Most of our pets are exposed to masks — scary or otherwise — at least annually, at Halloween. But because of the pandemic, seeing people in masks has become a daily occurrence for many pets.
According to experts, and a completely unscientific survey on social media, animals rarely respond to masks with concern.
Professional dog groomer Julie Ellingson in Sacramento, Calif., says none of her canine clients bats an eye when she greets them in a mask. They just look for a new place to deliver a kiss, usually targeting her glasses.
Veronica Barker of Tustin, Calif., wore a mask long before COVID-19 came along, in order to protect herself from inhaling dust while grinding the nails of her English springer spaniel, Polly. Barker says Polly is unfazed by the face covering.
That’s probably because animals rely on more than a view of our faces when it comes to identification.
“They have other points of reference, such as eye contact, our tone of voice, scent, body language — and in some cases, familiarity with the person,” says Dr. Wailani Sung, veterinary behavior specialist at San Francisco SPCA.
Other cues such as gestures or movement can also contribute to their recognition of a particular person.
Masks muffle voices, and that can be an issue when working with or training dogs, so it’s important to speak clearly. Wearing a mask with a transparent section over the mouth allows other humans — and very likely dogs — to read lips and better understand what’s being said.
Some dogs have learned that masks mean good things are about to happen. Shelley Bueche of Austin, Texas, says her dog interprets the donning of a mask as a signal that she’s going to get to go somewhere. “She’s usually right,” Bueche says.
Similarly, Labrador mix Rio and miniature poodle, Peach, who both live with Jen Reeder in Denver, get excited and rush toward the door when they see her putting on a mask. That usually means they’re going for a walk, Reeder says.
That’s not to say that every dog reacts to masks with nonchalance. “One of my regular patients growled at me the other day when I was wearing a mask,” says behavior specialist Dr. Lisa Radosta, who practices at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach.
Alastor, a flat-coated retriever, first saw owner Jill Gibbs wearing a mask while they were at a barn hunt event. “He wanted to pull it off my face, and almost broke my nose trying,” says Gibbs, of Billings, Mont. “He is better now, but still jumps for it.”
Her other flat-coat, Izzy, looks twice before she recognizes Gibbs, and her golden retriever, Henry, avoids her until she pulls the mask down so he can see her whole face.
“Hopefully, the dog would recognize the family member behind the mask and quickly habituate, especially if engaged in an enjoyable activity,” says Toronto veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg, who heads up research for Fear Free Pets. “However, one would also expect and hope that the owner would recognize, remove and replace a mask if the image evoked fear.”
If you have a new pet or one that doesn’t like masks, the following tips can help:
• Wear a mask around the house to accustom your pet to seeing you and other people in them.
• Put on the mask while your pet is watching so it knows it’s you.
• Don’t stare at your pet, whether or not you’re wearing a mask.
• If you think that a mask with a particular design causes fear in your pet, get a different mask.
• Offer favorite treats or toys while wearing a mask so your pet develops a pleasant association with it.