The COVID-19 (C19) pandemic has required swift changes from most of us. One of the hot-button topics seems to be mask-wearing, although the preponderance of current research suggests that masks do reduce transmission, and epidemiologists and other public health officials urge their use. In recent weeks, I’ve seen a number of posts in social media groups about dog training, equine behavior, and Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) inquiring about the impact of human mask-wearing on animals. Most questions have been about dogs and horses.
The topic is gaining relevance now that most societies around the world are opening back up with social distancing requirements still in place until a viable treatment and/or vaccine for C19 can be found. While mask wearing has become politicized, to me it’s a medical and public health issue, and this blog post is written with that in mind. If we want to work with clients in person again, or if we want to take our animals into public areas, we and other people are likely to be wearing masks. How do animals react?
Some people have described occasional distance-increasing signals given by dogs who growl or pounce on their front legs presumably due to their unfamiliarity with people wearing masks. Others have described dogs or horses moving quickly away from mask-wearing individuals. Others have reported few or no reactions at all.
Because I wrote one of our Animals Speak! pandemic blogposts for children about masks in early May, I wore a mask around my four dogs to see if there were any outward reactions. I didn’t see any. They are used to my antics, I think. I also wanted to get some photos of Josie Patches with a mask for that blog, and with a few well-placed treats, she was quickly able to permit it to be draped over her nose for a few seconds (just enough time to snap some photos). In mid-May, in one of my child and family therapy groups, there were discussions of the use of masks with children when in-person therapy sessions resumed. It was then that it occurred to me that I had some previous experience with masks, children, and animals that might be useful.
It is true that some masks made for children or Halloween are scary. They can scare young children, and even adults might find some of them pretty gross. It is easy to assume that animals will have the same reactions that we do, but that brings us fairly close to anthropomorphism, where we ascribe human emotions or reactions to nonhuman animals. It is better to test for their actual reactions, much as we might test the sound of a clicker from a distance or in a pocket to see if the animal we hope to train with it has any sound sensitivity to that noise. As we do this, we must remember that animals process the world through their senses in ways different from humans–dogs are more likely to use their superior olfaction and horses’ eye positions give them a unique visual perspective. What they actually think about masks is beyond our knowing, but we can show them some masks and watch their body language in response.
My Prior Mask Experience
These discussions reminded me that I had worked while wearing masks before. One of my specialties in working with children and families, and even the topic of my doctoral dissertation, is chronic medical illness in children and its impact on families. I’ve worked with children who have cancer, diabetes, asthma, sickle cell anemia, congential heart defects, cystic fibrosis, and a host of immuno-compromised conditions. Sometimes I had to help them prepare for medical procedures where medical professionals would be gowned and wearing head coverings and masks. Other times, I worked with them directly conducting play therapy sessions where both child and I had to wear medical masks. I helped the children facing surgery to become desensitized to all the trappings of the surgeons and assisting professionals, mostly through the use of play and experience with the items. In many cases during our individual play sessions, the children would choose to use the dolls and medical equipment that I supplied as part of my play therapy space. I also have done some post-disaster work, and once again, for different reasons, masks became part of the everyday dress. Sometimes masks were used to keep out the dust created by collapsed buildings; other times facial coverings were part of one’s religion or culture. As I think back over these varied experiences, I do not recall many problems with children adapting to this accoutrement. Finally, I conducted significant amounts of Filial Therapy, in which the therapist teaches and supervises parents as they conduct special nondirective play sessions with their own children. This was done in the hospital, in the home setting, and in community mental health and private practice settings. In this case, parents and their children wore masks, as did I, and although my memory might have faded, I don’t recall problems there, either. Simple explanations and playful assistance in how to put them on seemed to work quite easily. Children with sensory sensitivities sometimes disliked the feel of the masks on their faces at first, but even there, a combination of empathy (“You really don’t like how scratchy that feels.”) and play-based interventions to increase comfort helped considerably.
The aforementioned Animals Speak! blog about masks was created to address a problem during the pandemic – children who saw strangers wearing masks and then worried that they were “bad guys.” This seemed to arise after watching television programs in which the “bad guys” were always the ones wearing masks. Several families contacted me after reading and listening to that blog with their young children (In the Animals Speak! series, the animals actually “talk” about their feelings and experiences using a special app.) to say that it helped their children feel safer and more comfortable very quickly.
