Training an animal to wear a costume is similar to harness training. Building a positive association with the costume items by working at your pet’s pace, ensuring your pet’s comfort at every step, is a sure way to have your pet not only tolerating a costume, but liking it, too!
- Ensure comfort – Is the item you’ve chosen of the right size, of comfortable material that will not cause discomfort or irritation (EG: Elastics too tight, clothes too small)? Make sure it looks like it should fit a little loosely
- Show them the item first – there may be some crazy things on the costumes that your pet may not be familiar with. Bring the costume items out and let your pet check it out for a few minutes. If it has springy bits, show them that they move around so they aren’t startled when they’re wearing it. (CAUTION: If it looks like a toy, be sure your pet knows “drop it” or “leave it” if they may be inclined to grab at it.)
- Cooperation – at each step, be sure you are not forcing the item on. If your pet takes a step back or turns away, slow it down and go back a step in the process. Things will move much more quickly if you take it slow. If you give your pet a choice in whether they participate or not, they will be much more comfortable with the process. Also, be sure not to work for more than a couple minutes per session – do not let your pet wear the costume if it hasn’t been fully acclimated, which can take a few days or longer.
- Watch for stress signals – such as ears pulled back, wide eye with whites showing, licking lips or yawning. If you see these, go back a step or end the training session with an easier step to end on a high note.
- When the item is able to be put on and worn for a few seconds without stress/the animal trying to remove the item, begin working on distracting them from the costume item by either doing some easy tricks they know, tossing treats around the room, or playing a game with them. This will allow them to build the positive association to the costume while acclimating to the feeling of wearing it since they won’t be actively thinking about how something new and strange is on them.
This should be similar to putting a harness on. You can do this by either asking for your pet’s paws so you can slide each arm through, or if the arm holes are wider you can lure your pet right into it. Reward for putting one arm through, then take it off again. Switch between paws so they get experience on each side. When comfortable, do both paws through, reward, and remove. Finally, both paws, reward, then button/zip it up, reward, unzip, remove. And finally, reward for a few seconds of wearing it, then you can start distracting them from the sweater by offering play or trick training – both of these will get their mind off the strange new feeling and offer them a fun activity that can also help them to understand how to move around in the new attire.
Roll/bunch up the sweater so just the neck hole is visible, lure your pet’s head through the neck hole. Reward, then pull the sweater back off (or if your pet knows a “back up” cue, you can hold the sweater while they back up). Next, neck and one arm – ask for a paw and either take it and put it in the arm hole, or ask for a paw and guide the sweater hole to where they lift their paw. Remove and repeat. Next, neck and two arms. Finally, reward for a few seconds of wearing it, then move on to step 5
If your pet normally wears a collar, a neck tie shouldn’t be too challenging to acclimate to. Putting on the tie will be easy; the hard part will be if the tie flaps around and catches their attention. If it does, get their attention away from it and distract them with games and training.
Hats are one of the more challenging costume pieces. Animals, without proper acclimatization, do not typically like to have things on their heads – sometimes these things can restrict their vision, be sensitive against their ears, and otherwise be uncomfortable. Make extra sure to pick something that is comfortable and that blocks little to none of their vision.
If the hat requires ears to be threaded through ear holes, be ready to take it extra slowly and carefully if your pet has sensitive ears. You may want to start with desensitizing to body handling so they are okay with you touching and moving their ears (be careful not to pull them either!)
Slowly lift the hat over behind their shoulders, click and treat. Next, hold it over the neck, click and treat. Hold it over the head, click and treat. Touch it to their head, click and treat. Rest it on their head, click and treat. Rest it on their head and touch their ear. Rest it on their head and gently pull one ear through. Then both ears. Then work on duration and distracting them with step 5.
Shoes, like hats, can be incredibly challenging for animals to get used to wearing. What we want to do here is take it extra slow by working on one shoe at a time. This way, the animal will still feel like they are able to move and not confined by big clunky things on their feet that prevent them from properly feeling the surfaces they walk on. Like with hats, you may want to start with body handling desensitization sessions and work on paws – it is ideal if your pet will allow you to hold their paws for 5-10 seconds or more, so you have time to carefully put the shoe on.
Start by holding a shoe, ask for a paw in the same hand you hold the shoe. Click and treat them for touching the shoe with their foot. Next, ask for a paw while holding the shoe, then take their paw and touch the shoe to their foot. Click and treat. Then, ask for a paw while holding the shoe, take their paw and put it partway in the shoe. Click and treat. Then a little more. Remember to give the reward while they are wearing the shoe, not after taking it off. Finally, you can completely put the shoe on, click and treat, then work on #5. When they are comfortable with the one shoe, start with the second shoe. You should be able to get through the steps quicker with each additional shoe as they get the hang of it.