With many states recommending or mandating the use of masks or face coverings as places begin to reopen, we need to consider this impact on our doggos. While masks and other personal protective wear are meant to help humans as we venture back out, they can be scary, confusing or even triggering for dogs.

Many dogs engage with people based on human facial expressions. Quickly (and remarkably) dogs read subtle muscle changes in a person’s face that indicate a twitch or smile. By wearing a mask or face covering, dogs will lose this opportunity and may become frightened when meeting new people whose scent they are unfamiliar with.

The good news is that you can help your dog become desensitized to masks and face coverings by exposing them in a controlled environment. Like all training, patience is key as your dog becomes comfortable before moving on to the next step.

You can take steps at home to prep your dog to have a positive association with masks and facial coverings:

 

Step 1: Start by putting a mask or face covering next to your dog’s dish during mealtime or tape it on the wall above the food bowl.

  • Be sure to tape it in a horizontal position in which someone would be wearing it.
  • Point to it and let your pup sniff it before eating his or her meal.
  • You can also place the mask in various locations around the house near you, and allow your dog to investigate, sniff, or choose to ignore the mask. Reward the dog for any of these interactions.

 

Step 2: Next, you want to wear the mask or face coverings around the house but not fully.

  • You don’t have to fully wear it but instead let it hang from your ear, under your chin – but don’t cover your mouth up just yet. You want your dog to still decode the important non-verbal communication coming from your full facial expressions.
  • Do this in short moments of time for several days and offer treats and praise while letting the mask or face covering hang from your neck or ear.

You may need more distance between yourself and your dog if your dog shows any signs of fear of the mask.

In this case, you can lightly toss treats his or her way from a distance.

 

Step 3: Once your dog has associated the mask or face covering with good things, you’ll then want to wear the mask or face covering in full.

  • Offer treats to your pup while fully wearing it.
  • You may place your mask or face covering over your mouth and nose, offer a treat, then remove the mask or face covering.
  • Repeat to allow your dog to get comfortable with this process.
  • Practice speaking to your dog through the mask or face covering.

Voices can be muffled or sound different to a dog, which can also cause a fearful response.

Give a clear verbal cue the dog knows well (use a hand signal as well if needed) and follow up with verbal praise and a treat.

 

Step 4: You’ll then want to begin doing routine tasks with your mask or face covering on, allowing your dog to see you and dropping treats for him or her at random.

  • Don’t start this process with an activity that your dog already may not like such as vacuuming or nail-trimming. Instead, do something your dog does like such as getting his or her food ready, sitting on the couch, or hanging out with another person in the house.
  • You can also incorporate a short period of play with your pup while wearing your mask or face covering to continue to build the association between the mask or face covering and good things.

Since not everyone will be wearing the same type of mask or face covering, we do suggest switching up whatever face coverings you have available such as bandannas, ski masks, scarves, different colored masks, etc. to expand your dog’s horizons.

 

Step 5: The next phase will be about helping your dog adjust to strangers wearing masks or face coverings in a controlled environment.

1. Drive to a busy grocery store parking lot, wearing your mask or face covering and just hang out with your dog in the car for a short period of time.

  • Let your dog see the people go in and out of the store with their mask and face coverings.
  • Be sure to offer treats and praise your pup

2. Drive through services may also help your pup see other people, up close, with masks or face coverings on while you provide treats.

3. When you’re out on walks, allow your dog to pass people with masks or face coverings on (at a safe, socially acceptable distance), and offer treats and praise when your dog sees a person in a mask or face covering.

4. You can also practice coming into your house with a mask or face covering on, and offering treats as you come in. If you have other family members in the home, each person can help with this.

 

What to do if your pup shows signs of fear towards a mask or face covering?

Watch your dog carefully while introducing him or her to the mask or face covering. Be aware of any change in his or her body language or behavior. Should a dog show fear toward the mask or face covering during any step of the introduction, it’s important to not force the interaction. Instead, make it easier for the dog to earn treats. This could mean changing your proximity of you (if you’re wearing the mask or face covering) to your dog, altering how you move the mask or face covering, or changing the location of the mask or face covering (if it’s not on you at this point). Take these steps slowly and use more exciting rewards or treats if needed.

If your dog shows signs of fear that do not go away, even once you back track and make it easier for him or her, work with a professional dog trainer for additional tips and to ensure you build a positive association to the mask or face covering.