Imagine these scenarios…
You’re taking a nap. Then suddenly, you’re rudely awakened by someone grabbing your ear and peering inside.
You are having a conversation with someone you just met at a party. Then, all of a sudden, right in the middle of the conversation, they wrap their arms around you and kiss you.
You’re waiting for a train. Then, without warning, a stranger walks up and pats you on the backside.
How would these situations make you feel? Violated? Angry? Hurt? Scared? How might you respond? Would you freeze? Would you yell? Would you fight? Would you run away? These scenarios above may seem a little absurd, and within human society, these things don’t often happen. They’re generally recognized as rude and unacceptable. However, these social rules don’t apply to dogs, and unfortunately, dogs experience these scenarios every day. Not only are dogs expected to calmly put up with it, but they’re also expected to enjoy intrusions of their personal space. They’re expected to happily wag their tails, kiss you back, and gaze at you with appreciation. If they don’t they are often seen as bad, untrained, or aggressive*.
*A note on aggression: When we do not give our dogs the ability to consent or disregard their attempts at telling us they are uncomfortable or frightened, we increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior. For example, a dog who has been physically forced or coerced into physical contact when they’re feeling discomfort or stress will often become aggressive because it is their only option to escape the situation.
Utilizing consent-based interactions with your dog does not mean we will simply allow our dogs to opt out of everything they don’t want to do. When they cannot consent to something, or if they show us they are uncomfortable, that’s information for us. We can then ask ourselves why our dog is saying no? Are they scared, uncomfortable, or in pain? What can we do to make them more comfortable with the situation so we don’t need to use force? In many situations, this might mean using desensitization and counter conditioning to change their emotional response to the scary situation. In some veterinary cases, it might mean using nutraceuticals or pharmaceuticals to help our dogs get through a necessary procedure. Sometimes at the vet, all a dog needs is a yummy lickimat covered in peanut butter he is happy to participate.
What is Consent?
“Consent” has become a bit of a buzzword lately, and for a good reason. When interacting with other humans, we are learning to check in and ask for consent before moving into their physical space. When another person invades our personal space without permission, it can be terrifying and traumatizing. To avoid making the other person uncomfortable, we ensure we consent before touching. We may ask, “is this okay?” or “can I hug you?” prior to initiating any contact. This is important because everyone deserves agency over their own bodies, and they have the right to set boundaries with which they are comfortable. The good news is that you can absolutely ask your dog the same thing.
How To Ask Our Dogs For Consent
The first thing to do is begin viewing every interaction with your dog as a conversation because that is exactly what it is! Whether you are playing ball, tug, snuggling, training, or going for a walk, you are communicating with one another. Conversations work best when communication happens freely and openly, without pressure or coercion.
There are many ways to ask for consent, not all explicit or verbal. Sometimes it means taking a break to allow your dog to decide whether or not they’d like to continue with the game. When training or interacting with any dog, even my own, I give lots of breaks. If we are training, every three repetitions, I toss a treat or toy away with a release word so they know they can move away when they need and I know that if they come back, they are ready for more! If I’m cuddling or scratching a dog, I pause and remove my hands frequently to check in with them to see if they are still enjoying it. If a dog is enjoying it, they will move closer, paw at me, or push their nose into me. If they are finished, they might move away, look away, or sniff at something else.
Teach Your Dog How to Say “Yes” or “I’m Ready!”
Any simple behavior can be used here, but I like to use a behavior the dog easily offers, like eye contact, a chin rest, or a target. You can also use a bowl of treats as a “bucket” if you’ll be using Chirag Patel’s Bucket Game. Regardless of the behavior you choose, it becomes their way of letting you know they are ready for contact.
To teach this consent behavior, start by sitting with your dog and rewarding every time they offer the chosen behavior! Let’s say the consent behavior is a chin rest on a blanket or towel. Reward it the moment it happens, repeatedly. When your dog is happily and frequently offering the behavior, begin to add in slight hand movements prior to your reward! If your dog lifts her head, looks away, or moves away, that is a NO! You must listen to your dog and take a break. This lets her know that her actions mean something and that you are listening! In fact, you should reward it! Toss her a treat. When she comes back to you and rests her head again, she is ready. Go back to the point where she was comfortable and continue! You’ll be able to add more hand movement and eventually touch as she can handle it because she’ll let you know how she’s feeling!
