Everything You Need to Know about Dog Costumes

Costumes aren’t a natural thing for dogs—but with some encouragement, they can tolerate a costume.

Every year about this time, social media hosts numerous discussions concerning costumes for dogs. Photos of dogs in costumes from simple to elaborate pop up everywhere—along with discussions over how good or bad it is. People seem to be split between encouraging costumes or feeling that costumes are demeaning to dogs.

In all candor: my dogs usually do wear costumes, both in dog events and during therapy dog visits. But that doesn’t mean I give blanket approval to all costumes. Far from it! I have pretty strict requirements regarding costumes for my own dogs, which I gladly share when people ask me for advice for their own dogs.

dog costume tips

Hero, at three years old, doesn’t have much experience wearing costumes; so his this year is quite simple. He’s a hippie, by the way.

Costumes Must be Safe

First and foremost, the costume your dog wears must be safe. This means he has complete freedom of movement. His legs, body, neck, and head need to move easily with no restrictions. His breathing cannot be impaired in any way nor should his vision or hearing.

The costume should not be so heavy that he’s stressed or becomes tired wearing it. Plus, the materials or layers of the costume shouldn’t make him hot. I’ve seen some adorable, original, and unique costumes that look awesome, but I know the dogs are going to get very warm wearing them.

Keeping a dog safe also means that he should never be left alone while wearing it. If you walk away and he gets tangled up or the costume shifts, he could hurt himself. It only takes a second for something to happen—so stay with him or keep him close.

Once you get to the point where you are trying on or creating a costume, keep safety in mind. If you have doubts about any part of it, just change it or don’t use it.

dog costume tips

Sisko, an Australian Shepherd, loved to wear costumes—and for him, the more elaborate the better.

Be Able to Take it Off

Make sure you can take the costume off quickly in case of an emergency. An emergency might be as simple as your dog getting a leg into the wrong part of his costume, or it might mean he’s panicking and needs the costume off right now.

Ideally, the costume can come off in one or two parts. Accessories can be fastened to the primary part of the costume itself rather than the dog. For example, look at Bones’s pirate costume below. Most of the accessories, including the pirate sword and hook are, fastened to a belt with a velcro fastener. If he got the sword caught, for example, it would take one motion to unfasten the belt, taking the accessories with it.

dog costume tips

Details can make the costume, but only if they don’t overwhelm the dog. Bones isn’t bothered by all the extras once they are fastened into position.

Comfort is Also Important

Many dogs will do anything we ask of them, even if they don’t understand why. Plus, some dogs love to show off. My Bones, a seven year old English Shepherd, is one of those show-offs—and I think that’s why he enjoys costumes so much.

It’s important, then, that we help our dogs, even those wonderfully cooperative dogs, be comfortable when wearing costumes. For Hero’s hippie costume, I taught him to wear these glasses—but I only asked him to wear them when he was sitting still (not moving) and then only for 20 to 30 seconds at a time.

dog costume tips

The most difficult part of Hero’s costume is asking him to wear the glasses, so I made that step 1.

Shirts, belts, accessories, and other parts of the costume should be comfortable as well as safe.

Keep Your Dog in Mind

My two adult dogs, Bones and Hero, both wear costumes; but I won’t introduce my four-month-old puppy, Seven, to costumes until next year. The most she’ll wear now and in coming months will be a bandanna. This is enough for her to get used to something other than her normal collar and leash.

dog costume tips

The first step is to create the foundation; the shirt, belt, and bandanna.

Bones has been wearing costumes for years. As an extroverted show-off, I can make his costumes relatively elaborate. With safety, comfort, and ease of removal in mind, I created this pirate costumes using scrap material and parts from a child’s pirate costume.

dog costume tips

Bones, at 7 years old, has much more experience wearing costumes.

With his experience wearing costumes, Bones isn’t bothered with the long plastic sword hanging off the belt. I would never ask an inexperienced dog to wear this, however.

Hero, at three years old, has only worn a costume last year (not counting various bandannas) and so his costume is less elaborate than Bones’. I started with a cut-down men’s shirt with a soft piece of material used as a belt to keep the excess material gathered together so it wouldn’t bother him or become a trip hazard.

dog costume tips

The second step is getting Hero used to this large baggy shirt. Notice I used some wide soft ribbon to gather the shirt so he won’t trip on it.

Then a peace sign on a string and the blue glasses finish off the costume, and the glasses being worn sporadically only for brief moments.

Introducing a Costume

Introduce your dog to his new costume gradually, for brief moments, and with lots of praise and treats. If you make the costume fun and rewarding, your dog will be more apt to cooperate.

For example, to teach Hero to accept and hold still for the glasses, I had some good treats ready. I let him sniff the glasses and see that they weren’t a problem. Then I touched them to his head, praised him, and gave him a treat. Then I held them to his face without putting them on him; I just wanted him to look through the lenses. Again, just for a second then lots of praise and rewards.

Gradually over several days, I increased his exposure to them until they were on his face and I steadied his head so he wouldn’t shake them off. Within a few days I could put them on, ask him to be still, for about thirty seconds while I took a step away.

If you find that your dog doesn’t like wearing a costume, doesn’t have the confidence to wear one, or isn’t a show-off; don’t force the issue. It’s not worth shaking his confidence, turning it into something unpleasant, or damaging your relationship. Costumes should always be fun.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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