It's that time of year and Halloween is rapidly approaching!
Whether you are training a service dog or a pet dog, you don't want them to be scared on Halloween night by all the spooky decorations. You can do some training now to help you have a more successful Halloween. The first thing you need to determine is what are plans for Halloween as that will change your approach to training before the activities start.
Trick-or-Treating or Walking the Neighborhood
If you plan to take your dog out on the town on Halloween night doing some trick-or-treating with friends and family, be sure to some training sessions around decorations before the day of fun. Training before the need allows you to slow down and let the dog explore the decorations at their pace and comfort level. If you are going out with kids or attending a costume contest, you will want to desensitize the dog to costumes before the big event too.
Azul has been around these types of decorations since he was a pup so he's pretty comfortable but in this video he is mildly stressed. Can you see it in this video?
The whole idea of desensitizing & counterconditioning (DS/CC) is to start at a distance where your dog can be comfortable and follow your directions. You will slowly move closer based on how your dog acts. If they are calm you move more quickly. If they start showing mild signs of stress you might be able to stay at that distance a bit, then if they relax you move forward more and if not you move back and the end the session there for the day. You want to use a high value reinforcement, most often high value food, for these types of sessions as this conditioning will help to change your dog's emotions from one of fear to one of happy. The dog thinks "This ghost decoration shows up and out comes the chicken. Hey, I like this ghost decoration!"
You also want to make sure your dog has the choice to move closer or move farther away. If you're visiting neighborhood decorations you may not want your dog to actually touch the decorations or let them get close enough to nip or pee on the decorations. Your neighbors will thank you for staying back far enough to not allow for damage.
During the training you have to be careful not to push your dog too far too fast! If your dog barks, lunges or otherwise reacts to the decoration you moved too close too fast and you hinder the efforts of counterconditioning because now that decoration is even more scary. Some dogs will curiously go up and sniff or touch a decoration(when appropriate), then be totally fine with it. If your dog is willing to do so, they shouldn't have a problem ignoring them on Halloween.
Outside I suggest doing these sessions in your neighborhood during the day when there are few people around. Often these decorations are less scary in the day time. Then do a few evening walks after dark before Halloween so that your dog is used to walking past the decorations in the dark as well.
Staying Home, Passing Out Candy, Avoiding People
If you're staying home on Halloween you may not focus as much on training sessions around outdoor decorations. Instead you may need to desensitize to common sights, sounds, and smells.
If you will pass out candy to trick-or-treaters you need to consider safety first. Is your dog friendly with strangers? What happens when someone knocks on the door? Does your dog run out the door the moment it's opened? First think of your dog's safety first!
If they are not friendly or like to bolt out the door you will want to either use a crate or baby gate to prevent your dog from getting too close to the door. If your dog is friendly and will participate in activities, you should consider having the dog drag a leash attached to a collar just incase you need some management to assist with overexcitement behaviors.
From this safe place you can work on creating calm behaviors before the big night. Will you leave your front door open, using only a screen door that night? If so, practice this by putting the dog in their safe space with a long lasting food reward such as a chew, stuffed kong, or lickmat. Then open the door and relax nearby. This will help your dog get used to the night sights, sounds, and smells in the neighborhood.
Then add in someone walking up to the door. You will probably want to practice having someone approach and knock plus approach and say Trick or Treat. When this happens drop and extra high value reward into your dog's safe space before you approach the door. If you have a family of kids nearby, invite them over to practice a few times during the day. Set up your house and safe space before they come. Ask them to approach slowly stopping if they hear barking and just stay there a moment, Once the barking stops they can approach more, knock, or say trick-or-treat. Once all is calm in the house, move out and give them a treat. Have them walk back away from the door a few feet while you remain at the door and have them approach again. If you have a neighborhood parent with a toddler, they will probably love the opportunity to practice!
By having a few dry runs or practice sessions during the day leading up to the big event, your dog can get used to the activity and you can look at your management resources to determine if you need to add another layer of safety or if your current set up will work for the big night.
If you are avoiding people that night, you may experience knocks on the door and shouts of trick-or-treat coming from the neighborhood so you may want to desensitize to those sounds before the event. If you don't want to set up a practice session as described above, watch some Halloween movies on TV while cuddled with your dog and reward your dog every time you hear someone knock or shout in the movie. It may seem like you are not even training but you are pairing good things with the sounds heard. Use movies or sound effects apps you can control the volume starting slow and gradually turning the volume up to replicate what it would be at your front door. With today's video tech, you can easily reply the same scene of someone knocking over and over again until your dog starts to realize that the sound will predict something awesome is coming.
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