It’s now April, 2020 and we are in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic. According to World Health Organization (WHO), Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a new strain that was discovered in 2019 and has not been previously identified in humans.
However, first human infected case was documented in December 2019, and has since quickly spread to 209 countries with 62,955 confirmed death, as of this blog is written. Check out WHO website for latest updates: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
California has quickly issued Shelter in Place order since mid March in the attempt to flatten the curve. It is also becoming an obvious and safe practice to wear masks when going out to public space.
With more and more people wearing masks and other protective gears, it presents a new scary view to our pet dogs. Our dogs are used to seeing our facial expression. Now, our faces are covered by masks, scarves or other materials, it is an unusual sight to dogs. As we all know, any minute change in the dog’s environment can lead to stress if not properly introduced.
You may start to notice your dog gets more reactive with staring, barking, and lunging toward people wearing masks on your walks. In fact, my dog, Bailey, just barked at a small kid wearing a scarf when we stopped to chat with our neighbors while we stayed at more than 6 feet away!
Knowing that we will see more people wearing facial protection gears, it is important to help your dog understand a person wearing a mask is not scary by doing some desensitization training.
Here are some steps you can try to help your dog get comfortable seeing a person with mask:
Let your dog check out the mask/scarf/bandanna etc first. Start with putting the mask on the floor for your dog to investigate. Every time he shows interest to sniff, paw at it or interact with it, say your positive marker word and reward him with a yummy treat.
Let your dog see you putting the mask on from distance. Next, pick up the mask and try to put it on your face a little ways away from your dog. If your dog isn’t too scared by it, you can do this step closer to your dog. When you put on the mask, while your dog is looking at you, say your positive marker word and toss him a yummy cookie. Toss the cookie behind him if he’s showing some worried signs so he can move away from you and look away from the mask.
Put the mask on and off in front of your dog while keeping some distance. You want to do this step a few more times so your dog understands it is the same you under that mask. Put on the mask, and toss him a cookie. Take the mask off, and toss him another cookie. This way, he learns, that you are playing a game called “cover my face with a mask” with him.
Let your dog get closer to you while you are wearing a mask. Once your dog is pretty comfortable looking at you from a distance, then try to encourage to come closer to you. You can utilize “Find It” by tossing some cookies near your feet or ask for “Touch” if he’s very reliable with this behavior. Don’t forget to mark and reward him when he interacts with you in a close proximity.
Do your normal training routine while wearing a mask for a short session. Continue with your normal training routine while your mask is on. Use super yummy cookies to help your dog make a positive association with the mask. This is also a good time to find out if your dog truly understands verbal cue and hand cue since your voice may be muffled by the mask. Remember to keep the training session short to prevent your dog gets worried by the mask being close by.
Reward your dog when he sees a neighbor with mask on from distance. Now that you have prepared your dog with seeing the scary mask on you, it’s time to take the training outside with the view of a stranger. You can do this by just staying at your front yard or drive way while keeping your 6-feet social distance from people passing by. Every time your dog sees a masked person without reaction, say your marker word and give a yummy cookie. You can also use “Find It” or “Touch” to redirect his attention as the masked person getting closer if you are staying in place. “Catch” (catching a treat or toy in midair) is also another good game to redirect your dog’s focus so he isn’t continuously looking at the masked person. If your dog is into play, go for it. Just make sure your dog is secured and doesn’t have an access to get to a stranger.
Reward your dog when he ignores a person with mask. By doing some focus games and play, your dog should be happy to just look at you. The goal is for your dog to think it’s no big deal when a masked person shows up. When you see your dog happily ignore people with masks, don’t forget to tell him “good dog” and give him something he likes. It can be a treat, a toy or a pet, whatever he likes in that moment!