Consent is defined as permission, approval, agreement; to be in harmony. As human beings we have the expectation that our consent will be asked for before physical interactions with others.
Traditional dog training methods are based in the assumption that an animal must do as we say. If they won't do it on their own, they can be compelled to through force, pain or fear. These forceful methods can be damaging to our relationships with our pets.
In both of the above pictures you can see a dog being "alpha rolled", pinned on their back and forced to show "submission" to their handler. These outdated training methods completely ignore the autonomy of the animal. They're often used in cases where an animal is considered stubborn, dominant, or aggressive. You will always get back what you put in. Aggressive training creates aggressive responses.
Some instances of force are much subtler. Many people don't recognize that they've taken choice out of the equation for their pet. It's easier to do this than we realize.
In both of the above pictures, the dog is displaying clear discomfort. The dogs don't want to be touched in that way, but can't escape. It's likely that neither person is aware of how uncomfortable they're making the dog. They're not forcing the dog to be touched out of malice, but rather lack of understanding.
As animal trainers, it's our job to translate what the animals entrusted to us are saying. We then need to educate, educate, educate so that pet parents can also learn to "speak dog".
Then the question remains, if animals were better understood, would they be listened to? Would their handlers still expect them to tolerate unsavory physical attention? And here is where consent counts!
When an animal goes to the vet, routine medical procedures are sometimes forced on the animal using physical restraint. The veterinary team will ask us, the human beings, for permission to proceed with a medical procedure on our pet. Who is asking the animal? How would you feel if your nurse held you down while the phlebotomist drew your blood?
How do we begin to obtain consent from our pets? We can start by teaching the behavior we want, and reinforcing the heck out of it. Below you will find a video of a dog getting it's blood drawn without physical restraint. Instead the dog is choosing to rest his chin in his owners hand while his blood is drawn.
I frequently work with small breed dogs who have fearful, sometimes aggressive, behaviors around body handling. Why is that so? We often pick up and move these little guys, dress them in sweaters and jackets, and pass them from one person's arms to another. These are subtle forms of force, that we don't recognize until it's pointed out to us. Below we have a beautiful video from Chirag Patel and Domesticated Manners which perfectly illustrates this point.
When we begin giving our dog choices, and start asking them for permission, we empower them. Empowerment creates confidence, decreasing the likelihood of behavior problems. Animal training should consist of a conversation, not a monologue. It's our job to listen to what the dog is saying, and make changes to the environment in order to change the behavior.
For example, I have a dog who growls when he's reached for. Every time he growls I pull my hand away. The more that the growling works, stopping me from grabbing the dog, the more he will growl in the future. How can I change this pattern?
Instead of reaching for him, I could teach my dog that coming to me and touching my hand is highly reinforcing. If every time he comes to me, and chooses to touch me, he gets a piece of hot dog, my dog will soon choose to touch me rather than growl. The more a behavior is reinforced (think hot dogs), the more an animal will perform that behavior.
The art and science, of animal training is ever evolving. It's our job to make sure that the animals in our care are not only enjoying the training process, but actively participating in it.
I've lost count of how many times I've been out walking, hiking, or running with my dogs, and a strange dog has come bounding up to us with no owner in sight. Sometimes we encounter dogs whose owners come running to us from the distance shouting, “Don't worry, he's friendly!”
I could easily turn this post in to a rant about irresponsible owners. However, there are plenty of articles out there on that topic. What I'm going to do instead is share with you ways to keep you and your dogs safe in these situations.
The first order of business is to figure out of the approaching dog is friend or foe.
When assessing a dog's body language we look at them from nose to tail. Each body part can play a key role in communication. Important areas to pay attention to are the tail, the ears, the mouth and the eyes. As a general rule, the more tense any of those body parts are the more uncomfortable a dog is.
Let's take a little test. Look at the following pictures one at a time before checking at the answer's below.
Can you see the differences in the body language between picture 1 and picture 2?
1) Fisher on the far right is play bowing to the other dogs. This is a friendly invitation to play. The other dogs are mid action, but still look relaxed.
When looking at dog to dog interactions we want to see wiggly body motions, floppy tongues and wagging tails. Good dog to dog play begins and ends naturally, with breaks being taken by the dogs all on their own.
2) Fisher, the dog on the left is lying down and licking the other dogs face. The dog on the right is stiff, with a high tail.
That high tail and rigid body are hallmarks of an uncomfortable dog. These dogs will often freeze in that posture, their next move determined by the other dog. That's why Fisher laid down and began licking his face, both appeasement gestures. This is the dog's way of saying “It's cool man, please don't hurt me.”
What can you do with this information when an off leash dog approaches?
This blog post was originally published with our friends at The Adventure Dog Blog. Check out their website for awesome information about hiking and traveling with your dogs!
Emily Lewis is a professional dog trainer and veterinary technician. She lives in Vermont with her three rescue dogs, tuxedo cat, corn snake, crested geckos and Russian tortoise.