For the first time in two months, since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, I ventured into a grocery store to pick up some items to make meals for a sick friend’s family. Prior to that, during stay at home orders, my husband had been running the necessary errands while the kids and I pretty much stayed at home or walked the neighborhood. My hubby had been telling me each week how things were changing at the stores to prevent the rapid spread of the virus. The first two weeks were the sight of empty shelves, ditching the grocery list and just getting whatever food was available. The next weeks were the emergence of masks, barriers, limited occupancy, and one-way isles. He had told me about all of those changes, and I knew what to expect before I left the house. I had been processing those things almost daily as we discussed our family’s health and safety decisions or watched passer byers make noticeable efforts to avoid each other in the view from my front kitchen window.
When I pulled into the grocery store parking lot, do you know what I did? Despite being somewhat knowledgeable of what to expect, I didn’t hop right out and head for the doors. I was unsure about the experience I was about to have so, I watched. I sat in my van for about 10 minutes just watching others come and go. I observed where people entered and left, though that didn’t really help me much because I originally went to the wrong doors (face palm). I scanned to see who was wearing a mask and who wasn’t. When I walked through the first set of doors, I had to stop and get my bearings. Everything was misplaced from my past experiences. After about 10 to 15 minutes, I started to get the groove of following the arrows and keeping my distance, but it didn’t come with ease and I made some fumbles along the way.
Now, you may be asking what in the world this story has to do with helping your dog be more comfortable with people wearing face masks, or any new situation really? I can tell you, A LOT! It’s far too common for us bipeds to think our dogs should be able to be thrust into any situation unwavering. We tend to take for granted those easy going, solid temperament dogs that can handle new experiences and situations without missing a beat, but we are perplexed and frustrated when dogs are apprehensive or scared of engagement with people or things.
My husband prepped me for weeks on what I would encounter when I went shopping. That is very similar to you training your dog at home before taking those skills into the real world. This is how positive reinforcement dog trainers recommend introducing new skills – at home with as few distractions as possible. Introducing your dog to covered faces, gloved hands, and the unusual things they are going to experience outside of your home is imperative. For some dogs, who tend to be nervous or afraid, it’s essential.
When I talk about training skills, I need to be clear that I’m not just referring to the cues that most people equate with training. Manners and obedience cues like sit, down, come, etc. are good behaviors for dogs to know how to respond to consistently when asked, but are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to having pets that thrive. Learning how to support your dog to be confident with exploration, comfortable when faced with challenges, resilient with setbacks, and instilling trust that you have their back as a safe, dependable friend are also skills that need to be fostered together.
When your dog is unsure about new things, which is communicated by their body language, give them time to gather information and observe quietly at a distance. That’s what I did in the grocery store parking lot. If I had not been comfortable, I would have left and gone back home without even stepping foot in the store. You can do that with your dog, too. Take a few short trips to just watch the environment at a place you’d like to familiarize them with for longer future excursions. You may even play some tug or feed some favorite snacks if they’re up for it.
Remember, when your dog experiences new or different things, they may need time to acclimate. After observing for a bit, I tackled the grocery store. Yet, I ticked a few people off in the process. I wasn’t intentionally trying to disobey the rules, be rebellious, or upset people, but boy a few of them had some choice words and intense glares when I: entered the “out” door (on accident, I didn’t see the sign), got too close to someone in the produce section (it looked like 6ft distance to me), went the wrong way in an isle or two (some weren’t marked), passed someone in the isle (apparently, I’m not supposed to go around you if you’re leisurely chatting on the phone while discussing which flavored canned tomatoes will go best in your chile?).
I assure you, all those mistakes were not meant to ruffle feathers, but they were part of the learning process for me to get the hang of this new shopping system. When your dog doesn’t respond to your requests as expected, don’t automatically think they’re being stubborn. That’s probably not the case. Consider that your canine companion may be a bit confused or even afraid. They likely need some time and practice figuring things out with your support and patience. Next time your dog ignores you or doesn’t do what you think he knows he should, give him time to observe and figure out what’s going on around him. Prepare him at home as much as possible, then build on that out and about.
In the video below, we show you step by step how to help your dog start feeling more comfortable with face masks. Begin at home, and always be sure that your dog is not showing signs of stress (see video for more information on canine stress signals) before proceeding to the next step in the process. If your dog is afraid of the mask, do not try to lure him to it with tasty treats. Rather than making the dog comfortable with the mask, that approach creates conflict for a nervous dog. He may be willing to get closer to what scares him not because he’s more comfortable with the scary item, but simply because he really wants the food. Instead, go back to a point where the dog is comfortable and go slowly from there. Then, take the training outside with other masked faces. Every time your dog sees someone with a face mask, dispense some treats your dog loves. Maybe scatter the goodies on the ground to give your dog a break from focusing on the masked person if they seem concerned. At first, your goal is for your dog to have short positive experiences with you while encountering masked faces, not necessarily with the other masked person. If desired, you can work up to that by enlisting the help of safe, knowledgeable, predictable helpers: like your veterinarian, close friends, pet sitter or neighbors, who will follow your guidance in the training process while ensuring your dog’s comfort with their interactions each step of the way.