Helping dogs get used to face masks in 5 easy steps

The World Health Authority advises that people should wear masks in public areas, with this becoming compulsory on public transport from 5 June. So, seeing people with their faces covered is a new sight that our dogs will need to get used to. Our Behaviour and Training Consultant, Carolyn Menteith, explains how to help dogs and puppies get used to this new and unfamiliar sight.

As dog owners, we are familiar with the situations we should help dogs learn to accept as normal. Besides being social and safe when they meet people and other dogs, we need them to be relaxed about the things that they will encounter in the day to day life as a companion dog.

Doing this helps prevent behaviour problems further down the line and minimises the risk of dogs becoming reactive or worried, or with fears and phobias. And while we have for so long been familiar with the list of sights and scenarios that dogs need to be comfortable with, there’s now a new one to add to the list.

Last week, the World Health Authority advised that people should wear masks in public areas, and that from 15 June, they will be compulsory on public transport. So, seeing people with their faces covered is something new our dogs will need to get used to.

Carolyn Menteith, our Behaviour and Training Consultant, has created a video to help dog owners get their dogs used to masks. 

She explains:

“In the past couple of months there have been all kinds of changes to the lives of our dogs. Owners are home far more, children aren’t at school and the usual household routine has changed almost overnight. And while we are seeing an easing of lockdown - there are some things in our dogs’ lives that will be very different, and if we don’t prepare for them now, could cause problems in the future.

“When we bring up puppies, we try and introduce them to all the things that are going to be part of their lives during the period of their development where they are accepting of new things - so that they won’t be worried about them in the future. In this we include people, dogs, strange sounds, traffic, joggers, cyclists, people in hats, livestock… and much more besides. What we don’t include, however, is people in masks. Why would we? People don’t wear masks…

“Except now they do. And more and more our dogs are going to see them. Whether it’s people on the street, or vets, groomers and other professionals as they start to get back to work as safely as they feel they can. And masks are scary. Even for us seeing people in the supermarket wearing masks can make us feel uncomfortable - even though we know why they are doing it - because we can’t see their faces properly or read their expressions…

“How much scarier could this be for our dogs? The answer is of course… it depends on your dog. Some dogs are so well-socialised and so well-balanced and accepting of novelty, people could wear virtually anything they liked and they’d be quite happy about it - although maybe secretly think that they’d gone a bit mad!

“For many however it can be a far more worrying issue. Our dogs are used to looking at our faces and seeing them clearly. One of the first exercises we teach our dogs is to watch us - and we ask them to do that before we ask them to do anything else but suddenly we’ve changed the way we look.

“Puppies and dogs relate to us by observing our body language, and reading the tiniest cues in our facial expressions. As soon as you put a mask on, they can’t do that. They can’t understand what our body language is saying and can’t even hear us properly. But spending some time on getting your dog used to you wearing a mask is easy, and will make a huge difference to how they learn to respond and accept people looking so odd!”

 Step one

Sit down together and show your dog a face mask. Let them sniff it and check it out and realise that it is safe and nothing to worry about. Don’t let them grab it or bite it, but they do need to know that it is perfectly safe. Then give them a treat.

 Step two

Once your dog is happy with the mask in your hands, you can lift it up to your face. Just for a second or two, and give your dog a treat. Do this several times so they get used to seeing half of your face covered – albeit, briefly.

Step three

Next, hang the mask from one of your ears, and while it is there, give your dog a treat. When you know your dog is totally happy with this, you can move onto actually wearing it.

Step four

Put the mask on and give your dog a treat, and then take it off again. Always reward them when you have the mask on, not when you take it off. You want them to realise that you having the mask on is a really good thing. Repeat this several times a day and in different places and positions; like sitting in a chair, standing up, kneeling and leaning over.

Step five

Once your dog is used to seeing you wearing a mask, wear it when you are doing things that you know your dog loves, like giving them their dinner or having a game with them. Let them see you in different styles of masks too – and if at any point they look fearful – go back a few steps.

Carolyn continues, “When you’re wearing the mask, make sure your voice is brighter and happier than usual. They can’t read your subtle body language cues that they would watch for when they are looking at faces, so it’s important they know that you’re happy. Get everyone in the family involved in these tasks, so they get used to each person sometimes wearing something on their face.

“Always be aware that a stranger in a mask, especially in a new environment, may still be a source of fear for your dog.

“By spending a little bit of time getting your dog used to masks, if you, your friends or family, the vets or groomer are wearing one, then you know that your dog’s not going to be worried about them.”

In Agria’s video, Carolyn guides owners in these simple, gentle steps they can take to reassure their dogs, as they begin to learn that masks are a normal part of life. 

Tom Vaughan, Head of Marketing at Agria Pet Insurance, says, “In consultation with Carolyn, we felt that it was vitally important to raise awareness of how strange it will be for dogs to see people in masks.

“Starring the fantastic puppy Reggie, our campaign video gives owners of puppies and dogs of all ages a straightforward guide to learning to adjust to something that looks odd and hides many important visual cues. Guiding and habituating dogs in the right way now will help them to remain happy and confident as they adjust to the new human look.”

‘Getting your dog used to masks’ can be found here