Karen B. London
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It’s common for even the sweetest of dogs to be little devils when visitors come to the door. Some dogs are afraid of visitors, which can cause them to bark, lunge or even bite. Others are simply wild with excitement when people arrive, which often leads to leaping, jumping, barking, spinning and generally being out of control. Either way, it can mean that every time the doorbell rings, people cringe knowing that what’s about to happen may not be pretty.
The day of days for doorbell ringing is, of course, Halloween. Not only are there loads of visitors, but those visitors are dressed as, among other things, lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my! There are costumes with flashing lights, giant mouths, battery-powered sound effects, and all sorts of weird colors, shapes, sizes and behavior. When dogs are not at their best with visitors anyway, trick-or-treaters are unduly challenging.
Everybody knows that for dogs who struggle to contain themselves when visitors come over, practice dealing with that very situation is a necessary part of improving it. So, I am often asked, “Should I use Halloween night as a training opportunity?” The short answer is “probably not.”
One reason for answering in the negative is that while practice is an essential part of training doors to be polite when visitors arrive, that practice must be in a situation at a level that the dog can handle. Large numbers of excited children will be beyond what most dogs can handle, which means that most dogs will just end up practicing their undesirable behavior rather than practicing the polite behavior we’d like them to exhibit.
Another reason that practicing greetings of visitors on Halloween may be ill-advised is that many dogs react badly because they are fearful of visitors. Trick-or-treaters are bound to be terrifying to dogs since people whose silhouettes are unusual seem to scare most dogs. Masks, capes, giant costumes, carrying bags and other elements of trick-or-treating fashion change people’s silhouettes are scarier to most dogs than the typical tool belts, hats, clipboards and backpacks that fearful dogs react to.
It is especially critical not to use Halloween night as a training session if there is any risk of the dog behaving aggressively to visitors. Most dogs who react badly towards visitors are merely impolite or excessively exuberant, and even that could inadvertently lead to trouble. Trick-or-treaters should not be exposed to the small minority who may actually intentionally try to hurt them.
There are a very few dogs who can benefit from training session on Halloween. Those are the dogs who have worked up to being polite when trick-or-treaters arrive by already showing great success when greeting every other type of visitor, including large groups of people, children, loud people and people dressed a bit oddly. If you’ve worked up to this Holy Grail of training with your dog, perhaps Halloween is an opportunity for you both. If you’re not sure if your dog is ready, the best course of action is to assume that he’s not.
For most people, the only way to make a dog be like Lassie on Halloween is to put him in a Rin Tin Tin costume. So unless your dog has worked up to being ready to handle these toughest types of visitors, don’t plan on training during the trick-or-treating hours.