When Trick or Treat is a Tricky Thing

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Photo by Michelle Bennett | www.jmichellephotos.com

I love Halloween. My son has his costume all ready to go. He actually slept with his gloves on all night last night. I know he’s not the only kid looking forward to stalking the neighborhood in search for as much candy as he can carry in his bag. Heck- I know I’m not the only parent looking forward to it, either.

Inevitably, as we go house to house, greeting our neighbors, we will also be saying hello to their dogs. Our job, aside from escorting him, scoping out the candy, and keeping him safe from other humans, is to assess whether or not I would want to approach a home if there is a dog in residence.

Okay. I’m a canine behavior specialist, I adore dogs, and yes, I’m the crazy lady that will squeal under my breath and unabashedly ask if I may pet your dog when I see her. So, why would I be assessing if I wanted to approach a home with a dog when trick or treating with my kid? Because it turns out that from many a dog’s point of view, Halloween is, well, scary.

No, not “scary”, like we humans like to experience. Scary as in “There is a monster at my door and if I don’t scare it away I. WILL. DIE.” Dogs don’t know any better, because Halloween costumes, scary noises, and strangers coming to the door all night isn’t covered in the “Living with Humans” manual their dam gives them before they are adopted.

Actually, they don’t get a manual. Just wanted to make that clear.

Unless a dog has been socialized (exposed to) people wearing masks and strange costumes, and acting very silly from a very early age, Halloween is going to be a very unsettling event for her.

Let’s look at what happens on October 31st:

  1. The doorbell rings. The dog gets all worked up.
  2. The human opens the door, and there is a group of small strangers that look like no human she’s ever seen before. The dog, who is all worked up, is now feeling a little unsure.
  3. The small humanoids yell out “Trick or Treat!” The dog, who is all worked up and feeling a little insecure is now thinking “Ack! They make noise!”
  4. The human of the house gives the humanoids something and they all walk away. The dog, who is all worked up, feeling a little unsure, and is thinking “Ack! They make noise!”, breathes a sigh of relief, but is left feeling a bit shaken up by the experience.
  5. A few minutes (seconds?) later, the process starts all over again- except that this time, the dog, who is all worked up, feeling a little unsure, thinking “Ack! They make noise!”, and feeling a bit shaken up by the experience, is now thinking “Gaaaaah! They’re back!!!” and is even more shaken up.
  6. Repeat over and over for the entire evening and this poor dog is wound up TIGHT.

If there is a dog in residence that is over-stimulated by the Halloween Hoopla, then there is a dog that is more likely to react by barking, or lunging, or even snapping. Not because the dog is a bad dog, but because the dog, who can’t understand what is happening, feels he needs to protect himself and his people. This is a situation where that dog is set up to fail.

And I have no idea if the people have their dog behind a gate or controlled in any way. As a mom, if I hear a dog barking right behind the door when my son rings the doorbell, I will step between the door and him- and back up a few steps before the door opens.

If I don’t hear the dog being moved away from the door, or if I hear the owner yelling at the dog before the door is opened, I take my kid and will walk away from that house and go to the next. That poor dog is already stressed out, and yelling will only make it worse. I won’t take a risk that a scared dog will squeeze out of the house in fear. No amount of candy is worth that.

So, on Halloween, I will be close enough to my child when he knocks on the door to listen and determine if there is a stressed out pup that could have access to my little ghoul. I will explain to my son what I am doing and why. And I will take the steps I need to in order to keep him safe.

Because Halloween is supposed to be “pretend scary”. And I want to be able to go home and inspect my son’s loot for safety, and to celebrate the goodies he got this year with him.

And to see which candy I’ll eat after he goes to sleep.


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Positively Expert: Lorena Patti

Lorena Patti is a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer out of Orlando, FL. A Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed, she is also a licensed presenter for Family Paws and Doggone Safe’s “Be a Tree”.


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