In the days leading up to Halloween complete your normal, daily puppy socialization activities. Expose your puppy to positive experiences with other puppies, friendly adult dogs, things/objects in the environment, veterinary procedures and gentle body handling, etc.
Two main socialization strategies to apply:
- Habituation – allowing your puppy to view and experience things passively, watching them and learning they are not scary, but normal everyday events.
- Creating positive associations – Actively pairing things/events with treats. Anything that is already scary to your puppy, should now have training target it to teach your puppy it predicts treats.
Allow your puppy to investigate decorations/pumpkins and receive treats for sniffing or approaching them. If you have kids and their costumes are easy to create and wear before Halloween, allow them to put them on and feed treats to your puppy, then take the costumes off, and stop delivering treats. This will provide some positive interactions on a smaller, more controlled scale than the busy holiday.
Planning for Halloween Day
If you have children, decide if your puppy will go trick-or-treating with you. If your puppy goes, bring plenty of high value treats and deliver them to your puppy any time he notices something new or potentially scary. For example, give a treat after your puppy sniffs a yard decoration or pumpkin. Give some treats after a group of children run by in their costumes screaming.
If you will be passing out candy at home, decide where your puppy will be:
- At the door to witness the trick-or-treat transactions.
- Somewhere else in your house – for example, behind a baby gate, or in a crate.
- With you in the front yard passing out candy.
- Or by the door with your puppy to observe, but allow children to take the candy themselves out of a bowl.
In each of these cases, deliver some treats to your puppy when he sees children, or hears them laughing/talking/screaming (and the doorbell rings), or another dog walks by the door/windows.
You can allow children to feed some treats to your puppy as well, if your puppy is not apprehensive.
Prepare your treats ahead of time. Fresh meat treats of high value are best for these procedures.
You can also give a longer-lasting chew toy, like a Kong, stuffed with canned dog food to allow your dog to calmly eat during the trick-or-treating process, allowing you to focus more on passing out candy and less on your dog. You can wait for the first doorbell ring/children talking sounds, and then deliver the Kong, so those things will predict a positive event for your dog. This could be a great option for older dogs, if you are planning on keeping them away from the children anyway.
Freezing the Kong with canned food will make it last longer for your puppy/dog.
If you have crate-trained your puppy or dog, you can place him in his crate for safety as well, so he will not escape the front door.
Evaluating Your Puppy’s Fear Threshold
Whatever strategy you’re using, make sure no experience is over your puppy’s threshold of fear. This means ideally you will keep your puppy from becoming frightened at any point. Gradually increase the intensity of experiences your puppy is exposed to; for example, if your puppy is scared of kids coming all the way up to him, allow him to remain farther away but view the kids and receive treats for watching, then build up to allowing calmer kids to approach, and then to hand-feeding treats to your puppy.
Adolescent and Adult Dogs
You can follow the same procedure for remedial socialization for older dogs, but be extra careful to keep them below their fear-threshold (so they are not afraid at all), and to not push them into more challenging experiences too quickly, since they already will have previous experiences and emotions attached to things like Halloween, costumes, children, people approaching, etc. – meaning if they are unsure or afraid of any of these things you could actually sensitize them (make their fear worse). This is true for puppies too, but since they are in their puppy socialization period, it’s easier to turn these experiences positive, and average puppies are less likely to do damaging bites than older dogs.
Never force any interactions between puppies/dogs and children or anyone/thing else. Always work to create positive associations.
Keep up the socialization work after Halloween as well. If the procedures are applied correctly, you will reap the benefits of early puppy socialization for the rest of your dog’s life.
By Dan Raymer