Updated: Oct 25
Discover how to help your dog conquer their fears this Halloween season with positive and effective training techniques.
It’s finally Fall, and if your dogs are anything like mine, this is their favorite season. Fall brings longer walks, cool breezes to sniff, and fun outings at pet friendly orchards, pumpkin patches, and festivals. While Fall can bring many outdoor delights, it can also be the scariest season for our dogs. Picture this: you’re walking down the street next to your human, checking out all the familiar neighborhood lawns and smells, when out of nowhere… THERE’S A GHOST BLOWING IN THE WIND! A MUMMY RATTLING CHAINS! A HAND CRAWLING OUT OF THE GROUND!
These Halloween decorations are a common sight in many neighborhoods come October. They signal the changing of the seasons, and the upcoming holidays we enjoy so much. But through the eyes of a dog trainer, they also signal caution. Many of our dogs will not understand why our safe, predictable neighborhood has suddenly turned into a strange, new, frightening place.
Have no fear! Well-timed reinforcement can help your pups get past these scary sights and can even build their confidence to go investigate. If your dog spooks at the strange new objects in their neighborhood, follow these tips to keep your pup feeling safe and happy.
Step #1 - Audition high value treats for your dog
The goal is to find a treat that your dog will happily eat outside and around distractions. While your dog may love their kibble or carrots inside the house, these treats often aren’t good enough to eat around zombies and ghosts. Because we will be changing a fearful, emotional response, it’s best to use human grade foods that will have a higher value to your dog. Good examples include rotisserie chicken, meatballs, cheese, and deli meats like roast beef. When you find 2 or 3 high value foods, bring them with you on every walk.
Step #2 - Find an appropriate distance at which to work
Find an appropriate distance at which to work. If you bring your dog too close to the mummies and ghosts, their fear will take over and they will not be able to process the training. Find a spot to work where you’re close enough to see the decorations, but where your dog can disengage from them to eat treats and focus on you. If your dog is staring, growling, barking, or lunging, you are too close and should increase the distance between your dog and the object. Once your dog starts to relax and not focus entirely on the objects, you’ve found your starting spot!
Step #3 - Timing is everything
In order to change the way your dog feels, we need these scary decorations to predict wonderful, yummy things! If your dog is familiar with a reward marker such as a clicker or verbal “yes” or “good”, this is a great time to use it. As soon as your pup looks the Ghoul, Goblin, or Ghost in the eye, use your marker or praise your dog, and then reward them with a treat. Repeat each and every time your dog looks at the scary object. Pretty soon, your dog should look at the object and then back at you for a treat!
Step #4 - Approach
Once your dog is able to look away from the objects and up at you for a treat, you can start to move closer. The key with approaching is to go slow – only move forward if your dog is still calm, relaxed, and able to focus on you. For each step you take, your dog should look up to get a treat OR (if this is too difficult) continue rewarding them for looking at the object.
Step #5 - Generalize
Dogs are notoriously bad at generalizing their training. A "sit" in front of you in your home is very different than a "sit" before jumping in your car, or a "sit" before entering their favorite pet store. Training and practicing in different environments with different stimuli is key in helping your dogs generalize their training. From giant skeletons to cackling witches and all the ghouls in between, take your training to the streets and repeat steps one through four to help build these habits for your dog.
These five simple steps can not only help your dog conquer their fears, but also provide a way for you to engage and communicate with your dog. Show your pup that you understand their fears, you see them, and that you will work with them to build their confidence along with some great new skills. And most important of all - have fun training!
*If your dog is showing fear-based aggression around these scary stimuli or refusing to eat their most favorite treat, please reach out to a certified positive reinforcement trainer in your area for professional help.