The psychological torment of a dog on Halloween


One row of the faces above are close ups from pups at Tompkins Square Park’s 2010 Halloween parade. The other are strays up for adoption at Bideawee in NYC. Guess which dogs are which! Hint: Living in a shelter seems more fun than parading town in a miniature Lady Gaga gettup. If you’re a dog, that is.

Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine slideshow and commentary about the Tompkins Square Park parade asks an important question: do our furry friends really want to dress up like ersatz children for Halloween?

One weekend of every year, ordinarily sane New Yorkers dress their dogs in the most hilarious, clever, and offbeat costumes they can think of for the annual Halloween Dog Parade at Tompkins Square Park. Because it’s fun! For humans. For the canines on display, the annual ritual means something different. Because it is on this day more than almost any other that they are thrown into deep psychological torment. Dressed as everything from the latest Internet meme to completely different creatures, they find themselves forced to ponder great existential questions about their status in the world, their lack of control over their own lives, and whether at this point they can really consider themselves dogs at all.

The pictures in her slideshow would suggest not. You don’t have to be an expert in dog cognition to tell a happy dog from a sad one. When in doubt, mirror what your dogs face is doing and see how you feel.

This dog doesn’t want to be Lady Gaga.

Does this mean you should never dress up your dog? Not necessarily. It wouldn’t take a lot to condition a dog to like him costume. For instance, you could rev up the week before the holiday by putting him in costume whenever you serve him his meals, and throw some extra treats in the bowl while you’re at it. Your dog’s inner monologue will be: Gosh, when I’m wearing this, good things happen in my food bowl!  Or just put him it for a few minutes here and there and overwhelm him with praise and treats the whole time. Soon he’ll be on two legs singing Poker Face.

Why aren’t dogs psyched about Halloween? For one thing, your dog doesn’t know from holidays. In fact, he has no way of knowing that the getup is just temporary, unless you have established a history of putting it on him and taking it off over and over again. For all your dog knows, he is doomed to wear sequined ears and pearls for the rest of his life. Would you want to live that life?

Dogs don’t process changes to environments as quickly as we do. Say, for example, that a dog walks into a room one day and it’s completely empty. The next day, there’s furniture. Totally new room, as far as the dog is concerned. Owner has a beard one day, no beard the next? Everything needs to be reassessed! They’re constantly drawing conclusions about what is safe and what isn’t based on what they learn about the consequences of interacting with everything around them. Walking on a leash down a busy street with my owner? Okay, I’ve done that many times and know it’s all okay! But everything could be different if I have to do it while wearing a blue wig.

It isn’t just what the costume feels like: people act differently around dogs in costumes, and that can change everything about the way the dog perceives the world around him. And people look different when they’re in costumes themselves. At a parade, all the dogs look different too.

And yet, they never complain. They’re too mensch-y for that.


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