At this time, it appears that the “new normal” involves face coverings for us humans, at least when we are out and in contact with each other. It may be possible in your day to day life for your dog to never see someone wearing a mask, especially if your dog mostly stays on your property/in the house. However, it is crucially important that you habituate your dog to people wearing masks, because there is one high-stress environment where they will almost undoubtedly see people wearing masks now — the vet’s office.
The new regulation issued by Alameda County, which is in accordance with the Governor’s recommendations, is for everyone to wear a face covering at work when it is not possible to maintain social distancing. That would be the vet’s office, most of the time.
Anyone who has brought a new puppy into my office has experienced my song and dance (sometimes comedy routine) about the importance of socializing your puppy and how dogs rely heavily on gross cues like your cardboard cutout profile to identify you by sight. They have also heard me discuss the importance of body language in dealing with dogs, how we never know whether the dog is sitting in response to our words or our facial expression.
The face coverings that we are being directed to wear are going to hide a LOT of our body language from our dogs, and may really freak them out. I’ve had two dogs who usually love me tremor with fear until I took off my mask to show them who I am. They still continued to freak out to some extent after that. Both dogs were brought in by people who were wearing masks themselves.
I think that a lot of dogs will find neck gaiters pulled up over the nose less disconcerting than actual masks because so many dogs see us with Turtle Necks or scarves over our necks and faces during the winter. However, even if your dog is habituated to neck gaiters, please please please get them used to masks! Please try to do it before you accidentally come into the house wearing a mask and either terrorize your dog or get bitten.
The easiest way to get your dog used to you wearing face coverings is probably to start by putting one on while they are watching you, at mealtime. Wear the covering while you proceed with your dog’s usual mealtime ritual. Then wear your face covering in the house for short periods of time independently of feeding, working your way up to being able to put a leash on your dog or perform some basic grooming while wearing it. It would be prudent to use several different styles of face covering, since a neck gaiter presents a different appearance than a pleated surgical-style mask, which is different in appearance than one of the non-pleated Olsen-style masks.
emember that your dog may also react to the pattern ON THE FABRIC of the mask. There are a lot of really amazing, clever masks that give you a cat’s nose or Darth Vader’s lower face. Unfortunately, if your dog sees one, your dog may find it more frightening than clever. Be prepared to get your dog past alarming visages by exercising WIDE social distancing or using a toy or treats!
Our world is changing in ways that are scary or stressful for all of us. Our animal companions aren’t just along for the ride. They don’t listen to the Governor’s addresses or watch the news. With a little extra effort, we can help them adapt, too.