Photo Credit: ASPCA Pet Health Insurance
During the first half of 2020, the legal team at Davis Law Group has experienced a forty-eight percent (48%) year-over-year increase in the number of calls from victims of dog bites & animal attacks. Attorneys at the firm hypothesize that the increase may be due to dogs reacting to people wearing masks.
Typically the law office experiences an uptick in contacts from dog bite victims between late May and late September. We compared data from the last 3 years and found that the annual spike is much higher normal this year.
A close examination of each case revealed that a large number of the recent dog bite victims that have contacted the office in 2020 were wearing COVID masks at the time of the attack. This made us wonder if there is a public safety issue that we should be talking about.
Is Your Dog Afraid Of COVID Masks?
Attorney Chris Davis started researching the issue. He found that studies (see sources in endnotes) have concluded that dogs have the capability to understand human emotions, which they achieve by recognizing facial expressions. Dogs evolved to read human faces to determine their moods. If someone's face is covered, except their eyes, dogs can mistake eye contact by the mask-wearing human as hostile or a threat. Dogs can become aggressive or fearful of a human wearing a mask.
He also found research that indicates that the emotional responses of dogs can be affected by human clothing patterns. Some dogs become uncomfortable and anxious toward to a person wearing visual patterns that presumably mimic aspsematic (warning) patterns. That means genetic information stored in your dog’s DNA may alert them to patterns (like stripes or dots) that remind them of dangerous animals their ancestors might have preyed upon in the wild. Others say that the pleated lines in a face mask might be mistaken as stripes by your dog. A purchased or homemade mask with stripes might be made with a pattern that elicits an emotional response from a dog.
The American Kenel Club clearly thinks there is a potential problem as they published an article entitled Mask Force: Training Dogs to be Comfortable Around People in Face Masks on their website in early May 2020.
Canine Training Expert Says Dogs Can Respond Agressively To Masks
The Davis Law Group research team reached out to Michael D'Abruzzo, the creator of Foundation Style Dog Training System, to ask for his expertise and opinion about dog bites and people wearing masks.
Can the clothes (shirts, jackets, pants, stripes, patterns, etc) that someone wears impact a dog’s emotional state?
“If the clothing hides or otherwise alters the normal appearance or silhouette of a person than definitely, yes. Hoods, large hats, abnormally wide skirts, can also catch a dog off guard...”
Can dogs become aggressive or fearful when they see a human with their face covered?
“Yes, there are two main things to consider.”
“The first is dogs’ natural body language, which IS their first language. Dogs with friendly intentions have noticeably relaxed faces with slightly open mouths, whereas dogs that are more tense and likely to initiate aggression have tightly shut mouths during encounters. It is reasonable to believe that a mask can give the impression of a tightly clamped mouth and therefore trigger a dog to be more suspicious of the mood and intentions of a masked person. This can lead to a “I am going to get you, before you get me” defensive reaction.”
“Second thing to consider is the human body language that is blocked, in particular the smile. Dogs’ notice the grin, especially when it is paired with the squinting eyes of a genuinely happy person. So, removing the mouth from the equation of a new human and dog introduction can vastly compromise the dog’s ability to interpret the humans intentions.”
If most of someone’s face is covered except for their eyes (like wearing a covid mask), can dogs mistake eye contact with the mask-wearing human as a threat?
"Most definitely. People must be hyperaware that the rest of the signals from the face will be blocked and there is likely to be more focus on the eyes of the human. Direct eye contact is considered threatening to a dog. It is recommended to soften your eye's language by squinting, blinking often, and not focusing on a dogs face during interaction. If you do catch a dog noticing you staring at their eyes, even if it was unintentional, be sure to squint, blink, and refocus away from the face. Dogs do notice this and utilize similar behavior in peaceful interactions with each other."
If dogs have evolved to read human faces to determine their moods, does wearing a mask confuse a dog or send hostile signals?
Should dog owners be taking precautions during covid to avoid their dog getting too close to someone who is wearing a mask?
"Absolutely, owners should be informed of the greater chance for an unexpected reaction from the dog and be prepared by having situational awareness of those that otherwise may unexpectedly get within range of their dog. When out in public the leash grip and length should always be managed to be prepared for a surprise aggressive reaction from the dog."
Might a dog confuse their owner with an intruder if the owner is wearing a mask inside the house?
“Yes, any major change in your appearance can trigger a defensive response from your dog. This can be wearing a new hat, hairstyle, glasses, hoodie, and definitely a mask.”
“Also don’t rely on the belief that the dog will “smell” it is you. A surprised dog will often react aggressively first and then smell after.”
What dog breeds would you think are more likely to have an issue with face masks?
“This can turn into a long list because many dogs were selectively bred to be defensive or otherwise alert us toward strange people, so I will concentrate on dogs that may cause an issue because of a mask. Dog’s selectively bred to be guardians are supposed to be more suspicious of something unusual and to be more proactive about it. This includes many of the mastiff breeds and herding breeds associated with police and guard work or any mixes of these breeds. Special consideration should also be made for any dog that was historically bred to fight or kill other animals.”
“That being said, even the breeds that are known to be the least suspicious of humans, such as golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers can have and cause an issue depending on its individual temperament. So, no your breed and your individual dog well.”
Is there any training one can provide to their dog to avoid it biting a friend, neighbor, or family member that is wearing a mask?
“There is no training that can replace responsible management and precautions. If there is no reason to have interactions with masks I wouldn’t push it. If it is expected the dog will need to interact with people wearing masks often I would start by having positive interactions with your own dog first wearing a mask through reward based training.”
- Siniscalchi, M., d’Ingeo, S. & Quaranta, A. Orienting asymmetries and physiological reactivity in dogs’ response to human emotional faces. Learn Behav 46, 574–585 (2018). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-018-0325-2
- Arnold S. Chamove (1997) Dogs Judge Books by their Covers, Anthrozoös, 10:1, 50-52.
- Flaim, D. (2020, May 3). Mask Force: Training Dogs to be Comfortable Around People in Face Masks [Web log post]. Retrieved July 29, 2020, from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/mask-force-training-dogs-to-be-comfortable-around-people-wearing-face-masks/
- Interview: Michael D'Abruzzo, K9-1, Foundational Style Dog Training System, www.dogtraining.world