While we are all looking forward to our lives eventually getting back to “normal”, it is going to be a long time before we are at that stage, and as we start to move towards a more normal life there are going to be aspects of everyday life that are very different…especially for our dogs, who do not understand what is going on in the world.
It is important for us to think ahead to how life may look when lock down measures are relaxed slightly, so that we can start to prepare our dogs for these changes so as to ensure we avoid situations they could potentially find stressful or difficult to deal with. One aspect to start to prepare our dogs for is the fact that there will be a lot of us humans walking round wearing masks covering our mouths and noses.
And its not just people out on walks that you need to consider…..if your dog goes to the dog groomer, it is highly likely that they will also be wearing masks, and they will need to be much closer to your dog than other members of the public so it is even more important we work on building a positive association with people wearing face masks.
You will potentially find that delivery drivers or people coming to the door may also be wearing masks. So bear in mind that even if your dog is happy with visitors to the home, if you add a mask into the equation, this reaction may change. The easiest thing to do in this situation is to shut your dog away when someone is at the door.
There are conflicting views out there regarding whether or not masks are going to be helpful, but I am not here to discuss that….the fact is that a lot of people will most likely wear a mask because it can do no harm, and will make them feel safer. We must remember that for most of our dogs, they will never have seen such a sight. Masks cover up half of our faces, meaning that dogs will be unable to read our facial expressions. The only area left uncovered is our eyes….and in the dog world eye contact can be very confrontational. This could potentially elicit a response from your dog that you wont be expecting.
So lets think about it from our dog’s point of view. Life has been very different for the past 6 weeks (and longer by the time lock down measures are relaxed slightly)…routines have changed, the family might be around more meaning the dog possibly is sleeping less (dogs need a lot of sleep), all of a sudden they are not interacting with other dogs or walking with their dog friends. This change of routine alone can be stressful for a lot of dogs. Then imagine they suddenly go out and are greeted by the sight of humans in funny masks with half their faces covered. To some dogs this wont phase them at all….but to a lot of dogs this will be very scary. It will be something they have never seen before, and a lot of dogs will not be able to cope with this. They may bark to try and keep the scary humans away, they may try and keep away from the people wearing masks, but of course if the dog is on lead they wont be able to move away. They may be so scared that they feel they have to nip or bite to keep that threat away. Dogs react differently when they are scared or in a situation in which they feel threatened….the same way as we do….and neither of those reactions is right or wrong….they are simply a variety of different ways dogs react to stress and fear.
So….we KNOW our dogs will be in this situation at some stage in the near future, therefore we owe it to them to prepare for them for it and to minimise their stress.
The disposable masks are hard to come by now, but more and more people and small companies are starting to make material face masks and these are inexpensive to buy. So to start with you can gently start to desensitise your dog to the family wearing masks for short periods. Some dogs will not react at all, in which case you will be able to just skip a few steps and start simply wearing masks during the day at home to acclimatise your dog.
If there are multiple people living in the home, then start with one person. That person should put the mask on at a distance away from the dog, and another person should sit with the dog. As soon as the dog looks at the family member who is wearing the mask, reward them. Keep rewarding the dog at quite a fast rate of reinforcement for looking at the person wearing the mask….as long as the dog is comfortable and happy and not seeming worried (I will come onto this further down). After a minute or so, have the person remove the mask and then stop rewarding the dog. You want your dog to start to build an association whereby a human wearing a mask means that yummy food treats appear 🙂
If there is just one person living in the house with the dog, then start by showing your dog the mask in your hand. Reward your dog for any interaction with the mask as you should make sure that your dog is comfortable with the mask on its own before you place it on your face. As long as your dog is comfortable with it, then you can move it towards your face and feed them for that….then you can place it on your face and as soon as your dog notices that you have the mask on either feed them food rewards at a fast rate the whole time you have the mask on your face, or drop food onto the floor for them. Repeat this for a minute or so, then remove the mask and at that point stop feeding your dog.
Please keep an eye on their facial expressions and body language. Are they looking at all worried? Are they avoiding your gaze or looking away? Is their tail tucked between their back legs? Are their ears back against their head? Are their hackles up? Are they showing the whites of their eyes? Are they licking their lips? Are they yawning? Are they backing off or are they standing with their weight on their back legs? An obvious one would be are they barking or growling? All of these signs mean your dog is worried and is important that the mask is then immediately removed. You can then start at a lower level….if your dog finds it too much having someone close to them with the mask on, they may be ok with someone at the far end of the room with a mask on. If there is just one person at the home, then you can always pair times of you putting the mask on with your dog enjoying a food dispensing toy (Toppl or lickimat for example) at a short distance from you…or you can throw food towards them if you are further away.
Once your dog is comfortable with all members of the family wearing a mask for short periods, you can start to wear a mask for slightly longer periods when going about your normal life in the household….watching tv, cooking, reading, playing a game. I appreciate you may feel a bit silly, but the aim is for your dog to become so acclimatised to people wearing masks covering their face that it becomes the norm for them.
It is important that we build a strong positive emotional response to humans wearing masks by starting to work on this with people the dog knows, before we can expect them to be comfortable with strangers outside wearing masks.
When you are outside the home with your dog and see another human wearing a mask, it is important that you keep building this positive emotional response. Dogs do not generalise….which means that although your dog may be comfortable with family members in the house wearing a mask, this does not mean that this will translate to the outside world. So as soon as your dog sees someone wearing a mask outside the house, reward them heavily until that person has gone past. Initially you should do this for every person wearing a mask that your dog sees until you notice no reaction from your dog upon sight of a masked person, or they start to look back at you when they see the person (this will be a sign that they truly do associate a human wearing a mask with food appearing from you…ie they feel very comfortable with those masked wearing humans!).
This is a strange time for all of us, full of change, but we know what is going on and why things are so different right now. Dogs do not have that luxury – all they know is things have changed. A lot of dogs, mine included, find change very worrying, and we owe it to them to make any transition and change as stress free as possible.
Please do get in contact if you have any questions or concerns.
Angela Doyle – Polite Paws Dog Training 6th May 2020