House decorated for Halloween
House decorated by Halloween. (Photo: Infrogmation on Flickr, CC license)

This week is Halloween—the start of the fall yard decoration season. The return of cold weather means that winter clothing, including parkas, hats, gloves, and scarves, are making a return as well. What does this mean for you and your dog?
Yard decorations can be scary for many dogs. They appear where nothing was before. Many move, flash bright lights, or even make noises, all of which dogs may find unnerving. Halloween decorations will be quickly followed by holiday decorations at many houses. As a dog owner or walker, you are responsible for being aware of these potentially scary objects and planning accordingly. Never force dogs to approach things they may find scary. A forced approach may reinforce fear in the object and also erode your dogs trust in you to keep him safe. Additionally, a sudden movement or sound from a motion sensitive decoration may also startle your dog, increasing fear. Keep in mind that scared dogs may also redirect their emotions onto people or animals around them. A dog that is normally friendly to strangers may be wary if she has just been spooked by a singing pumpkin decoration.

Person in Gandalf costume
Dressed as Gandalf for Halloween—my favorite costume ever, but not one my dog would be likely to recognize!

Decorations are not the only thing to be careful around. Costumes and winter clothing change people’s appearance. They walk differently and have different profiles than people dressed in summer clothing. Children, especially may be unaware of the importance of these changes and may seek to approach dogs, especially known dogs. However cute you find a toddler dressed as a pumpkin, be aware that your dog will not appreciate the cuteness. Consider keeping your dog inside on Halloween while trick-or-treaters or party-goers are about. If you must go out, stay aware of your surroundings, avoid approaching people in costume, and ask them to stay away from your dog, even if you would normally allow your dog to greet them.
Winter clothing and equipment tends to be especially scary for young dogs and those that have lived in warmer climates. Have a ten month old puppy? He likely had his first outdoor experiences in March when the snow had started to melt and temperatures had warmed. He may never have seen someone dressed in a hooded winter coat and gloves. Every winter I am reminded of working with recent rescue greyhounds at a shelter in Massachusetts. As we left the shelter after the first snowfall, the greyhounds would lift their feet delicately out of the snow, unsure of what this strange, cold, white stuff was. While they eventually learned to enjoy frolicking in snow, those first steps were completely outside their previous experience.
What can you do? Carry yummy food treats with you when you walk. If you always carry food anyway (good for you!) considering carrying an extra-special treats for use around scary objects or people. Never force your dog to approach a person or object who is scaring them. Reward for any move to do so on the dogs part, but keep in mind his or her limitations. Just because your dog has calmed down around the zombie-child, does not mean she is ready for a pat on the head. It’s better to just smile, wave, and keep walking.
Never fear, with a little preparedness, caution, and common-sense, you and your dog can have a safe Halloween and a wonderful holiday season.

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