Ask the Dog Trainer: Dog Doesn’t Think Halloween Is a Treat
Halloween is my family’s favorite time of year, but our dog Debbie hates it! She is frightened by decorations – especially moving figures – and barks nonstop when cheaters ring our doorbell.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’m considering sending my kids to my sister’s house just so they can have a Halloween without Debbie freaking out every time she sees a 7 year old Dracula with a pillowcase full of sweets. I just wish she was less crazy for our family’s favorite event of the year. To help!
Halloween can indeed be a stressful time for our four-legged friends. Ghouls, vampires, ghosts, zombies and monsters suddenly materialize on the once safe streets as masked and hooded figures lurk to the door! In the days leading up to Halloween, I suggest working on the following skills and hope Debbie – and your family’s spooky night – is a lot less stressful.
The first training exercise I recommend doing with Debbie is called Behavior Adjustment Training, or BAT. Dog trainers will use BAT to help desensitize dogs to any perceived threatening stimulus (vacuum cleaners, brooms, motorcycles, other dogs, men wearing hats, etc.)
To start this exercise, you’ll need any Halloween decorations that Debbie doesn’t like (for this example, I’m going to use a laughing clown display) and some treats. Put the clown in an open space and put Debbie on a leash. As you approach the clown, watch Debbie for any signs of stress. Ideally, you’ll want to stop walking before he starts barking or shows signs of worsening discomfort. Stand still and let her watch the clown without any strain on your leash. When he looks away from the clown or, better yet, looks at you, give him a treat and quickly move away from the clown. After backing up a few feet, turn heels and return to the display, stopping again just before Debbie barks or rushes. Wait for her to stop focusing on the perceived threat and focus on you, then repeat the exercise while walking away. With each successful repetition, you should find that you are able to get closer and closer to the clown. When Debbie is relaxed even sitting near the clown, encourage her to sniff him around and throw some treats at his feet so she can investigate and make sure there is in fact nothing to worry about.
It may seem counterintuitive to walk away from the clown once Debbie is looking at you, but it’s very important to eliminate the stressor as a reward rather than getting closer to the clown and rendering the effort of Debbie to ignore it. Once Debbie ignores the clown and can focus on you, change the clown to another decoration or go for a walk around your neighborhood. Whenever Debbie starts to get scared, pause, let her watch, and reward her by coming back on your way. came when she looks at you. Your rides will be full of zigzags and starts and stops, but when implemented correctly, BATs can be very effective in a remarkably short time. Working with a professional trainer is always advisable if you are frustrated or not seeing any progress.
Besides doing BAT on your daily walks, I also recommend getting Debbie familiar with the idea of costumes. It’s a great chance to rummage through your closet and pull out last year’s Dracula cape and teeth, Wonder Woman skirt, and Hulk body paint. The best time to get Debbie used to the weird clothes humans wear is before Halloween night, so put on your witch hat while you do the chores.
While you’re desensitizing the holiday decorations and familiarizing Debbie with your costumes, you can tackle the last and arguably most difficult part of the evening ahead; the doorbell. To lessen the excitement that the doorbell usually brings, you can work with your kids to get them in and out of the house frequently. Every time someone comes in, they have to ring the doorbell, wait for Debbie to stop barking and be completely quiet, then come in and reward her with a treat. Then leave and repeat. You should find Debbie barking less and less as the process of ringing the doorbell and people coming and going normalizes.
If Halloween is right around the corner and you aren’t able to get many successful workouts under your belt, you may want to consider consulting your vet about a calming aid to help Debbie get through the holidays. in the greatest possible comfort.
Hope this helps and you have a spooky and fun Halloween!
Kendall and Chandler Brown are owners of Custom K-9 Service Dogs, a dog training business serving Minden/Gardnerville, Carson and Reno. For more information visit customk9servicedogs.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.