With the new government guidelines now in place for the use of face masks, it’s likely our dogs will be seeing a lot of them around. Dogs have an incredible ability to read our facial expressions, so not being able to see our faces properly might be challenging for them at first.
Counter conditioning is a brilliant technique to help your dog get used to something new – such as people wearing face masks. It’s as simple as pairing the new thing with a tasty treat to create a positive association. There are lots of tips and advice online to help with this and you can find step by step instructions from places like Dogs Trust to help if your dog is struggling, specifically with face masks.
What we wanted to share with you is something that can help get your dog comfortable with anything new or unusual, no matter what it is. There are so many new and novel things that happen in our dogs lives on a daily basis that it would be almost impossible to train them with every single new thing they might encounter. However, what we can do is teach them that anything new or different is nothing to worry about – creating a dog that is cool, calm and collected no matter what life throws at them.
The training technique
When our dogs are confronted with anything new, the perfect response is no response at all – it means they’re calm, happy and not concerned by whatever is going on around them. If your dog can be worried by new things or situations, then the activity below can make a huge difference – it’s been a complete game-changer for us! If you’ve followed us for a while, you’ll know that my dog Poppy can find the world a bit of a scary place, and The Cognitive Canine Company was born as part of our journey to build her confidence. This activity has taken us from having a dog that reacts to absolutely everything to a dog that is pretty chilled out no matter what’s happening around us.
‘Distraction – Mark – Treat’
Just like counter conditioning, we’re pairing an event with a treat to create a positive association. The big difference is that rather than only use it with things our dogs struggle with, we’re going to use it with positive things our dogs love too!
So how does it work?…
This is anything that’s happening around your dog – absolutely anything! It could be seeing someone wearing a face mask, somebody coming through the front door, seeing a dog on a walk, a noise in the distance, or you getting out of your chair (particularly if your dog sees this as meaning something exciting is about to happen!) – it could even be as simple as a leaf blowing across the road. The important thing is that we’re applying it to anything novel and not just the things that our dogs find scary or difficult . For example, if they see a dog on a walk, whether they find that worrying, very exciting or anywhere in between, we’re going to do exactly the same thing.
Mark and Treat
Choose a marker word that you’re going to say whenever something novel occurs. You want to say this in a nice calm voice – something like ‘Good’ or ‘Nice’ can work really well. Start off somewhere free of distractions and practice saying the word followed by giving them a treat so that they know whenever they hear that word, a tasty treat is on the way. You’re then ready to start using it in everyday life. When something novel happens, say the marker word and follow it up with a treat. It doesn’t matter what your dog is doing or how they respond – they don’t need to look at you or interact with you – just make sure that every time you use the marker word it’s followed up by a tasty treat.
To start with you want to use it in positive situations you know they’re not going to react to, and gradually build up to more challenging situations (but try to make sure you’re not putting your dog in situations you know they’ll react to, if this is happening try adding in some more distance until they’re more comfortable). You can also change your treats to suit – if it’s something they’re not concerned about then a piece of their normal food will probably be enough of a reward, whereas something they find exciting or worrying will need something a bit more tasty (boiled chicken is our go-to treat for this).
Over time, you’ll start to see that your dog turns to you as soon as they hear the marker word ready for their treat, and eventually you’ll reach the really magical stage where your dog actively looks to you whenever something new occurs before you’ve even had chance to say the word (make sure you keep rewarding them for this!).
Because we’re applying this to a whole range of situations and not just one specific thing, we’re teaching our dogs that anything new happening around them is nothing to be concerned about, and even when they’re faced with a situation they’ve never encountered before, they know that anything new is totally cool and not something they need to respond to. Rather than training a specific behaviour, we’re teaching our dogs to make great choices whatever life throws at them.
We’ve been doing this for just over a year now with Poppy, and the dog that a year ago would have reacted to a person simply walking past hasn’t shown any reaction at all to people wearing face masks. She’s aware something is different but all that means is she’s got an opportunity to check in with me and have a tasty treat, so in her eyes face masks are definitely a good thing!