Halloween is right around the corner and with it comes fall festivals, parties and trick-or-treating. While Halloween events are fun and exciting for the entire family, this most spooky of nights also carries many dangers, particularly for four-legged pack members. Before heading out to celebrate Halloween, review our list of precautions to learn how to keep you and your Service Dog safe and your night of frights as trouble-free as possible.
Service Dog owners, trainers, users and handlers, make no bones about it! Halloween is here, and with it comes hauntingly good times, spooktactular events and the promise of a positively de-fright-ful time. Scare up some fun, stop for a quick spell and gather your ghoulish guests for a hair-raising parade of monsters, night crawlers, slinky stalkers and wicked witches.
As thrilling as Halloween is, though, it’s “witchful” thinking to imagine a night this full of excitement, chaos, crowds and pandemonium doesn’t also bring pitfalls and hazards, especially for Service Dog teams and Service Dogs in Training. While many people view Halloween as a fun-filled evening of friends, family, food, trick-or-treating and celebrations, the fact remains that the entire day (and night) traditionally centers around terror, being spooky, scaring others, pranking visitors and being oh-so sneaky, sneaky.
In a perfect world, Service Dogs wouldn’t have a single issue with Halloween. They would calmly heel through the crowd, stoically endure (or even enjoy) each and every frightful experience and encounter, and hold down-stays all night by the candy bowl while serving as the official “welcome wagon” for thrill and candy seekers. The disorienting strobe lights, eerie dry-ice fog, sinister smoke machines and spine-chilling screams wouldn’t phase them in the slightest, and the seething swirl of strangely dressed, bizarre acting and unfamiliar crowd of children and accompanying adults tramping around all night would be handled with self-assured poise, control and delight.
Unfortunately, though, Halloween isn’t occurring in a perfect world. Your Service Dog is going to come head to head with hordes of excited children operating on a sugar high, frazzled strangers herding clusters of kids from house to house, and severely stressed family pets who are being drug along for the ride. No one is going to settle down enough to be educated about your Service Dog’s or SDiT’s need for space, no one will read her gear because she’s just one more dog wearing clothes, and tempers/anxiety levels will be running high on this most stressful of nights. Candy and other edible dangers are going to be absolutely everywhere, including in hands, on the ground, at Service Dog head-height in bowls and liberally strewn across tables in every yard or on every porch.
Like it or not, the reality of Halloween for your Service Dog includes a lot of potential stressors, stimulus and circumstances that are dreadfully unfamiliar, difficult to prepare for and oftentimes wildly unpredictable, depending on the traditions in your area. The younger your partner or SDiT is, the more vigilant and prepared you’ll need to be in order to ensure her experiences remain positive and that Halloween is a time of socialization and safe interaction and not a setback, hinderance or training downfall.
Put Your Partner First and Take No Risks
At first glance, it may seem as if Halloween provides the perfect opportunity for distraction proofing obedience, socializing a Service Dog in Training or otherwise building your canine partner’s skills. While you and your pup would likely encounter ready-made distraction proofing, lots and lots of socialization opportunities and great conditions for out-of-the-box and creative training throughout the night (green eggs and ham training game anyone?), not every Service Dog, SDiT, trainer or handler is going to be able to safely navigate the Halloween scream scene without it turning into a nightmare. You and you alone are responsible for your Service Dog’s safety and well-being and as the person who knows your canine partner the best, only you can judge whether or not she’ll be able to aptly handle all of the challenges Halloween will present.
Here are some points to consider before including your SDiT or Service Dog:
- You will not be able to educate people. People are not going to care that she’s a Service Dog or that she’s in training. There’s too much going on, too much excitement, too many hyper children, too much noise, and just “too much” of everything to reasonably expect to be able to educate each and every “creepy character” you and your Service Dog will encounter. Please understand this has NOTHING to do with you or your ability and everything to do with the difficulties of being surrounded by large groups of fired up, enthusiastic and mostly rather young people. To most of the people you’ll encounter, your partner is simply another dog joining in the festivities. If you think you’ll be able to enforce Service Dog boundaries and etiquette, you’re setting yourself and your partner up for failure.
- People will touch and approach your Service Dog. This absolutely cannot be avoided. You’re going to be encountering large groups of strangers, some of whom may not speak English, may not have appropriate dog manners, may not be “good listeners” or good followers of directions, may have communication difficulties or who may not be able to read or acknowledge your Service Dog’s gear. If your Service Dog doesn’t have the impulse control or training necessary to deal with being fawned over, fondled, petted, approached, loved on and touched without becoming overstimulated, over excited or losing focus on expected behaviors, you may want to consider going out before trick or treating hours official begin, finding a quiet, small event or simply staying home.
- You will not be able to control your environment, other people or every interaction. If your partner is young, still learning, inexperienced or still working on socialization, she probably shouldn’t join you. You will not be able to control or predict what other people will do and your Service Dog will be faced with people purposefully trying to scare her while thinking it’s funny, screaming, popping up and yelling, “BOO” and other bizarre behaviors. Keep in mind that you’ll encounter environmental uncertainties, too, like decorations, Halloween accents, and ghastly props. There will be unnatural, eerie lighting, freaky sounds and movements and erratic happenings on every corner.
