Many state and local governments, including the counties in our area of California, have mandated the wearing of face coverings while in public. Adjusting to wearing masks (and trying to talk in them!) has been a challenge for many of us. As you’ve no doubt realized when socializing your dog, it can be difficult for them to acclimate to people who look or act differently than they’re used to. The first time your dog meets someone with a beard or a hat has likely shown you how challenging it can be for dogs to understand and accept our fashion choices.
Last week, we discussed the prevention of separation anxiety as many of us start adjusting to our “new normal” and Shelter in Place orders begin to lift. Today, we’ll discuss a different kind of stress your dog might need to work through: Being surrounded by people wearing masks.
More Than Just a Mask
By living in close contact with humans for generations, dogs have developed skills that allow them to interact and communicate with humans. Just as we look for non-verbal indicators in our dogs to explain how they might be feeling, dogs have adapted to understand our non-verbal language, interpret our moods, and anticipate our actions or needs. A 2018 Springer study showed that dogs had different physical reactions to photographs of faces displaying different emotions. Dogs in the study reacted differently to expressions of surprise and anger, and happiness and sadness.
Your dog takes in information about the world through all of their strong senses. A mask is more than just an odd fashion choice to them, it’s a barrier to reading important information about the people they might be asked to interact with. Just as you might experience stress when you don’t have the necessary information to approach a situation confidently, your dog might also feel stressed and overwhelmed by suddenly losing the ability to gain information from a human’s face.
Desensitization Starts at Home
More people outside and state mandated masks in public means your dog might be tossed into a sea of people that they don’t quite understand. Being thrown in water before you know how to swim can be stressful and overwhelming, and the same idea applies to your dog. Before you start taking them out to a park full of masked humans, you should systematically desensitize them to masks and facial coverings in a controlled environment.
- Introduce the concept of masks in the home. Show a dog the mask, let them interact with it, and reward them for neutral interactions. You might leave a mask taped to the wall near their food dish, or leave them around the house to make the object itself less scary.
- Incorporate the mask with your outfit. Begin wearing the mask around the house. Don’t use it to cover your face, but pin it to your shirt, hang it from an ear, or wear it on your forehead. Get the dog used to you wearing it on you, without blocking the important information they read from your face.
- Short and Sweet. Keep these introduction sessions short and positive. Reward the dog while they work to understand the new object, and never bring them over their stress threshold while introducing it. If your dog is overwhelmed at any point, take a step back and build their confidence about the new object.
- Wear it Well. If your dog is confident about the object, and isn’t startled by you or the mask when it’s worn around your neck or on your forehead. Introduce short sessions of wearing the mask around the home. Put the mask on and head to the cookie jar or toy bin, let your dog receive the reward from you and then remove the mask. Work up to wearing the mask before feeding, during relaxed or happy play time, or pop it on for brief sessions while you’re cuddling on the couch. Soon, the dog should be associating the mask with positive things, and will not have a negative reaction to you covering your face.
- A Family Affair. Teach the dog that the mask isn’t unique to one person. Once your dog is comfortable with the object, get the entire family in on the mask game. Start adding in different styles of masks, bandannas, and other interesting face coverings that people might improvise for use in public. It is always better to introduce these strange things in a controlled, home environment.
- Controlled Environment on the Move. If your dog tends to be cautious, introduce the idea of masks on strangers slowly. This might mean parking your car next to a busy store or park and letting them observe masked strangers as they go about their business. Wear your mask too, and praise and reward your dog for their casual observation. By staying in your car, you’re in control of the situation and can keep your dog below threshold.
Once your dog is comfortable with the idea of strangers in masks, venture out to a park or into your neighborhood, keep your distance from others, and praise/reward your dog for bravely exploring this new world.
Keeping Up Communication
Even if your dog accepts masks as the new normal, you’ll still be covering up an important communication tool for them. I’m sure you’ve experienced difficulty communicating with others while a mask muffles your words. You might have taken to waving a greeting rather than speaking it, or using more body language in general to help get your point across. Just as these non-verbal indicators are helping you communicate with people, expanding your body language will also help you communicate with your dog. For some, this might mean going back to a clicker to indicate a “yes!” or developing a hand signal to convey “good dog!”