evolved over the years. Nowadays, dogs are on collars, walk on leash or off leash beside their owners, live in houses and there are even grooming and daycare/training shops. It’s exceptional to see how their relationship with humans has developed and I enjoyed watching how integrated they are in the community. In today’s post, I am going to share some of what I learned from watching them and what we can apply to our dogs in the urban environment.

Their life is good
We assume that because these dogs don’t lounge on couches all day, eat high quality meals that are fed to them by us, don’t get out on neighbourhood walks with us and don’t have a basket full of interactive toys, that they are unhappy. We have this idea that the life we provide for them is the best, but every time I watch these dogs, I question if that is true. I watch dogs roam around all day, explore, nap in the shade, romp in the water and run around playing with the children. They are free to do what they want and they have active lives full of enrichment all around them. We did see the odd dog who was in need of vet care and only one who was scared. But otherwise, they were very happy and healthy dogs.

They are well-socialized
We did see many puppies and only saw one tied up. Otherwise they were running with the big dogs, playing with the children, watching the world or being carried around. They are easily socialized as they are part of the community, are out exploring and being exposed to everything around them. It happens naturally and it powerful. They don’t sit alone in a house all day with limited exposure. Instead they are out in the real world all the time and the world just becomes normal for them, not an occasional thing. These dogs become so socialized that they live amongst, and for the most part ignore, people, other dogs, children, cats, chickens, cars and everything else. They learn where they are welcome and where not to go and I have always been fascinated to watch how they navigate traffic. We could learn a lot from this and it has really got me thinking about how we can do better for our dogs in urban cities. We must keep them safe, but perhaps we need to look at making socialization more natural. Stay tuned on what we implement in our programs to help our puppies be even more successful in our busy human world.

mexico dogA Mexican dog enjoying a back massage

They are well-behaved
We did not see one that had behaviour concerns that were preventing them from living amongst the community. I did not ask much about this and would love to go back and learn more. What happens if they do have serious concerns? I imagine most don’t survive if they pose a safety risk, but I’d be curious to know how many actually do have concerns. We did meet one dog who as we were walking towards the dock was lying nearby, a man just told us not to say hello as he would bite. We did not, walked right by him and he did not even react. Perfect. How great would it be for our dogs here if they could trust that we would actually listen and not force ourselves on them? This dog was obviously well-loved and they respected his request to not have strangers pet him. It was not viewed as a bad thing. It was just the way he was.

There was no jumping, very minimal barking, they ran alongside their owners off-leash and waited patiently outside stores for them when they could not go in. It was beautiful and exactly what our relationships should be like. They don’t jump because not one person approaches them with over-the-top hellos. In fact, most people just walk by and ignore them. It was only the tourists that I saw that felt the need to say hello to the dogs. The locals treat them as we treat people; perhaps just a smile and nod as they passed them by. When we did hear barking, no one did a thing. Nothing. No response, no yelling and no trying to shush them. And the dogs would just settle on their own and go on their way. This is exactly why these dogs follow along and stay happily with their family. They accept them as dogs and let them be. It is amazing to see and it just seems so natural.

mia2Mia keeping Kris working fetch duty

They are loved
The biggest take-away for me was that these dogs are so loved. They were running with children, being embraced while watching the world go by with their family on the porch, playing fetch and just living life as dogs doing dog things. I would often watch them happily trotting alongside their humans, snuggling in for the occasional embrace or pet and thoroughly enjoying their time following their owner to see what the next adventure would bring. They are family and they are their dogs. I have no doubt there are some sad stories, but overall I feel like these dogs have a very good life. I often overheard tourists commenting on them and feeling sorry for the dogs and listened in on a rescue group talk about how many dogs they were pulling and sending to cities all over North America. It may have been just a limited view, but I am not sure that pulling the dogs from this environment and into our cities is making the right choice for the dog. Perhaps there are other ways we can help. These dogs are loved and they are part of the community.

The best part? I did not see one dog corrected or punished. Not one. I am sure it happens, but I did not see aversive tools and people take a different approach to how they work with them. There was no yelling, they let them be dogs and it seems to really work. My first day back, I was out only to drive to Fish Creek Park and saw five people walking along, their dogs attached to them with a leash and continually correcting them as the dog walked along. No attempt at training. No understanding of how unnatural this was for the dog. Just punishment and frustration. It is no wonder we see the behaviour problems that we have here. We have evolved our relationship and brought dogs into the home as part of the family and then we can’t even spend the time to train them and punish them for being dogs. We need to do better for them. Let’s learn from Belize.