- Your partner is going to take cues from you. That’s not an abnormal thing, but carefully consider the kinds of feedback your Service Dog may receive from you Halloween night. If YOU get startled by someone or something, instinctively, you’re going to jump a little, grab tighter to the leash, your heart rate is going to speed up and you may even scream or try to run away. The Halloween experience is generally good-natured and meant to be frighteningly fun, but your Service Dog doesn’t understand intent, tradition or anything other than the fact that you’re scared or anxious, and whatever-that-thing-is caused it. If you’re going to be triggered, upset, unsettled or anxious due to the spirit of the night, understand that those feelings and emotions travel right down the leash and will also affect your partner.
Long story short, very carefully consider your Service Dog’s current level of training and how she handles crowds, chaos, unknown noises, close proximity, peculiar/eccentric mannerisms, heavy distractions and circumstances beyond your control. If you have even the slightest misgiving about allowing your partner to participate, then don’t. Take no risks; your partner’s training, progress and ability to continue working for you are far more important than a single night of missed training or socialization.
If you decide your partner will be able to participate and that your training and handling skills are up to the challenge, here are some additional points and safety tips to remember.
Tips For Preparing For the Ex-FEAR-ience
While a good Service Dog is able to handle nearly anything thrown their way, many Halloween experiences are overwhelming for even the best-trained dogs, let alone one who hasn’t been properly prepared for the bombardment of stimuli and distraction. Set your partner up for success and only participate in the festivities for as long as your partner is able to safely do so without risk to her training, working ability, or socialization.
Before leaving the house or stepping outside for any reason, double-check your Service Dog’s ID. Do it, right now. Call your dog over and check her tags. Make sure your phone number is up to date, the tag is securely attached to her collar and that it’s easily readable. Next, check the way your Service Dog’s collar fits – it should be snug but not tight. Make sure it can’t slide off over her head or get easily snagged on anything. Take a quick look at her leash and make sure the snap works well and that there aren’t any weaknesses (like tears or ripped stitching). Finally, snap a picture of your partner in a well-lit area so you’ve got a current and up-to-date photo available just in case.
Once you’re sure your partner could be safely identified and returned home in the unlikely event she gets separated from you, dig into the rest of these tips for making sure Halloween is a frightfully fun time for your Service Dog and not a nightmare.
Goblin’ It Up
There’s going to be a lot food and in some places, dangerous edibles like alcohol. The biggest risk for your partner is the sheer magnitude of candy. Chocolate and sugar-free sweeteners are particularly dangerous, and they’re going to be everywhere. Not only will there be candy in bowls, bags, buckets on the ground and in hands, but lots of children will try to “share” with your Service Dog. For her safety, your partner needs a reliable “leave it” and needs to know not to pick up and eat anything found on the ground.
There’s going to be a lot of noise. Scream machines, screaming children, loud music, frightening sounds and other “bumps in the night” are going to happen. Keep high-value treats or rewards readily accessible to reinforce your partner for calm, focused behavior during particularly noisy or distracting situations.
It’s Halloween. It’s going to be scary. Ensure your partner stays attached to you at all times via a standard-length leash. If you’re juggling dog, kids, candy, buckets, carrying coats or otherwise need an extra hand free to steal candy from your kids’ stash, use a waist leash or attach the handle of your Service Dog’s leash to your belt with a carabiner.
Even if you get startled or scared, stay relaxed, self-assured and confident, and your Service Dog will thrive on those vibes. If you’re going to freak out, though, or you’re AT ALL afraid your canine partner might be unnerved, alarmed or frightened by anything that might happen, reconsider bringing her. Keep high-value treats with you to encourage and reward calm responses to scary people and situations.
Dressed Up For a BOOtiful Night
People don’t always look like people on Halloween. Almost everyone your Service Dog encounters is going to be costumed, masked or possess an altered appearance. People might move haltingly, jerkily or with abnormal gaits, and they’re likely not going to sound the way they normally do, either. Simply put, people are going to look weird, strange and unnatural to your partner. Encourage and reward positive interactions and socialization opportunities, and don’t be afraid to set boundaries if your partner is getting tired or stressed.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
This seems like a no brainer, but it’s going to be dark. Avert problems (like people crowding your SDiT or Service Dog or stepping on her because they didn’t see her) by attaching a light to your partner’s collar or gear. Night Ize has some great safety products, but anything that glows works just fine. If nothing else, grab a $1 glow necklace from CVS or a gas station and toss it around your partner’s neck. If cars are a concern in your area during trick-or-treating hours, consider a reflective vest, too.
Pranks are a time-honored tradition of Halloween, and the funny thing about them is that they’re not always funny. Steer clear of any group that seems particularly rowdy and don’t place your partner in a situation where she could be genuinely harmed. Do NOT, under any circumstances, leave your Service Dog with someone you don’t know or without supervision.
You will encounter other dogs out trick or treating with their families and it’s going to be up to you to protect your partner. Parents are going to be focusing on children more than dogs, and many of the dogs you encounter will be highly stressed by the events of the night. They may not respond predictably, may have varying levels of training or manners and may react poorly to another dog popping up.
Keep high-value treats accessible to reward proper manners, focus and interaction from your partner, and review this awesome (and life-saving) technique for safely and painlessly stopping a charging dog in their tracks.
Stick Around For a Spell
Once you’re into trick or treating or a Halloween celebration, you’re generally in it until it’s over. Try to ensure you have a way out or a way to leave if you or your partner begin getting stressed, tired, overwhelmed or become unable to appropriately deal with the barrage of stimulation.
Have you attended Halloween celebrations in the past with a Service Dog or SDiT? What’re your thoughts on celebrating Halloween with your Service Dog? Is there anything you feel we should have addressed or addressed differently? Chime in with a comment!