face masks and dogs: Why they can be scary

On May 1, a face mask mandate was put into place in the state of Illinois. It required that people wear masks in public places and when social distancing was not possible to limit the spread of COVID-19. I stand behind this policy fully and believe in wearing masks. I believe in science. Unfortunately, our canine friends aren’t able to understand what’s happening. While most dogs will be okay with masks, some are extremely wary.

Of course some cats are also afraid of masks, but this post is going to specifically focus on our canine friends. Cats are a bit less affected by masks since they are in your home and presumably have fewer interactions with people outside wearing masks.

Why masks are scary to dogs

Understanding why masks can be scary to dogs requires us to fully appreciate how dogs communicate with us. Dogs, domesticated themselves over thousands of years. When they split off from their wolf ancestors, they had to adapt and learn how to interact with humans. As such, dogs have learned to read facial expressions and pick up on nonverbal cues.

When dogs communicate with each other, they look at eyes, ears, tail positions, and mouth. With humans, since we don’t have tails or movable ears, the mouth and eyes become that much more important. Wearing a face mask takes away a big portion of how we communicate with dogs. Covering the mouth only leaves our eyes truly visible to our canine friends. Unfortunately, eyes are really intense in the world of animal communication. So, It’s no wonder dogs can show fear when meeting a masked person for the first time.

Meeting a dog for the first time without a mask

Before COVID-19, there was still a proper way to meet a dog. Using the correct body language is so important when meeting a new dog. The first step is making sure you have permission to pet said dog. If you see a dog on a walk that you just can’t help but want to pet (bc, duh) make sure you ask permission from the owner first. My dog Rawlings does not like being pet by strangers and I always find myself having to tell people no. However, I’d much rather have to say no than them going right to pet her only for her to offer a growl and nip in return.

Once you get the okay, turn your body to the side and avoid direct eye contact. Instead, look at them out of your peripheral vision. Approaching a dog you’re head-on and leaning over them can be very scary and intimidating to a pup. So, face the side and let them approach you when they’re ready.

Additionally, don’t put your hand out for a dog to sniff. They can smell you just find and if they’re interested in smelling you further, they’ll come to you. Also, don’t reach over the top and pet their head. Many dogs, including my own, do not like to be pet on their heads. Instead, If they’re showing you nice, slow tail wagging and loose body language, offer them some pets on their neck, sides, or ask their owner their favorite spot.

This sweet lady was a bit scared of the face masks and new people, you can see her ears pointed back and body leaning away.

Meeting a dog for the first time with a mask

When I’m meeting a dog for the first time in a shelter setting to evaluate them, I make sure nobody is close by before pulling down my mask to say hello. Shelters are already a scary place for most dogs so offering them a smile and following the steps above help to put them at ease. After an initial meeting following the steps above, I’ll pull my mask back up and offer him plenty of treats.

Of course, this isn’t the case for most people as I know most of you are not going into shelters and meeting dogs for the first time. However, some of you will be adopting dogs and meeting them with masks on so take it slow. The shelter staff or fosters will let you know if the dog is comfortable with meeting new people wearing masks! Remember to always let the dog approach you and go at their own pace.


Thank you to Heartland Animal Shelter for introducing me to these cuties! All of these pups have since been adopted which is fantastic news!

Check out all the available dogs for adoption at Heartland here!


This jacket is sold out but you can find a similar one here and here. The hat is from Zara, jeans are from Belle Up, and shoes are Vans.



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