It’s Halloween time, and the prospect of “trick-or-treating” and dressing up can be exciting for kids and adults alike. But for our dogs Halloween might be much less fun, and can actually be an extremely upsetting time.
Just like us, all dogs are different and will react differently. But for many dogs, Halloween brings its own set of frights and potentially terrifying challenges.
Sweets, chocolate, people wearing costumes, visitors to the door and the dark nights can all combine to make for a frightening and potentially dangerous time for our four-legged family members.
But with a bit of care it’s not hard to help your dog have a safe and happy Halloween. Here are a few suggestions.
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1. Ditch the doggy costumes Dressing up might be fun for us, but it can be frightening and confusing for dogs. While functional dog clothing – for drying and warmth – is sometimes useful, dressing up for entertainment is not always desirable for our dogs.
Many dogs actively dislike wearing clothing and some costumes can affect your dog’s movement, as well as their breathing and ability to sit, lie down or relax.
Don’t assume that a dog who stays still while wearing a costume is happy either – they might be showing signs of deep distress and learned helplessness. This is when animals appear to “give up” and it is associated with fear and distress.
If your dog tries to avoid having a costume put on, or otherwise appears unhappy, consider leaving the dressing up for the humans in the family.
2. Take care with your own costumes Doggy dressing up might not be on the cards, but it is important to also remember that your costumes could cause them distress. Dogs will often use physical and other cues from people to recognise them. Wearing costumes, unusual make-up and sometimes even moving, smelling or behaving in a different way can confuse our dogs. And this might lead to fear and anxiety.
Some dogs will simply avoid such situations and hide. But others might show a “startle” response by growling and barking, or they might demonstrate escalated and fear-based aggressive responses.
If your dog is concerned about anyone in costume gently reassure them and provide some tasty treats. Or it might be simpler and safer to provide your dog with a quiet space away from the excitement if they seem to remain worried.
3. Manage your doorstep visitors Visitors can be exciting or frightening for dogs, depending on the circumstances and the type of dog. The COVID-19 pandemic has also meant that many dogs have not had much experience of regular visitors to their homes, potentially leading to increased levels of anxiety, fear and behavioural issues.
Sadly, dog bites remain a significant risk to children – and a small risk to adults too – so careful management is important to protect your dog and any young visitors. Even the most placid dog can get frightened by costumes, noises and unexpected events, especially as the dark nights are drawing in. Our dogs often become accustomed to familiar surroundings and the sudden appearance of objects or people can startle them. Darkness can exacerbate this for some dogs.
If your dog gets distressed or aroused when the doorbell rings, or at the sound of visitors, consider using a simple sign on the door or garden gate to ask visitors to please avoid banging on your door or ringing your doorbell. Alternatively you could leave a bowl of treats for any trick-or-treaters outside if you want to share in the festivities.
If you wish to answer the door, you could prevent your dog accessing when you answer it, in the same way you would to protect postal and other workers. This might be especially important if you are likely to have children trick-or-treating in your neighbourhood and your dog is not used to being around children, especially when they are excited and in costumes.
Or you could give your dog access to a closed room or puppy pen with a tasty chew, with the TV or radio on as a distraction.
It might also be wise to forgo evening exercise and either provide a longer, earlier walk to avoid accidentally bumping into trick-or-treaters, or provide games and stimulation for your dog at home.
4. Take care with treats Many of the chocolates, treats and toys associated with Halloween can be potentially dangerous for our dogs. Small toys, sweet wrappers or decorations can be ingested, leading to digestive problems, or blockages in extreme cases.
Human sweets and treats are often high in calories and unhealthy for dogs, but sometimes they are potentially toxic too.
Take particular care with chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Raisins, grapes, and macadamia nuts can all be dangerous too, and are sometimes hidden in other treats and cakes. And look out for artificial sweeteners such as xylitol, which is especially toxic to dogs.
If you think your dog has eaten something dangerous, always seek veterinary advice immediately. Be alert to behaviour changes or signs of digestive discomfort such as vomiting. There are also online calculators which can be useful assessment tools if your dog has consumed chocolate.
Halloween can be a fun time for all. By taking some simple precautions we can ensure a safe and fun time for our dogs too.
(By Jacqueline Boyd, Nottingham Trent University Nottingham)