By Kendall and Chandler Brown
Friday, October 7, 2022
Halloween is my family’s absolute favorite time of year, but our dog Debbie hates it! She is frightened by the decorations – especially the figures that move – and barks non-stop when the trick-or-treaters ring our doorbell.
It has gotten to the point where I’m considering sending my kids to my sister’s house just so they can experience a Halloween without Debbie freaking out whenever she sees a 7-year-old Dracula with a pillowcase full of candy. I just wish she would be less crazy for our family’s favorite event of the year. 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 while masked and hooded figures prowl right up to the door! In the days leading up to Halloween, I suggest working on the following skills and hopefully Debbie – and your family’s-spooky evening – will be far 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 stimulus that is a perceived threat (vacuums, brooms, motorcycles, other dogs, men in hats etc.)
To begin this exercise, you will need any Halloween decoration that Debbie dislikes (for this example, I’ll use a laughing clown display) and some treats. Set the clown up in an open space and put Debbie on leash. As you approach the clown, observe Debbie for any signs of stress. Ideally, you’ll want to stop walking before she begins to bark or display signs of deepening discomfort. Stand still and let her observe the clown without any tension on your leash. When she looks away from the clown or better yet, glances back at you, give her a treat and promptly walk away from the clown. After you’ve retreated a few yards, turn on your heel and return to the display, once again stopping just before Debbie barks or lunges. Wait until she stops fixating on the perceived threat and focuses back on you, and then repeat the exercise by walking away. With each successful repetition you should find you are able to work your way closer and closer to the clown. When Debbie is relaxed even sitting close to the clown, encourage her to sniff it and toss some treats about its feet so she can investigate and assure herself there is in fact nothing to fear.
It may feel counterintuitive to walk away from the clown once Debbie looks at you, however it is very important to remove the stressor as a reward rather than to push closer to the clown and make Debbie’s effort to ignore it ineffective. Once Debbie is ignoring the clown and able to focus on you, then switch out the clown for another decoration or go for a walk around your neighborhood, Whenever Debbie begins to get frightened pause, let her look and reward her by walking back the way you came when she stares up at you. Your walks will be full of zig zagging and starting and stopping, but when implemented properly, BAT can be very successful in a remarkably short amount of time. Working with a professional trainer is always advisable if you become frustrated or aren’t seeing any progress.
Along with doing BAT on your daily walks, I also recommend familiarizing Debbie with the idea of costumes. This is a great opportunity to dig through your closet and pull out last year's cloak and Dracula teeth, the Wonder Woman skirt and the Hulk body paint. The best time to get Debbie accustomed to the strange garments humans wear is before the evening of Halloween, so throw on your witches hat while you do household chores.
While you are desensitizing the holiday’s decorations and familiarizing Debbie to your costumes, you can tackle the last and arguably most challenging part of the upcoming evening; the doorbell. To dampen the excitement the doorbell usually brings, you can work with your kids to come and go frequently from the house. Each time anyone enters they should ring the doorbell, wait until Debbie stops barking and is completely silent, then enter and reward her with a treat. Then leave and repeat. You should find that Debbie barks less and less as the process of the doorbell ringing and people coming and going becomes normalized.
If Halloween is right around the corner and you aren’t able to get many successful training sessions under your belt, then you may consider consulting your veterinarian about a calming aid to help Debbie endure the holiday in as much comfort as possible.
I hope this helps and 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 information go to customk9servicedogs.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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