The Animal Assisted Play Therapy® Connection
There is another area in which my colleagues and I who use Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT; see www.iiaapt.org) have experience with masks. AAPT involves many different types of interventions, but toys and props are sometimes part of it. In our training workshops, we discuss how to help socialize animals to these items and to help them feel comfortable with a wide range of props. We also heavily emphasize a relationship-centered approach with the animals, our clients, and ourselves, and we also ensure that AAPT practitioners are acutely attuned to their animals’ well-being. If any animal does not easily become comfortable with an item, for example, that item is removed. We also tend to work off leash and at liberty most of the time, so animals are free to move away from anything of concern. We value natural behaviors and only engage in activities to which the animals give their consent.
Masks, wigs, hats, and dress-up materials are part of play therapy used with children or for drama therapy used with whole families. In AAPT, dress-up items are for use by the humans, not the animals. It is not at all unusual for child clients to dress themselves up, sometimes suggesting that the therapist dress up, too. In Filial Therapy, it is extremely common for children to dress up their parents as well as themselves. When animals are involved, they must be prepared for these human behaviors and changes in appearance. In my experience over many years, it seems that animals who have secure relationships with their humans, who have been introduced safely to many novel items over time, and whose handlers (therapists) have provided careful socialization experiences with items and how they might be used typically have adjusted readily to the use of dress-up items and imaginary play scenarios. This stems also from the care with which therapists conduct the sessions, constantly watching the animals’ reactions and facilitating client behavior so the animals are not stressed. It is a central feature of AAPT that the animals must actually enjoy the interactions, not merely tolerate them.
Dress-up is common in some forms of play therapy, and animals must
be prepared for it!
Back to Masks
Let’s now consider how ideas from these other experiences can be used to ensure that our animals feel comfortable with our wearing masks. For the most part, our goals are to help animals feel safe, to help them become comfortable with masks, and then to establish a sense of familiarity–this is something that humans do under certain circumstances. For many animals, this is a relatively straightforward process. I’ll comment on special cases later.
The first step is one that I wish for all humans and their animals: the creation of a safe relationship. With our companion animals, we create this with every interaction we have–by clearly communicating, using nonaversive, humane training methods, and listening to our animals when they communicate, just as we would (or should!) with other family members. We do things that are enjoyable for both human and animal, and trust forms that we humans will not be instruments of harm. We protect them, and they turn to us when they feel the need for protection. A reciprocal relationship offers a give-and-take between human and animal that is mutually beneficial.
If we are working with other people’s animals, we begin building relationship by making some minor adjustments to how we likely do it anyway–gradually/slowly, allowing the animal to approach us, assuming nonthreatening (usually indirect) postures, and offering a few treats or scratches when the animals show us through body language that they are ready for such overtures. In all cases, it is important to obtain animal consent–we don’t force our wishes on them. This is a concept that is taught by many positive dog trainers and in all our AAPT workshops. Relationship is important because it creates the environment in which other things happen. The best relationships are the ones that feel safe for all involved. In our award-winning 2017 book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy, Tracie Faa-Thompson and I discuss relationships (among all parties involved in the therapeutic process, including the animals) in some detail, and we are currently working on another book that focuses entirely on building secure, enjoyable human-animal attachments and relationships.
This is very relevant to mask wearing, especially as it pertains to our altered appearance. It appears that well-tended relationships come with a greater realization on the part of animals that it’s their human beneath the facial covering. They know our voice, our posture, our movements, our odors, so even when we wear items that alter our appearance, they still know us.
Observing Response to Novel Items
As part of the relationship-building process, it is valuable to first assess how animals respond to novel items. I typically do this by bringing something new, placing it at a distance from the animal, and allowing the animal to explore it at his/her own pace. An example is shown in the photos below. I was in another part of the U.S. conducting the Equine Assisted Play Therapy® component of our Level 1 AAPT workshop. I was not as familiar with the three horses we engaged as I would prefer, although two staff from the program we visited were present to keep eyes on the horses as well. On the first day, we took our time as a group to observe the horses and to gain their consent for some simple scratching and simply being together. One horse was eager to participate, one was hesitant but eventually warmed up to us, and one chose not to join any of our activities. The hesitant horse, a mare, watched everything we did, and usually joined us after she had gathered enough information. On the second day, we placed a clothes basket in the middle of a large field. It was filled with dress-up items that the humans (therapists attending the workshop) would wear. The horses had not been exposed to something like this before.
