Admittedly, this is not one of the more “practical” skills you can use positive reinforcement techniques to teach. Although, because Shelby has undergone this training so many times, when she went through her first heat and had to wear underwear, she accepted it like a champ and never bothered with her latest “costume”, nor did she have any trouble smiling through the cone of shame period.
As impractical as dressing your dog up for Halloween or Easter or Christmas is, many of us are guilty of it, and I have people asking me all the time how I get my dogs to sport a costume without destroying it. So, in honor of the holiday, here’s a play by play of how I train my dogs to wear a Halloween costume. Oh, and for those of you who like to hike or would like your dog to learn or accept a backpack or a more total coverage harness like a service harness, the same premise applies.
Step One: Make the Costume Less Scary
I am pretty much convinced that most of the reason dogs have so much trouble with costumes is because people don’t think to let them examine them. Most of the time, the costume comes right out of the bag and goes right onto the dog while the dog sits there tongue flicking, eye rolling and straining to pull the thing off. We are so excited to see our dogs look so cute in the things we’ve bought them that we don’t allow the dogs the time to figure out what the heck the “cute thing” is. I wonder if the urge for dogs to rip costumes off comes less from the fact that they’re uncomfortable and more from a curiosity to know what is on them. Obviously, to find out, they need to remove it, so they can see it since they, like us, cannot see something on their back.
So the first thing I do when introducing a costume to my dogs (besides pulling the tag off), is to lay it on the floor and let them sniff it. I click and treat everything that is not destructive or scared. This process goes much like free shaping with a box (see more here). Shelby, my more clicker savvy dog, immediately targets the object with her nose, then steps on it, just like a box.
Panzer, who hasn’t done a lot of free shaping yet, is more afraid and takes his time to investigate. I reward him more heavily for smaller motions.
Before long though, both dogs are readily targeting their costumes. When they look comfortable enough with the costume on the ground (and before they offer the behavior, “pick this stuffless stuffed animal up in my mouth”), I pick the costume up and hang it on a nearby chair.
The hanging costume is scarier to Panzer than the one lying on the floor, which is what I expected.
However, a key part of putting most dog costumes on is picking them up so they are vertical and bringing them around the back of the dog, so he needs to get comfortable with a vertical costume (like Shelby, who immediately begins targeting the costume with her nose).
I reinforce any behavior that is inching toward the costume (including just him looking at it). I throw in some hand touches near the costume for good measure. It doesn’t take long before he, too, is targeting the costume with his nose and then, just as he offers the “pick this up in my mouth” behavior, I end the session and remove the costume.
Step 2: Take it Slow, Don’t Manhandle
There is nothing that can spoil this whole happy game more than moving too quickly for your dog to handle and/or mandhandling him in your rush to get the costume on. If your dog is starting to tongue flick frequently, or you’re seeing whale eye or they are just generally tense and uncomfortable or you’re noticing worry lines appear on their foreheads, stop the training and try again later. There’s no shame in taking it slow, you will have a more solid product at the end if you don’t exceed your dog’s capacity to tolerate and handle new things.
Obviously, you need to have some physical contact with your dog to put on a costume, and that’s fine, if you’ve done the process right and taken your time, the movements shouldn’t freak out the dog, but if you find yourself in a full on wrestling match in your kitchen, you don’t have it down yet and you should take it back a step, or seven.
Step 3: Heavily Reinforce ANY Behavior that isn’t “Destroying this Silly Thing”
If you’ve been successful this far, you can start by putting one aspect of the costume on your dog. For the ones I bought this year, I started by fastening the strap around their necks, but not the strap around their girth. Shelby sat there and waited for her cookie with a look of mild dismay on her face, “We’re doing this again?”
Panzer immediately began tossing his head back and forth. I frowned and thought that I might have moved too quickly, but after about 10 seconds of this, he stopped. I clicked as soon as the action ceased and gave him a jackpot reward. After that, he pretty much got the point. He laid down, I clicked and gave him a jackpot reward. He turned his head to look at the costume, I clicked and gave him a single cookie, so he looked back, and I held out my hand for him to target, clicking and giving him a jackpot reward.
Step 4: Click and Treat Each Step the Dog Takes (At First)
When you’ve got a good momentum with the first aspect, you can add another aspect, and then rinse and repeat until the whole costume is in place. At that point, the dog may take a moment to try to move. If his or her first move is to try and eat the costume, take it back a step and continue reinforcing things that aren’t eating the costume. When the dog takes his first step, click and reinforce. Try and click every step he takes for the first 10 steps, at least. Before long, the costume is going to fade out of the dog’s mind. You can try hand targeting or doing some in your face recalls or puppy push ups to get them used to the different ways the costume is going to feel when they move in various directions. Make sure to keep it fun!
Step 5: End it on a Good Note
As with all things dog training, you want to make sure to end your training on a good note. When everything seems to be going really well and you are making a lot of progress and everyone is having a lot of fun, that’s the best time to stop. The experience will stay positive in both of your minds and when you bring the costume out again, the dog will be excited to see it, instead of horrified.
And don’t worry, you won’t need to click and treat forever, just in the beginning. After your dog gets the hang of, “When I don’t eat this, I get rewarded, and when I wear it nicely I get rewarded, wow, this sure is fun!” you won’t need the rewards anymore for the experience to continue being fun.
Joe, Aimee, Panzer, Shelby and Apollo (who will not be wearing a Halloween costume)