Face Mask Anxiety


Our dogs look up to us to assess how things are – literally.  A dog’s ability to read emotions and feelings from our faces is second to none, and it is the main way that they communicate with us.  Our expressions and micro-expressions tell a much richer and more complex story than our words ever will.  In fact, the closer the relationship we have with our dogs, the harder it is to deceive them – they read us better than the world’s best poker player.

When our faces are covered up, like during Halloween, our dogs can become stressed because they find it harder to tell how we feel.  It becomes more difficult to get information from us about the state of life at that moment.  I often get phone calls the first week of November about dogs who were acting either unusually fearful or aggressive because of the anxiety they felt during Halloween with everyone wearing a mask.  Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, wearing masks may become more commonplace, and our dogs may have a hard time to adjust to the potential “new normal”.

Once we begin emerging from this lockdown and we bring our dogs out in the public, there may be issues with them acting out, possibly due to everyone’s face covered up with masks.  Even more upsetting to them is not being able to read our own faces because we’ve hidden them.  How will they know how we feel when they cannot easily read our expressions?

There are a few things that we can do to prepare our dogs for this:

  1. Take the opportunity now to show your dog that wearing a mask is a common occurrence by occasionally putting one on random times during the day.  Don’t make a big deal out it, just wear it for a while when you’re feeding them, walking them, or just sitting and watching TV.  It’s also good to have it on when you are talking with other members of your household, and they should be wearing one as well. 
  2. While wearing a mask, talk to your dog as you normally would – the sound of your voice is comforting to them, and they can gather a lot of information from your tone, even if they cannot read your expressions.
  3. Smile when wearing a mask when with your dog.  I can’t stress this enough.  When you smile, it shows up in your eyes.  In fact, a majority of our expressions comes from our eyes, and our dogs are very adept at seeing that.  As Shakespeare wrote, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”  When we gaze at our dogs with love, we release the neurotransmitter Oxytocin in both ourselves and our dogs, giving each of us a sense of comfort and security.
  4. Practice shared mindfulness with your dog while wearing a mask.  The sense of peace and serenity your dog will feel during these times will show your dog that the mask is nothing to fear and be concerned about.  

The world has changed since this virus reared its ugly head, and it has many of us feeling stressed and anxious.  It may be a while before we can all go back to normal.  Our dogs feel our stress as well through emotional contagion.  Getting them comfortable with seeing ourselves and others covering their faces will help ease their anxiety, and subsequently ease our own.