By placing the novel item, the basket, in the middle of the field, and then standing very far away from the basket and the horses, we were allowing them to explore on their own terms. Very often, animals have their own preferred ways of exploring and don’t need our help. The mare approached the basket, staying about 10 feet away, stretching out her neck and using her nostrils. She circled back and away from it, approached it again, a few feet closer, stretched and sniffed again. After 5 approaches, sniffing, and circling back closer each time, she walked up to the basket and began nosing around in it. She showed us that she was able to deal with the situation perfectly well if we just let her. While this is not always true, it is good to try initially to see what information gathering and coping skills that they have.
Regular Introduction of Novel Items
As one builds relationship and the animals seem comfortable enough to observe, gather information, and eventually explore a novel item, it is very helpful to introduce novel items regularly. This can be part of environmental enrichment and mental stimulation, further building of trust in the relationship, and strengthening problem-solving abilities in the animal. If they are in relationship with a trustworthy human, animals are more likely to engage with items the human presents to them.
Presenting novel items can be done at a distance, as with the mare above, or more closely, depending on how the animal responds. I usually do not use food at the start as I do not want to lure the animal into a situation that might be anxiety-producing or overwhelming. I want the animal to set the distance that feels comfortable. Treats can be added in once the initial explorations go well. Often, they are not needed at all.
When we regularly introduce our animals to novel items in ways that are safe and lighthearted from the animals’ points of view, a side benefit appears to be heightened curiosity in the animal. I’m not aware of research on this topic, but this comment is based on many years of observation of animals as they associate the presentation of something new with positive relationship moments. It appears that their seeking or exploratory systems are activated, and the net result can often be an anticipatory curiosity: “What’s my human bringing to show-and-tell this time?”.
Below are photos taken when I placed a mask for the first time in front of some of my dogs. I usually put it on the floor and a small distance away. If that goes smoothly, I can place it closer if the dog’s body language conveys no distress.
Some animals will shy away from novel items, often due to gaps in their prior socialization experiences, a feeling that the environment is not safe enough to explore, or basic fear or anxiety problems. Some might show fear-based fight or flight reactions to specific articles of clothing – hats or scarves, for example. If the item will be an unavoidable part of these animals’ lives, they need our assistance in developing a positive association with them. In these cases, behaviorists and trainers are likely to use counter-conditioning and desensitization procedures to help the animal develop a more positive conditioned emotional response to the item. At all times, the animal’s comfort level must be respected as is customary when using these procedures correctly. The desensitization can be carried out starting at long distances away and then moving closer, and also for shorter to gradually longer periods of time.
What’s Play Got to Do With It?
Play does not occur in animals unless they feel safe. In potentially unsafe situations, they need their attention and energy mustered in case quick action is needed to ensure their safety and survival. On the other hand, once basic safety is established in the environment, play can add to the safety of activities, help build relationships, and add enjoyment to whatever is going on. Play can also be a useful component of counter-conditioning as animals pick up on familiar people’s playful voice tones, see the play as part of the antecedent or establishing conditions that can signal that something fun is about to happen, and even for proofing (generalizing) behaviors under different circumstances.
Once again, we can determine if our animals actually have a negative reaction to masks under different conditions. We watch their body language carefully for signs of stress or comfort when we, their familiar humans, have the mask on. If they show no stress, we can ask others to come around the animals while wearing masks. Sometimes no intervention is needed at all. Other times, we need to add only the amount of assistance needed until they can manage it themselves. For example, after the animal has explored the mask and perhaps even initiated play with it, we can engage in play with it ourselves. Our goal is to help them feel comfortable with our wearing it, and then help them get used to seeing others wearing them. While counter-conditioning and desensitization can again be used, perhaps at a park or other location where other people with masks will be, we can also start with ourselves.
