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Mask Phobia in Dogs

Since our dogs lack the ability to use a spoken language, they must instead rely on non-verbal communication

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When health officials began urging Americans to use face coverings as a means of slowing the transmission of COVID 19, it took some time to adjust to the sight of our neighbors in masks.

Fast forward several months - the recommendation is now a mandate, and the ubiquitous mask is part of what we now call the New Normal. Generally speaking, most of us are adjusting. But the same can not be said for some of our dogs. 

Since our dogs lack the ability to use a spoken language, they must instead rely on non-verbal communication. As they evolved to become human companions, they learned how to read human body language and facial cues - and some are arguably better at it than many humans!

So, when a turn of events they do not understand suddenly results in every face they see being covered or obscured, it can create anxiety, and in some cases, fear aggression. 

If your dog has started putting on the brakes when it’s time for his walk, or choosing to leave the room when you pick up the leash, he may be trying to tell you he’s having a hard time seeing humans in masks. While out in the neighborhood, he may tense up suddenly, tuck his tail between his legs, or avoid looking at masked faces.

He may display behaviors that seem out of context, such as yawning when he should be alert, or licking his lips when there is no food present. These behaviors are subtle and easy to miss, but make no mistake, they are telltale signs of anxiety and fear in your furry friend.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs usually bite due to fear as opposed to aggression or a desire for dominance.

Thankfully, we can help our dogs using a behavior modification technique called counter conditioning. Simply put, this technique involves isolating something your dog dislikes, then pairing it with something he likes - a lot! For instance, our older dog hates having her nails trimmed.

By feeding her boiled chicken or salmon during her pedicure, we can do the procedure with minimal drama. Most dogs have a certain degree of either food drive or toy drive. If your dog is toy motivated, spring for a new one. He will be more intrigued by something he hasn’t seen before, thus improving your chances of success.

If he is food motivated, skip the dry kibble and go for something really good. Like boiled chicken or salmon! The key is to use a high value motivator that will command more attention than scary masks. 

Once you determine what motivates your dog, let him enjoy it while a mask is present. In addition to the rewards, give him lots of verbal praise. It’s a good idea to start these exercises at home, away from external distractions. Once he is comfortable with a mask in his presence, begin wearing it while doing the exercise.

Let everyone in your household participate so he learns to relax around different people wearing different kinds of masks. Keep training sessions short and sweet - no more than five minutes so as not to overwhelm him. That said, you can repeat the exercise several times per day. 

When he has mastered these exercises at home, it’s time to attempt a walk. Have your treats/toy ready, and reward him for choosing to pay attention to you and the reward rather than obsessing over your masked neighbors. Be sure to praise him verbally when he disengages from the sight of masks.

Eventually you can move toward fewer rewards and more verbal praise as he learns to relax and understand your expectation. Again, keep these sessions short. Patience and baby steps are the key to making these techniques work. 

If your dog lunges, growls or barks hysterically at people wearing masks, it may take more to help your dog conquer his fear. By all means attempt counter conditioning exercises, but if you find your dog is not responding, don’t give up.

Enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who can help you address your dog’s issues using positive reinforcement. Your veterinarian can provide a recommendation.

While these exercises may seem time-consuming at first, a qualified trainer can provide instruction in a way that is fun for both dogs and humans. Given that the New Normal is likely to be reality for the foreseeable future, it is well worth the effort to make this investment now. 

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic

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