Acclimating Dogs to Face Masks
In the past few months, our lives have changed dramatically. Many of us have had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time at home with our furry family, which has been a luxury. There is a real concern for many of those pets that as we begin to go back to work, our furry family will begin to show signs of separation anxiety (SA). I address how we can help minimize their experience of SA here. This blog will focus on another real issue that needs some attention as we re-enter the world.
Until there is a vaccine, the new normal across the US, and around the world, will include humans wearing masks when out in public. Keeping ourselves and our fellow citizens safe must be our top priority. However, covering our nose and mouth, leaving just our eyes exposed, can be very upsetting for the four-leggeds among us. We can do some simple prep work to help our pups feel safe and comfortable when out with us in public places.
By now most of us have masks – either disposable, home-made cloth masks, or make-shift masks out of a variety of different materials. The commonality of all these options is that they cover half our face. You can start today to help your pup feel comfortable with this new ‘fashion accessory’.
1. Show your dog the mask and label it “mask”. Let her sniff and investigate it. Give her some tasty treats after she sniffs, or at least looks at the mask.
2. Hold the mask in front of your face (a couple inches away from your face), say “mask”, and give your pup a tasty treat and offer praise from behind the mask. Take the mask away and show her your sweet smile.
3. Toss a treat behind your dog and while her back is to you, put the mask in front of your face so that when she turns around, your nose/mouth are covered. Say “mask” and cheer her on and give her a couple of treats. Remove the mask and let her see your face is still there.
4. Repeat step 3 several times, until your dog is cheerfully trotting back to you to get her tasty treats.
5. Toss a couple treats behind your dog so she turns her back to you as she gets them. While her back is turned, put the mask on so its snug against your face. When she turns back say “mask” and cheer her on as you invite her to you. Give treats. If she hesitates now that the mask is tight to your face, toss treats to her where she is comfortable and then invite her toward you. Don’t force her to approach. If she seems worried, just take the mask off so she can see that it’s still you. Repeat step 5 until she’s comfortable.
6. Put mask on, label it “mask”, and play games with your dog – Fetch, Tug, encourage her to chase you and give treats when she gets to you, cuddles, feed her meals, etc. Make wearing your mask a cue that fun things happen for her.
7. If there are other humans living in your home, have every human present do steps 1-6 with the dog. This will help generalize the experience for her that masks predict good things for her.
8. When out in public, have a stash of super high value tasty treats – your dog’s very favorite food. Every time she sees a person wearing a mask, label it “mask” and then give her one or two bites of her favorite food. It’s critical that you make sure your DOG sees the person wearing the mask before you label it and give treats. We want to make sure that the sight of the strange, masked person predicts the awesome treat, rather than the treat predicting a scary, masked stranger.
If you are consistent in labeling the accessory and pairing the sight of the mask on a person’s face with your dog’s favorite food, she will soon be comfortable seeing people in public wearing masks. This is important because for at least the next 12-18 months, this is going to be our ‘new normal’ and we want to ensure our dogs are still comfortable going out and enjoying a public life experience with us.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.