One approach I’ve used when working on this with my dogs is to put the mask over my mouth for just 2 seconds, take it off or pull it down, call to the dogs to come with me, and playfully run away a few steps. As they catch up to me, I toss treats out ahead of us and allow them to consume them. We gradually lengthen the time I have the mask on my face, followed by the call away game with treats. If there’s a potential problem with the dog expecting treats every time the mask is on, I switch up what happens during the playful part: treats some of the time, scratches some of the time, a toss of their favorite ball some of the time. I often make noises when when I put the mask on and off that convey playfulness, too. I can also intersperse more serious moments with the playful ones in an effort to help the dog gradually learn that the mask might be present in different situations. When play is part of the learning process, it usually doesn’t take long for the animal to show no signs of discomfort.
Another approach can be used to help animals become more comfortable with masks on other people. If they have learned that you are playful and pleasant when wearing your mask, they can learn that others are that way as well. This activity can easily be done using social distancing between people when working with the animal. The unfamiliar person can say hello to the animal without the mask provided other people are at least 6 feet (2 meters) away. As usual, the person does not approach the animal, but allows the animal to approach them. Treats can be tossed out to where the animal has positioned him/herself. If that goes smoothly, the person puts on the mask, and walks behind a tree or bush. The person then calls the animal, and as the animal nears the hiding spot, the person praises the animal and tosses treats again. This can be repeated until the animal is eagerly playing the game.
After this, the new person keeps the mask on, spends more time talking with the trainer or therapist, and then engages in the hide-and-seek play again. The key is to keep the first interactions short and playful, add in duration and more talking, and continue to keep it fun for the animal.
These are not earth shattering ideas at all. They do illustrate some playful ways of helping animals get used to new items. Sometimes there is a tendency for us to be too serious and goal-oriented, and our body postures and tone of voice convey that intensity. When it is handled like a playful short game, the animals can quickly join in, whether the mask is there or not. If this does not work smoothly, then counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC/DS) can once again be used. These learning principles are operating within these playful methods, too, but sometimes a more carefully titrated approach is necessary as done in CC/DS.
An Equine Example
When I went to the UK last fall to co-lead workshops with my co-creator of AAPT, I took her a full-headed unicorn mask I had found among Halloween sale items. It was a bit strange in appearance, but true to Tracie Faa-Thompson’s playful nature, she put it on. The picture below shows her first reaction when pulling it out of the bag.
In our Level 1 AAPT workshop, we show some videos of puppies with novel items on the first day, watch body language, work to differentiate observations from interpretations, and discuss the different approaches used by the pups in the videos (and later with live dogs and horses). Tracie decided that it would be useful to the group to see how her horses would react to this new “equine” entering their herd. What happened is largely the result of the excellent, reciprocal relationships that Tracie has with her horses, and the fact that she regularly plays with them and introduces new items to them. Her horses are wonderful for AAPT work as a result, as they are familiar with many different props used in some interventions and expect pleasant interactions with all people who arrive.
As we told the Level 1 AAPT group what to expect, a couple of them who were experienced equine people said that their own horses would run away from such an ugly mask. The photos below show the reactions of Tracie’s horses upon their first exposure to the mask being held in front of them.
It is likely that some animals will react with concern or caution, as shown in their specific body language, to our wearing of face masks during the pandemic. This is not much different from animals who react to certain articles of clothing or items to which they have not been socialized, such as a vacuum cleaner. We can assist them using the positive approaches that properly-trained modern-day trainers and behaviorists employ. By and large, many animals will not have strong reactions to face masks. All they need will be some time to explore the masks on their own terms, and then to interact with a familiar human wearing one, using a light approach that involves some positive associations–food or scratches or play. As always, our use of empathy–watching the animals’ behaviors and communication signals closely and trying to see the situation through their eyes–will help us make the right choices as our animals join us in the many changes we are encountering with COVID-19.
The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® offers online and live training courses for those interested in the many aspects of involving animals in a voluntary and reciprocal way in their mental health, allied health, and education services. www.iiaapt.org.
Article and photos © 2020, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, www.iiaapt.org. All rights reserved.