Are masks scary and confusing to your dog? Maybe. But there are lots of things you can do to help your dog feel more comfortable around mask-wearing people.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
September 10, 2020
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It’s been said that 2020 is a year for the dogs (in more ways than one). Our dogs are enjoying having their people at home (except for the couch stealing) and love getting lots more walks (lots and lots). But what about all the strange humans wearing masks? As our communities are masking up to slow the spread of COVID-19, what do our dogs think when they meet people with covered faces? Are dogs afraid of masks? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. Your dog is an individual, and what you do around people in masks will impact how your dog will feel and react.

Do Masks Confuse Dogs?

While we know that dogs pay attention to a human’s smile and facial expressions, human mouths are not always good information providers for dogs. We all have had the experience of not being able to “read” a person based on their facial expressions. That happens daily for many dogs. Mask-wearing may make this confusion worse, by limiting a dog’s ability to interpret facial expressions.

On the other hand, a team of cognitive scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna found that dogs can differentiate happy and angry faces by just seeing half of a human’s face. That may be due to dogs’ close relationships with people and having learned to understand non-verbal communication. Dog’s pay very close attention to our body cues. All. The. Time. And dogs have another advantage: They get a great deal of information from their sense of smell. So while mask-wearing decreases dogs’ ability to read our faces, they’re still able to gather a lot of data to make a judgment. 

Some dogs seem surprisingly at ease with covered faces. In her blog, Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB emeritus, discusses why some dogs (including her own) may not mind—and may sometimes even like—people with masks on.

“Mine tolerate [masks], but they are clearly less comfortable interacting with new people wearing masks,” says Leslie Stewart, PhD, who’s a therapy animal professional and Associate Professor at Idaho State University. “I’m sure lots of genetic, environmental, and individual factors are at play,” she says. “But I also recognize the influence of my relationship with my dogs.” 

Can We Help Dogs Feel Better About Masks? 

“To help support my dogs in navigating a new world full of humans wearing masks, I consider what that looks like from the perspective of a dog,” Stewart says. It’s always a good idea to ensure your dog has a positive experience with anything new. When you’re around strangers with masks on, offer your dog lots of tasty treats they adore to help create a positive association. You can even make a game out of this! 

“I do a lot of ‘watch me’ and focus games, which they already enjoy,” Stewart says. The moment you, and your dog, spot a person with a mask on, offer your dog some nummies and lots of good praise. 

Pay close attention when out on walks or in public spaces, so your dog is not surprised by a stranger with a mask. Always be an advocate for your dog, never forcing them to interact if they’re scared or unsure.“Another thing I do is to make sure I greet the masked person before they speak to or approach us,” Stewart says. “That way, the dog knows I’m OK with that person.”

 As we mask-up right now, these actions will help to shape a more positive emotional response in your dog.