“My humans are gone. SIGH. This couch is comfy. What? a noise! bark bark! Ahhh…THE DOOR. I smell my human, could it be true!! I’ll jump off the couch, wag my tail and run to say Hi, she will be so happy! Wait! That’s not my mom. Where is her mouth? “What, grumble, is this!” I hear mom, I smell mom. Mom??! Bark, grrrr, (lunge, cower) “I’m confused, I need to hide. Wait, wait there is her mouth… Mom mommy mom! Phew! What was that thing!?” – Appa the Dane
As we all know, wearing a mask is now a part of life! I am sure I am not the only dog owner whose dog has reacted this way. The most important part of us for dogs to watch for communication is our face. When we wear masks, it blocks them from doing that, and the inability to read us can create fear for them.
We can help them by using classical conditioning to pair high value treats such as hot dogs and cheese with what they fear (masks). I have listed steps below on how to ease them into being comfortable seeing you in a mask.
There are two important “rules” to follow for this training.
- Do this at home in a place they are comfortable and relaxed.
- Know when to stop or take a break. (Any signs of stress or fear: excessive panting, shaking, licking their lips, wide eye etc.) If your dog does any of this during a step, stop and revert to the last step they were okay with (repeat until comfortable).
Follow these steps:
- Put your mask somewhere the dog can see it and wait for them to interact with it. Reward when they do. Repeat.
- Put the mask in one hand and down to your side. As you hold the mask, feed your dog some treats. Once they are comfortable, move the mask toward them slowly, reward, and repeat.
Conditioning them to the mask on your face.
- Put the mask on one ear and let it dangle. As you do this and while its near your face, treat your dog … If it ties behind your head, tie the bottom part and let it dangle on your neck. Treat your dog as it moves, and anytime they look at it. Repeat. Repeat.
- Have a handful of treats and begin letting your dog nibble on them from one hand. With the other move the mask to cover your face once. Do not fully put the mask on, move it to cover your face once and then let it drop again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
- Once your dog is comfortable with step 2, put a few treats on the ground as you put on the mask. Once it’s on, you will start marking (praise, click or YES) and rewarding your dog for looking at you with the mask on. Repeat this step often.
Amillie Zickmund is a Behavior and Training Associate at the New Hampshire SPCA. Questions? We are here to help! Contact us at [email protected]