Sometimes dogs can respond poorly when they see unfamiliar things or things that make them feel uncertain — such as you or other people wearing medical masks. Teach your dog how to be okay with seeing people in medical masks by using the power of classical conditioning. It sounds complicated, but it’s quite simple.
Quite simply, you want to condition your dog to have a positive emotional response to seeing you (and others) in a medical mask. This is done by pairing the sight of the mask on someone’s face with something the dog has a very positive feeling about (food is the easiest).
Follow these steps, and spend as much time on each step as your dog needs. Watch for very subtle signs of stress so you’ll know that you need to slow down or move back a few steps.
- Hold the mask beside your face then give your dog a small piece of tasty food. Move mask away from your face for a pause, then repeat.
- Briefly hold the mask over your mouth with one hand, give the dog a treat with the other hand, then move the mask away from your face. Pause. Repeat.
- Hold the mask over your mouth with one hand for two seconds. During this time, give your dog a treat with your other hand. Move the mask away from your face after you give the dog a treat. Repeat.
- Put the mask on but place it under your chin — not covering your mouth. Give your dogs several treats in a row. Remove the mask. Repeat.
- Put the mask on, but place it under your chin — not covering your mouth. Give your dog one treat. Then move the mask over your mouth. Give a treat. Then move the mask away off your mouth and back under your chin. Repeat.
- Repeat Step 5 but this time when the mask is over your mouth give your dog a few treats in a row.
- Repeat Step 6 but this time stretch the time between the treat while you are wearing the mask over your mouth. Ask your dog to do some easy tricks/skills.
- When it’s time to feed your dog a meal, put the mask on, cover your mouth, then feed your dog. When it’s time to play with your dog, put your mask on and play with your dog while wearing it.
- Start to wear your mask around the house when you’re doing mundane things that your dog finds boring or relaxing. Do not wear the mask yet while you are doing things that your dog finds scary (e.g. vacuuming).
- Ask family members to put on a mask, starting with Step one. You can feed the dog the treat when your dog sees the other person put the mask on.
If you are out walking your dog and you encounter a person wearing a medical mask, pop a treat in your dog’s mouth right after your dog notices the person. Don’t point out the person to your dog. Let your dog notice the person on his/her own, and when your dog does, pop a treat in your dog’s mouth. You may have to get your dog enough distance from the person so your dog isn’t stressed. For example, if the person is walking towards you and your dog, cross the street or change your direction so the person approaches on a curve or from left to right (or right to left). This way your dog can observe the person but the person is not heading directly towards the dog.