October, the month of trick or treat and costume contests. Who wouldn’t want to have an excuse to dress their dog up, take a bunch of memorable photos, and go trick or treating or to a Halloween party?
Problem is, will your dog wear a costume? Does he tolerate it or will he try to take it off? Is it too tight, or too snug? Is it a spandex type? Is there a head piece like a hat or glasses included? Is there any footwear that goes with it?
Wait, your dog doesn’t come running up to you with excitement when you pick up the costume???
Wearing a costume is much like grooming and/or wearing a muzzle. Most dogs are initially comfortable with neither and some dogs may even highly object to one or both. Thing is, dogs can learn to tolerate much more than we give them credit for.
I mention these two specifically because they are common items that we help dog owners deal with and work through. One topic is the handling aspect and the other topic is the tolerance our dog needs to wear an item without trying to take it off. So we’ll let that be the starting point for understanding how to get a dog to where a costume.
The dog who bites when you try to cut her nails, can learn to sit patiently, offer her paw and let you do the trimming. The dog who runs and hides when you pick up the muzzle can learn to offer his snout, let you strap it up, and then wear the muzzle proudly.
Most of the time, when it comes to grooming or muzzles, dogs who avoid are just simply not familiar with the handling or wearing. The same is true for costumes.
With grooming, dogs need to learn how to let you pick up paws, spread the toes, check in between the pads, let you check the teeth, clean the ears, or trim the nails.
With a muzzle, your dog needs to learn to let you put it on and sit still long enough for you to fidget with the straps until you get it secured. Then wear it without trying to take it off.
When it comes to grooming, we spend time teaching and getting familiar with the act of grooming before ever actually doing the grooming.
For example, we would never try to clip a dog’s nail on the first time we ever attempted to pick up and handle the paw. We also wouldn't try to secure a muzzle on the dog’s head the first time the dog sees the muzzle.
For the nails, we would spend significant time working through and teaching the dog to tolerate us handling the paw. We start small and work our way up to being able to do the harder things, such as the nail trimming. This includes desensitization work which means lots of repetitions and patience, but also providing the right accountability to let us do the handling. Starting small where is it easy, once the dog is relaxed and confident, we move to the next step.
A dog that lets us handle his paws is now ready for us to handle the paws and try to separate and handle each toe. Little by little, we work our way up to being able to do the harder thing, cut the nail. This is a progression.
For a muzzle, it’s a similar approach, except with a muzzle, the dog will be wearing it long after we’ve done the handling necessary to put it on and secure it. That means we work with the dog after muzzling up to learn not to focus on it but instead to focus on other things. We pretty much work the dog through obedience and training exercises, doing sessions frequently, until the dog builds a tolerance to wearing the muzzle and accepts it without trying to take it off.
For costumes, it’s kinda similar. Dog’s need to let us handle and manipulate their arms and legs to put costumes on. Once it’s on, much like a muzzle, we need to help the dog learn to tolerate wearing it. No, a costume is not the same as a muzzle but it is similar in terms of learning to tolerate wearing it.
Once we put a costume on a dog, it’s best to do something constructive that requires the dog’s attention. Training exercises are a good option for most dogs but for the drivey dogs, working for a toy is also great, especially if your dog can retrieve it.
For dogs who are highly motivated by food, training reps with properly timed food rewards is another option. Some dogs will simply need a little accountability with a leash, so a nice walk with keeping their head up would be a good option.
During all of this, we are preventing the dog from paying attention to and/or fidgeting with the costume.
Don’t wait too late in the month. Allow time to work through this so that by the time your dog needs to wear his costume proudly, he will be ready.
Practice with the right attention and technique, and your dog can learn to just simply wear a costume and hang out without the need to distract. That means long enough for your Halloween photos and even going with you to trick or treat.