How “censoring” of the face impact dog-human-communication

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we all are suddenly faced with the reality that we frequently have to cover our faces with face masks when in public. This is not only a new situation for most of us, but also for our dogs. But is wearing a face mask affecting our dogs?

It is known that dogs, alike humans, are conveying information from human faces (for more info see publications). Now, in times of a pandemic, dogs are suddenly faced with a largescale change in the visual appearance of the human face by obscuration with face masks but we did not know, how this is affecting the communication between dogs and humans.

This project has investigated how partially obscuring the face impacts on dog`s abilities for face processing. Using a citizen science approach, dog owners presented their dogs with facial expressions (angry, happy, neutral and sad) while the face was either unobscured or partially obscured by a face mask, sunglasses or both, face mask and sunglasses.

We found, that wearing a face mask indeed impact on the dog-human communication. Dogs attended to the face less and engagement in the human-dog interaction was reduced, when parts of the face were obscured. Further, under these conditions, dog’s ability to differentiate emotional expressions of human faces was impaired. This finding is highly relevant for day-to-day interactions with dogs as obscuring the face hinders face and emotion processing. This knowledge can, while COVID-19 public health measures are in place, help to avoid the risks associated with poor human-dog communication.

The study is currently under review in the journal Animal Cognition.

Here a sneak preview of how the studies worked: