Question #3: Is the dog giving consent?

June 5, 2019

How often do you let people touch you without giving them consent? How often do you let people touch your children without giving consent? How often do you let people touch your stuff without giving consent? How often do you let people touch your dog without giving consent? How often does your dog let people touch them without giving consent?


Hopefully the answers to all of those questions is rarely or never. Unfortunately, most people hardly ever consider the last question. These days, I feel like the culture is shifting slightly (though slowly) to more people asking owner permission before petting their dogs; however, I very rarely see people asking the dog’s permission before petting. Other people shouldn’t pet you without asking you, why is it acceptable for them to pet a dog without asking the dog? We need to be better, as a society, about respecting the personal space of animals – particularly the ones with a full set of pointy weapons in their mouths. Unless you have a therapy dog on active work duty, it is not your dog’s job to be available for petting by strangers. Though we often want dogs to be civil and social in public, the dog is not there FOR the public. We can create a positive, fun, appropriate association with being handled, without subjecting our dogs to being assaulted without their permission.


Because our dogs are not able to verbalize their feelings, we need to set up consent tests to determine if the dog actually wants to be touched in that moment, by that person, in that way. Imagine you are giving someone a hug. Their body language tells you everything you need to know about how that person is feeling: did they dodge the hug, were they really stiff, did they mirror your behavior, did they lean into it, etc.? If they are forced to verbalize “please let go of me” then you missed some major signals. Dogs are the same way. Dogs will let you know, through a series of body language signals, if they are comfortable or uncomfortable, and if they want the handling to continue or stop. The number one thing I look for is voluntary behavior.

If you crouch down and encourage the dog to come over to you, does the dog come over voluntarily? If you stretch your hand out towards the dog, does the dog touch it with their nose or body voluntarily? If you stop touching the dog, does the dog touch you voluntarily? My dogs are very clear about wanted vs unwanted contact. If I stop petting and they would like me to continue, they push their face into my hand or paw at my arm or climb into my lap – I encourage pushy, clear communication, but my dogs are also very responsive to “go away” if I don’t give them consent to touch me. It is a two-way street, as in all relationships. If I stop petting and they do not want me to continue, then they walk or lean away from my hand and I don’t pursue the contact any further – clear communication!


Question #3: Is the dog giving consent?

Dogs are very tuned in to the environmental “picture” at any given moment, and how they should respond based on that picture. If you put on your tennis shoes, grab the potty bags, and pick up the dog’s leash, the dog quickly connects the dots and associates that picture with going on an outing. I want to create a picture that tells the dog when we will be doing a body handling procedure, so the dog is not surprised by the encounter and so they have the option to choose to participate. I typically practice body handling in a certain spot in the house, with the treats placed in a particular place, and me sitting in a specific way. At this point, when I place the nail trimmers and a scoop of kibble on the coffee table and sit down cross legged on the floor, next to the table with my back to the couch, my older dogs both throw themselves into a down in front of me with their paws stretched towards me. It is quite entertaining to see how this picture creates such enthusiasm in my dogs; especially since the picture of me grabbing the nail trimmers used to create such high levels of stress and avoidance before.


I do not restrain the dogs during these handling procedures, unless I have asked to do so. I start by touching the top of the dog’s paw with an open hand, then I touch the paw while closing my hand around it, then I grab the paw, then I lift the paw, then I separate the toes, then I line up the clippers, then I clip the nail. Each step is marked and treated separately. I only progress to the next step if I can still answer yes to my three questions (discussed in various posts). If the dog ever decides to opt out and move away from me, then I respect that decision and stop the exercise. Period.


I sometimes refer to myself as a “greedy trainer”. I typically want to push training exercises just a little bit further to see how much progress we can make in a session. So, for me, the hardest part of consent-based handling is respecting when the dog says “no”. My brain really struggles when I only have 2 more nails to clip and the dog says “ok, I would like to stop now”, and I HAVE TO STOP. If my greedy trainer brain takes over and I restrain the dog so I can clip those last 2 nails, I will damage my relationship with the animal. Giving the dog a choice, then saying “just kidding, I am going to make you do it anyway” completely undermines all the work put into creating a low stress procedure. Now the dog will be suspicious and will often opt out earlier in the exercise the next time, if they decide to participate at all.


The goal with consent-based handling is to advance the exercise in such small steps that the dog never feels the need to say “no”. If I try to move ahead too quickly, the dog may remember that old picture of terrifying nail trims and quickly opt out of the exercise. By making each step incredibly simple and incredibly rewarding, we can redraw the picture in the dog’s mind of any husbandry task we may need to utilize in the future.


So, ask the question. Is the dog giving consent? Yes? Great! You have achieved teaching your dog to participate in a low stress, consent-based handling procedure. Now, move on to a new handling procedure and start back at Question #1 (previous blog post). As your dog gets better and you add more types of handling into your repertoire, start varying the picture little by little. If you teach your dog that variation is to be expected and is also rewarding, you will be more prepared if something random happens and you need to doctor or handle your dog in a new way.


No? Time to reevaluate. As mentioned, the key with consent is making sure the dog wants to participate. We discussed the environmental setup and evaluation of the dog’s current mental and physical state, as well as the dog’s motivation to engage with you, in previous posts. If those have already been considered, try splitting the exercise into smaller steps. The dog may not be ready for you to grab their paw yet. Start with a 1 second shoulder touch, then a 2 second shoulder touch, then a 1 second leg touch, then a 2 second leg touch, then a 1 second top of foot touch, then a 2 second top of foot touch. We could even break that down further if needed, you could work on only moving 1 centimeter down the leg with each advancement, you could work on a 1 finger touch rather than a whole hand touch. There are always ways to split an exercise down into smaller, easier to process pieces. The jump between Step 1 and Step 2 may seem like one shift in criteria, but you could still split it down to Step 1, Step 1.5, Step 2, if needed. Always progress an exercise at the dog’s pace. Each animal is an individual and has their own history and preconceptions. Your job as the dog’s trainer, is to completely redraw the picture so it is easy to interpret and has an entirely new association and reinforcement history.


Keep in mind that there are moments in real life when the dog doesn’t actually have a choice. If there is an emergency and I absolutely have to load up the dog in the car to go to the vet, I am not going to ask the dog for consent to put them in the car. I WILL always make the experience as low stress as possible, but there are moments where I cannot accept a “no” answer to the consent question. When this is the case, I make sure I don’t ask. The picture of “we’re doing this” looks different than the picture of “do you want to do this?”.


For example, I am working with a puppy that is worried about the car. We are practicing having him touch a hand target high enough in the car that he needs to put his front paws on the bumper to reach. When the front paws are on the bumper, then I can lift his back end into the car. This allows him to process and jump up when he’s ready. If he doesn’t touch the target, he gets put back in the house and doesn’t go in the car. If his “no” answer is not an option (like an emergency vet visit), I don’t present the hand target. I pick him up in the garage and carry him to the car and place him in the car. He still gets goodies in the car and is praised and loved on, but I am not always able to ask permission in the real world. The biggest mistake I could make would be to ask him to target, see his “no” response, and put him in the car anyway. This is NOT an option in your training program.


So, with that being said, try to set up as many consent-based training exercises as possible. There will be moments when we can’t ask, but there are many many many more moments where we should spend the time teaching our dogs that their voice will be heard.

Kelsey Weber