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On Halloween, don't let your dog get spooked

Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's offering advice for you and your brand new pup! Here, she shares tips for how you can help your dog deal with the excitement of Halloween.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Dog trainer helped TODAY’s , and now she's offering advice on the best ways to help your pup get over her fear.

We all know that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, but is keeping the pooch out of the Halloween stash our only concern on Halloween night?  With trick or treaters traipsing up to your door — some in costumes that would frighten even the human inhabitants — we need to consider the dog’s perspective. 

Even the most even-keeled dog can be taken by surprise by outlandish human antics. My own dog, Trista, who is rarely ever startled, was upset during the opening scene of an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s "Troilus and Cressida," which involved a swordfight. Now, that’s not too different from a diminutive Darth Vader wielding a lightsaber, is it?

So how can we help our dogs tolerate or even enjoy the antics of Halloween?

Get tricky
For a dog who’s comfortable and confident, having her perform some cute tricks will entertain the visitors and will give her a fun job to do. Rather than a boring evening that drags on for lack of dog-centric activities, she’ll be tired by the end of the night from a job well done.

Withhold her dinner until the witching hour and then have her work for her supper with shamu, jump, wave, or bang. You’ll be the most talked about house on the block! (Check out my article "The power of the trick — The tricks that treat" for instructions on these cute tricks.)

Helping the nervous Nellie
For the dog who's a little anxious, do some exercise to take the edge off. The canine athlete might enjoy a good run or a trip to the dog park for some exuberant dog play. For the more sedate pooch, a nice early evening walk might work, as long as the sight of trick-or-treaters won’t be too upsetting. A vigorous game of fetch in the yard might be a good alternative. 

Next you need to decide whether you have the wherewithal to attend to the evening’s guests and help your dog through the experience at the same time. If not, then it would be better to tuck your nervous pooch away in a quiet room with a tasty stuffed puzzle toy. 

Alternatively, you could decide to give her a little exposure to the evening’s events. Crate her or have her tethered on her bed a good distance from the front door, a distance where she’s comfortable, and then give her the stuffed puzzle toy to work away on. In so doing, you are giving her a tasty activity to associate with the challenging antics that the evening holds. The key here is that she needs to be far enough from the activity that she is able to eat and remain nonreactive. Too close and her survival instincts will kick in — and she won’t be able to eat. (For a more complete understanding of associative learning, read my article "The Power of Pavlov.")

For a more active way of teaching her that the unexpected can reliably promise good things, use a Manners Minder, a food distribution device with a remote control. Keep your pooch crated or tethered to her bed and place the Manners Minder next to her. Press a button to dispense a treat or pieces of her kibble into the tray as she lies quietly on her spot in the presence of the costumed visitor. You can see that, in this case, the timing of good things happening is closely associated with the presence of challenging visitors, and soon she will start to anticipate arrivals with getting some yummy bites.

Say goodnight
When your dog has had enough, it’s time to say goodnight. Even the most social dog will reach a limit and your job as guardian is to see when that limit is coming and respond accordingly.

Further, for fearful dogs — even those who are in the midst of a behavior modification protocol — Halloween is probably just beyond too much for them. In fact, it’s likely to put a poor pooch back a few steps in the process. The crux of any behavior modification schedule is to keep the dog below threshold (desensitize) so that you can help them overcome their fear. Halloween is likely to offer over-threshold interactions, which can have unintended consequences, most notably increased fear.

So when the time has come, confine your pup to a room in the house cloistered from the night’s activities, preferably with a yummy stuffed puzzle toy to keep her busy and happy.

It’s on occasions such as these — Halloween, a big family gathering, a festive party — that you need to anticipate the lessons you would like your dog to learn and the experiences you would like her to have. With just a little bit of planning and preparation, you can fit her seamlessly and comfortably into the family’s activities, which is exactly that she wants in life!

Owner of , Laura Garber, is a dog trainer and behavior specialist who regards training as an exercise in building relationship rather than obedience. She is Interim Head of Behavior at the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Hempstead, Long Island.