Whether or not they’re being required, masks have become a fact of life. As we go about our lives during the ongoing pandemic, you’re likely to encounter masked individuals. One unfortunate consequence is that it can be a new, scary change to your dog.

Dogs have a remarkable capacity to read our facial expressions in order to pick up on social cues. Being around people wearing masks is not only unfamiliar, and it may also make a dog feel as if their senses have been dulled. Dogs that aren’t obviously frightened may still be anxious, or they may exhibit unexpected behaviors because of a lack of social signals from their environment.

dogs with humans in face masks

Fortunately, like us, dogs are great adapters. With the right acclimation and training, they can become just as comfortable and confident around people with masks as they were before… all this mess started.

Here are some tips and things to consider as you aim to get your pup used to the idea of being around people with masks.

Take Things Slowly

The first step is to recognize that traumatic experiences are cumulative. If your dog were to have just one bad fright involving someone with a mask, it will be much more difficult to convince them that they should let their guard down later. 

This isn’t to say that you should consider it a lost cause after a bad experience! But, rather, we want to emphasize that you should keep the dog’s comfort levels in mind at all times.

“We would advise that, when introducing pets to face masks, you do so gradually and to only progress, if your pet is happy and relaxed,” advises the UK’s The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

In the UK, mask mandates are much more evenly spread, so dog owners across the pond can’t risk hoping it just won’t be an issue on the next outing. Instead, the RSPCA suggests that you make an active effort.

For starters, while at home, “put on a face mask but keep it ‘half on’ so that your dog can see your mouth and nose,” the RSPCA recommends. “Our dogs are used to seeing people with scarves so this should not cause any particular reaction.”

From there, observe the pet’s reaction. If they seem comfortable, cover your mouth a few times and, eventually, your mouth and nose. Work on different scenarios, and get your pet accustomed to the fact that sometimes a mask will be there, sometimes it won’t, during the course of their daily routine.

Harness the Power of Positive Reinforcement

It is important during these trials to go about your usual business. At the same time, reinforce your dog’s positive reactions with pets, praise, and treats.

With enough practice and patience, your dog will begin to associate the mask with positive experiences. You can even consider having a mask near the dog’s food bowl or wearing it while getting treats from their given drawer or jar.

Recognize That Your Dog Has a Range of Fears to Get Over

Getting your dog used to the sight of masks on people is just one part of the battle. You also have to get them accustomed to hearing people talk through masks. On top of that, people wearing masks in public may use different visual cues to communicate, such as nodding instead of smiling when crossing paths with a stranger.

As a dog owner, you have to be aware of all these unfamiliar situations and be prepared for them. You can go through exercises at home — such as talking through a mask for a short period of time — but the best teacher is real-world experience. 

After all, you can’t anticipate everything. So, instead, you must be prepared to help reinforce the training you’ve started at home.

You can lead by example in public by using the following techniques:

  • Try to remain calm and collected in all situations
  • Observe your dog closely to gauge their reactions
  • Don’t feel the need to respond to every negative reaction your dog has, since this can be a form of unintended behavior reinforcement
  • Prioritize a low-stress environment if there’s been an unpleasant interaction
  • Know your dog’s limits, and don’t hesitate to bring the dog home or to their kennel if they’re having a really bad time

Get Others in on the Act

If you have friends and family coming over, they can help participate in your dog’s mask “de-sensitivity” training. Hold a conversation on the porch while wearing masks, or have someone enter the house before taking off their mask. These simple actions can spread the training you’ve established one-on-one, and they prepare your dog for unexpected situations.

Go Back to Basics on an As-Needed Basis

The ideal outcome for your dog is for them to realize that masks are a fact of life — at least for the time being. You should eventually be able to reinforce positive behaviors through organic social interactions rather than deliberate at-home play exercises.

However, there’s also the chance that your dog can backpedal, or have a bad experience in an unanticipated way. If this is ever the case, try to gently re-establish your pet’s comfort level and work your way forward again from there. 

The key, experts say, is to always work with the dog’s natural instincts rather than trying to work against them.

“The most important thing is not to force or push the dog,” expressed one professional trainer to the American Kennel Club. “Force cannot help with fear. It will only increase the dog’s anxiety and likely create issues in the relationship between the person and the dog because the dog’s concerns are being ignored.”

Get Help From Professional Dog Training

We can’t all be experts in everything, especially when it comes to dog behavior. What’s more, every dog is unique, so lessons that apply to some dogs may not be as relevant to others.

Dog owners concerned about their pet’s comfort and well-being can improve behaviors through dog training sessions. Greenlin Pet Resorts can tailor training lessons to your dog’s individual needs. 

Just as important, we observe the dog closely to come up with pointers for continuing the training at home. When you pick up your dog, you’ll learn what behaviors and practices can best reinforce their progress. And, if you attend multiple sessions, you can build an entire curriculum around specific situations or challenges your dog faces.

Some day, this pandemic will be over, and there will be a lot fewer masks on the street. But your dog will continue to encounter unfamiliar situations, and they may exhibit the same sort of anxious behaviors. Because of this risk, you can look at the current circumstances as an opportunity for both you and your dog to be better prepared for the unexpected, with professional guidance to back you up every step of the way.

Learn more about available dog training programs, group classes, puppy training, or one-on-one dog behavior coaching by calling a Greenlin Pet Resort location near you.