Important Note: This consent behavior should absolutely not be lured or physically forced. If we do that, we add tension and risk pushing a dog into a situation they are not truly comfortable with. What we are aiming for is clear and kind communication, not manipulation. Also, we never want to make our dog feel like they have to say yes, because that isn’t true consent, is it?
What does “No” Look Like?
If we want our dogs to say “yes,” we also need them to be able to say “no” or “not yet.” So what does that look like? It can be a slight movement or an overt one. These subtle signs are referred to as “calming signals”. They are an attempt by the dog to bring the intensity of the situation down and reduce stress. For example, you might see the dog avert his eyes, sniff the ground, itch, show the whites of his eyes, lower his head, turn away, shake, yawn, or lick their lips. If any one of these behaviors happen, it is your cue to give the dog space or a break. The more overt signs are more pronounced and may include growling, cowering, hiding, snapping, or crying. These signs clearly state that you must absolutely cease what you are doing and provide space and decompression time/activities. They are also a sign that you must respect your dog’s boundaries in the future.
Consent-based handling is very beneficial in the veterinary office. Also known as cooperative care, many veterinary clinics employ these consent-based techniques. When your dog needs to go in for an examination, the vet will likely need to check their temperature, look in their eyes, ears, and mouth, physically touch many places on their body, and possibly take blood. They may also need to give your dog a vaccination. To do these necessary procedures without force, we have to give our dogs a voice and the ability to opt in or out.
There is a broad spectrum of tolerance and preference of handling within the dog world. Whether a dog enjoys human touch or not depends on many factors: genetics, early socialization, environment, and physical health. Like humans, a dog who enjoys touch sometimes may not always enjoy it. Also, a dog might like being touched from one human but not another. For some dogs, touch can be very stimulating and stressful; for others it can be soothing. The kind of touch also matters. Understanding consent in dogs can open a new world of information that can later dictate what we need to work through.
Different Examples of Touch Preferences
My Rottweiler Austen loves to be touched most of the time. She enjoys any, and all love and attention people will give her, in the form of ear scratches, chest rubs, butt tickles, etc. She usually will dodge a hand going to pet her on the head if it is a stranger, but she’ll clearly offer another part of her body and most people get the point (she’s an excellent communicator.) She doesn’t want to be touched while resting; if she is touched, she will give a growl to let you know. If the touch were to continue and she had space to move away, she would simply walk away. If she didn’t have space and the touch were to continue, I imagine she’d growl more loudly or air snap: an even clearer “no.” This scenario is a great example of how touch is contextual and touch preference will depend on many different environmental and situational factors.
My Siberian Husky mix London is very sensitive to touch and usually prefers not to be touched at all. His general tolerance for touch is very low, especially with anyone other than me (his mama.) I noticed this the moment I met him, and I’ve worked very hard at giving him consent and always listening to him when he tells me he needs a break. I also advocate for him, letting people know he prefers not to be touched. Being a husky, brushing is a necessity, but he hated it from the beginning! He would howl like a banshee the moment the brush came out (even though I thought I had done an appropriate amount of socialization when he was young.) When I started asking for consent (he boops the brush with his nose to say “yes”) because I took the pressure off of the situation. Now, he happily participates! He boops the brush, I brush him twice, and he gets a yummy snack. Then we repeat.
Something magical happens when we respect our dogs’ boundaries and their ability to say yes and no. They start to say yes more often because the pressure of the situation is removed. As a result, the whole situation feels less scary and more enjoyable. If you need help incorporating consent-based handling, enlist the help of a qualified professional. If you are unsure who to hire, look for one of the following: certified fear free professional or vet, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, certified applied animal behaviorist, or veterinary behaviorist. Once you have the proper support, you can start your consent-based journey. You will be amazed at the results!
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