Since dogs cannot speak, they communicate using their vision, primarily reading facial cues and body language. Think about the way dogs interact when meeting – initially they will look at each other slightly side on, taking particular note of any tension around the eyes, ears and mouth.
They use these same techniques to understand the humans around them.
In this pandemic age it is important for us to acknowledge that our dogs will be impacted by our need to wear masks. With at least half of our faces are covered, our primary contact with them is through our eyes, followed closely by verbal communication. And so, it is vital that we interact with our own dogs, and those of others, with care to avoid any miscommunications.
For dogs, it can be perceived as aggressive to make direct eye contact, so when meeting a new dog, make an effort to relax your face and lower your eyes slightly. Try to avoid standing over them. Blink your eyes, and move them around, speaking gently, lightly before approaching. If they seem receptive you might move forward to give them a scratch under the chin.
With your own dog be aware that they might not immediately recognise you when wearing a mask – they may retreat and bark when you arrive home, rather than move toward you in greeting. Allow them a minute to adjust and speak gently to them in a happy relaxed tone. Avoid aggressive actions or language as this may frighten them and cause them to associate this behaviour with wearing the mask.
You can also help desensitise them to face masks by wearing them while engaging in the activities that they love – going for a walk, having a cuddle on the couch, playing tug-of-war. Again, use your eyes to communicate a happy and relaxed affection while speaking lightly and gently.
With patience and care you can help your dog to feel more comfortable during this unusual time for all of us.