Halloween season is here! And you know what that means: haunted houses and Halloween events. Many people find these things to be fun and exciting. I sure do! Our local amusement park has a big Halloween event that starts every September and it’s always a blast. It’s scary, and actors jump out to frighten guests. It’s not real and I know that it isn’t real. That’s part of the fun! I know that I can leave any time or opt not to go if I don’t want to be scared. It can be a little tough getting to these events because I don’t take my service dog, so I have to ensure there’s a person going with me who knows my medical history and what assistance I may need. What does that have to do with service dog teams? Well…
When a person wants to go to a Halloween event to be scared, they know what is coming. They know to expect people around the corner or running up behind them, and they decide they still want to go. When it comes to our service dogs, they DON’T. They don’t get a say in where they go. Once they leave the house with us, they are along for the ride. Hopefully the dog is given every opportunity to opt out of going (they could be sick or having a bad day) but WHERE they go is completely out of their control. They also don’t know to expect all the elements that come with these Halloween events.
There are many people on social media that talk about taking their service dogs to these events where people will be running scared, jumping around corners, yelling to startle people, and using props and loud noises to scare. And some will argue that it’s their right because ADA doesn’t explicitly say service dogs can be excluded from these events. No one is saying it’s illegal to take a service dog to these events. But is it ETHICAL to take a dog to an event where actors will be intentionally scaring the handler and people around them?
There’s also safety issues with these events. When people get scared and start running, they usually aren’t looking where they are going. They could run into you or your service dog and knock you both down or injure you. There’s a risk this could happen anywhere, but this risk is multiplied at events where people are getting scared and walking through areas where actors are going to pop out to scare them. There’s also the concern of YOUR dog getting startled. Service dogs being startled SHOULDN’T be a big deal, but most training doesn’t involve the intensity of a haunted house or scary theme park event. An umbrella opening next to your dog is far different from an actor jumping out of the dark with a running chainsaw, particularly in a tight area where there’s no escape. Every single dog has the capacity to bite, no matter how much bite inhibition or desensitization they’ve had. Is this really worth the risk? Once a dog has a bite record, there’s a lot more implications, including the potential that your dog could be labeled dangerous by a judge in addition to no longer meeting the ADA criteria for protected access. We would always hope that a dog being taken into public as a service dog wouldn’t lunge or bite when startled, but again, the intensity of Halloween events and haunted houses is just far from what most service dogs are trained to handle.
Is it worth losing your dog’s trust in you? Your dog trusts you to keep them safe. If they are being intentionally placed in situations in which they feel unsafe, their trust in you will fade and it will take lots of time to earn it back. This could force you to pull them from public access for a while, or even permanently. When a dog goes through a stressful event, cortisol is released into their body and that can take 3-7 days to drain fully out of the body, during which time they will need to take time off to recover. Even at events that have “no scare” items to purchase so actors don’t try to scare you, they don’t always work. Sometimes they just can’t see because of their costumes and make up until they are too close and it’s too late. They could scare someone close to you, which could still scare your dog. Some of these events have actors with knee pads and wrist guards lined with flint. Not only does it cause a very startling noise when they slide past at knee height, the flint causes sparks. Even the most well-trained service dog could very well spook at this. Even if you use the “no scare” items, these actors would still be going past you and may be using props or making scary sounds to scare people around you.
This really boils down to one word: consent. If you decide to go to a haunted house or scary Halloween event, you have consented to being scared. But dogs CAN’T consent to that. Some things, like vet care, are tough to get consent when they NEED vet care. But in environments where their safety could be jeopardized and where they can easily become shut down and frightened (and therefore unable to work), you have to understand that your dog cannot consent to work in that environment, nor are they likely to be properly tasking due to the stress. Opt to take a trusted friend or family member with you instead, or choose to skip the event if you truly feel you cannot leave your service dog at home. Their well-being must be prioritized over fun events.