One of the joys of my life is to see my two pugs in cute outfits. I have a collection of dresses, jackets, shirts, and Halloween costumes for them. Granted, I think they are pretty adorable, but that may be a mother’s bias.
To help prepare them for being dressed up, one of the keys is to do it as soon as possible. The earlier the better with this type of training. Working with a young animal is sometimes easier, but a lot of pets can be desensitized at any age.
If you know you will need them in costume by a certain date (i.e. costume contest or holiday) do not wait until the last minute. You will need some time to desensitize the pet to the clothing. Throwing an outfit on at the last minute when your pet has never worn anything generally won’t turn out well. Desensitizing a pet to something like this takes several steps and considerations. Before you start, make sure whatever it is you want your pet to wear is the right size. Being too small or too large presents their own issues and challenges. Set yourself up for success by measuring your pet and making sure that you get the right size.
Also, before starting, familiarize yourself with signs of stress in your particular pet. A stressed dog will look different than a stressed cat and different from a stressed rabbit. Some signs of stress is dogs is panting, pacing, looking sideways with wide eyes, or holding up a front paw. There are some good references on Sophia Yin’s website for body language. Please be aware that some of these are very subtle and sometimes missed if you are not looking for them. We want this experience to be stress-free for the pet, so always keep this in mind.
Treats and other reinforcements are needed to let the animal know they are doing what you are asking of them. Just throwing something on your dog and saying “good boy” when the dog is terrified is not the way to go. You want to take baby steps and stop anytime the animal is showing one of the signs of stress or anxiety. Stop and restart later from a few steps back. A good place to start is just having the costume or outfit in the same room with the pet, giving them treats and encouragement. If you pet is familiar with clicker training this is even easier. If the pet approaches the costume, reward them for that. Gradually move the costume closer, giving treats/etc., until it actually touches the pet. Remember, baby steps!
Eventually you will work up to putting the costume on the pet. Give them some time to get used to moving around with it, especially if there are capes, hoods, or anything that goes on their head. You may have to train them separately for each piece if there are different elements to the costume.
It can be very fun and very adorable, just remember to make it a positive experience for the pet as well as for you.