Why is consent so important to the dogs in our homes, and what is consent anyway?
Consent is defined by giving permission or agreeing to do something.
The idea that our dogs are entitled to consent has not reached the mainstream yet. Things are changing though and with education and awareness we are starting to replace touching our dogs without asking, with watching and enjoying them for who they are.
Humans are touchers and dogs are watchers. We use our hands and bodies so much during communication. Even when we are not particularly prone to hug and touch people, we still want to touch animals. Animals feel soft, smooth, and they are so tempting to our grabby little paws that we can’t help ourselves. Our dogs are even more tempting because we love them, and we humans show love by touching. Even on walks we can find ourselves looming over an unknown dog, desperate to touch, an act that is particularly unnerving when the toucher can’t read a dog’s signals, so misses that the dog is asking for space.
Consent is something we should all keep in mind at all times when interacting with our dogs. Sometimes we have to override fort the dog’s sake, for example if they are hurt or in danger, but in daily life we must consider whether our dogs want to be touched.
All dogs are different as we know. We might meet a dog on a walk who is desperate to greet everyone they see, and we can allow them to approach and give them a good cuddle. Or we might see a dog who is not interested in greeting, so from respect we leave them alone. It’s quite easy to tell whether a dog wants to be touched or not, from their body language and communication. We just have to know what to look for.
In behaviour terms, dogs use specific signals to show others what they need. They use their bodies, facial expressions and little changes in how they look, to increase or decrease distance between themselves and whoever they are communication with – whether that’s a dog or a human. Distance control is fascinating, it’s used because our dogs have a space around them which they can relax in. All dogs have a different space which makes up their safe social distance, the distance that they are comfortable sharing with their peers and with us.
Give Me Love
A dog who is happy to be touched and inviting us into their social space will be relaxed. Distance decreasing by soft eyes and a soft mouth, they will likely wag their tail and Their ears will be neutral or relaxed. It’s generally easy to tell when a dog wants to interact because they look happy at our approach, much like the dogs below.
Their happiness to be touched can change in a second though, so watch for that too.
Give Me Space
When a dog is asking for space they give lots of little signals and some of the early ones might even go unnoticed. For example, the blink of their eyes, the glance into the distance, the ears move from neutral to either appeasement (they move apart from each other as if they are being pulled down the side of the head). Or they pull backwards (ears which go backwards accompanied with a tense face mean fear). The dog’s mouth might open a little or a little lick lip might happen. The head might dip. Dogs also use cut off signals when they want to keep us out of their space. An example of a cut-off signal is looking away as if they can’t see us. In fact, if you have ever walked directly towards someone on a pavement and they pull out their phone to look at as you pass, that’s a human cut off signal, ask yourself if you use them too.
The thing about knowing dog body language and communication is that you can never unsee things. So, the more we learn the better we are at spotting things that normally go unseen, when we are out and about. Like the desperately unhappy dog being patted on the head by a clumsy stranger. Or the cute little dog being forced to cope with a child leaning all over them despite politely asking over and over again for space. That’s not the reason I’m telling you this though – not entirely, the reason I’m telling you is because to give your dog chance to give consent you have to know how he feels and what he is asking you for.
Hands off the Dog Please!
If you haven’t been asking your dog for their consent before touching them, on a regular basis, start now. Sharpen your eyes and see what your dog wants when you look at them or speak to them. Do they ask you to increase the distance between you, or do they decrease it themselves? Does your dog look away, lick, change to a different ear position or ask for space in another way? Or even more obvious do they look or walk away? That’s a definite “no thank you” in dog language.
Another thing we need to consider is how we let others treat our dogs. Giving a dog the opportunity to consent should include the behaviour of people in the direct family such as children who can be particularly grabby. Other dogs, as some dogs can be so socially hopeless that they ignore all signals delivered and strangers who want to touch our dogs with no idea of their body language.
At best, a dog who is touched over and over again without giving consent will be on edge for most of their daily life. At worst it can cause serious anxiety and fear for that dog. There’s quite a big difference between interaction where both parties are happy and a dog who can’t relax because he never knows when he is next going to be touched.
Consent & Husbandry
Husbandry is an important job to keep our dogs happy and healthy. It includes nails, teeth, coat and regular health checks. Ideally a puppy will be handled from very early in their life so that they feel comfortable when we do the necessary husbandry, but unfortunately many are not. If they have not been carefully and positively physically handled by the times they are twelve months old, a dog is likely to find it strange and even intimidating.
As all dogs are individuals, the way they experience husbandry will be bespoke to them. Terriers for example are smart little dogs but don’t like being touched too much if they are not used to it. A Labrador might allow us to do anything for a biscuit or even a frozen pea, such is their love for food. It can be tempting to avoid doing husbandry altogether when a dog doesn’t like it, but I urge you to try and find a workaround because that will make vet visits and general healthcare easier on your dog.
Clicker training is perfect for consent-based healthcare. It’s one of the most imaginative ways to teach, for both ourselves and our dogs. It gets us both thinking and trying new things together. For example, a clicker can be used alongside a file board to have a dog file their own nails and have fun at the same time. Or a clicker can be used the shape the behaviour of an open mouth so we can check the dog’s teeth. Or even helping a dog to be groomed and stay relaxed can be helped along with the aid of a clicker, just click with every brush stroke initially and remove the click as the dog relaxes more. Clicker training uses positive reinforcement. The sound is connected with a reward in the dog’s mind and then attached to a choice the dog makes. I won’t go into details of how-to clicker train here, because it’s covered fully in my other books, but I do urge you to take a closer look at it for healthcare and husbandry.
The best thing about the clicker (or any other marker-based teaching) is that the dog gets to choose. Choices are encouraged and when the dog makes the right one, a reward is given. It empowers the dog and helps them – and us – to become inventive. Other than to deliver the food every time we click and not to use it for punishment or recall, there are no rules. It’s perfect for following the dog’s learning lead and reinforcing all the excellent choices they make when they are trying to elicit that much coveted click.
The ability to consent is linked to not only the dog’s psychological wellness but also their physical wellness. In face it’s all linked, there is no brain without the body and there is no body without the brain. So, if our dogs are constantly touched without being asked, or even just a little bit anxious regularly, they may become stressed.
Learn more about your dog's requests, body language communication with our ISCP Certificate in Advanced Canine Body Language