As so much has changed this spring in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, our dogs have some things to adjust to, as well. Our schedules have changed, our moods and emotions may have changed, and our trips into the community are different if or when they occur at all.
For our dogs, some of these changes can be positive (e.g., having more time with us at home), but some are problematic. In particular, one issue that has already started to pop up for some of my clients and their dogs is the sight of people everywhere wearing safety masks and other personal protective equipment.
As with many necessary precautions taken these days to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, for example, many animal hospitals have updated their drop-off and pickup policies. In some cases, hospital staff are retrieving dogs from outside or from owners’ cars, and several owners have reported to me how fearful their dogs were to see these masked and gowned figures approaching.
One owner reported her dog’s first bite incident, directed toward a vet tech who reached to take the dog’s leash while wearing mask and gown. Another reported her dog trembling and growling when a couple wearing masks walked past her yard on a walk. A third owner reported that her Dachshund had even barked and run away from her when she put the mask on herself before leaving the house to run errands!
From a dog’s perspective, seeing a person’s face is an important way to gather important social information, such as where eye contact is directed. When faces are obscured, dogs can become uncomfortable or frightened. Many dogs are frightened by people wearing baseball caps, hoodies or sunglasses, and safety masks fall squarely into this same category.
Is your dog frightened by the face masks? You can test this by putting one on around the house and moving about your business as you assess whether your dog seems to notice or respond differently to you. If there is no initial response when you put on the mask, try talking playfully to your dog. Does your dog respond as he normally would? How about other family members when they put a mask on? You would want to see that your dog acts as if she doesn’t even notice the change, or gives the mask a curious sniff and goes on her merry way.
If your dog seems to stare at your mask, or if she stiffens, cowers, growls or barks, she may be nervous about the mask. If this is the case, take off the mask and start by showing her the mask while you feed a few treats or show the mask casually and then toss her favorite ball. Then try hanging the mask under your chin as you play with or feed your dog until you see no signs of nervous behavior and she is eating and playing happily. Then try sliding the mask up just over the bottom of your chin, leaving most of your face exposed, as you play or practice some trick training for treats with your dog.
After every few repetitions of the ball toss or treat delivery, move that mask an inch or so up across your face until it is worn normally and your dog has fully adjusted to you and other family members wearing it.
In public, and especially at the vet’s office, the masks can add insult to injury for fearful or aggressive dogs. Hospital staff are not equipped to move as gradually as you are able to move in teaching your dog to accept face masks.
Therefore, if your dog seems nervous about the masks, even if you are not otherwise wearing one yourself, this would be an important time to work on the exercise above. By doing so, you are teaching your dog that you — her favorite and most trusted person — also sometimes wear this new face covering, thus providing some desensitization.
Be sure to speak with your animal hospital’s staff in advance, as well, if you have noticed fearful responses from your dog toward face masks, so that they can take this into account as we all move through these uncharted waters together.
Megan Maxwell, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears on the first Tuesday of every month in Extra. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.