Making Masks Okay

Masks are going to be with us for a while. Although humans manage to adjust to them under most circumstances, our pets may find it a bit more difficult. Have you noticed how your dog looks at you for cues?  Studies have shown the canine brain can pick up on emotional cues contained in a person’s voice, body odor, posture and face.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Learning and Behavior found that dogs use different parts of their brain to process negative and positive emotions, cued by human facial expressions. The dogs showed greater response and cardiac activity when shown photographs that expressed arousing emotional states such as anger, fear and happiness. The dogs’ increased heart rate indicated that in these cases they experienced higher levels of stress.

We’ve all seen how closely the pets who live with us watch us. By living in close contact with humans, dogs have developed specific skills that enable them to interact and communicate effectively with people. But what happens when a dog cannot read the face of someone wearing a mask? Since dogs rely heavily on nonverbal communication, masks can be alarming. Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil of the Tufts Behavior Clinic advises:

“If your dog is only mildly fearful, counterconditioning may do the trick. To counter-condition your dog, pair something he loves (delicious food or favorite toy) with the presence of what he fears (person in a mask). Over time, he will begin to associate the happy feelings generated by his favorite treat with the appearance of someone in a mask. Instead of barking, he will start to wag his tail at the sight of a masked neighbor and lick his chops in anticipation of something yummy.

If the sight of a person in a mask is so scary that your dog shows no interest in treats or special toys, systematic desensitization is needed along with counterconditioning. With desensitization, the object of his fear must be introduced at a low enough intensity (i.e., at a great enough distance) that the dog is not afraid. Pair the presence of the far away masked person with special food. Very gradually, move your dog closer to the masked person. Continue moving closer and closer until your dog is comfortable taking food right next to the person with the mask.  Once he accepts the masked person, practice again with different people, different masks, and in different locations. Dogs need to practice in many contexts before they generalize what they learn. The key to effect desensitization and counterconditioning is patience.”

If you are meeting a dog for the first time, observe proper introductions and go slowly.  When you are distanced from other humans, lower your mask. Conversing with the human holding the dog will put the dog more at ease. If the meeting is not pre-arranged, ask the human for permission to approach the dog. Avoid approaching from the front and making direct eye contact with the dog. It’s best to allow the dog to approach you first. Move slowly towards the dog and allow him/her to make the final approach. If the dog stays put and doesn’t move toward you, respect that and leave the dog alone. Observe the dog’s body language and if that is positive, extend your closed fist. Don’t rush petting or touching the dog and avoid reaching over the dog or petting him/her on the head. Be especially careful if you are transporting a dog and meeting him/her for the first time. Dogs being transported can be stressed by the experience. It’s best to let the foster or the person who knows the dog do most of the touching/handling, especially if it involves adjusting the harness, collar or leash connection. At this stressful time, safety first in rescue is the most important thing we can remember, for both us and the dogs.