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  • Writer's pictureSara Scott

The Role of Consent in Our Relationships With Dogs

Consent has become an important topic when discussing relationships between humans. But it's also a critical concept to incorporate into our daily interactions with dogs. Consent in dog training refers to giving dogs choices and allowing them to opt in or out of touching, care procedures, and training exercises. Let's explore what consent looks like in practical terms when it comes to relating to our four-legged companions.


Defining Consent With Dogs


First, consent means an agreement between you and your dog where they clearly understand they have a choice, understand what that choice entails, and can communicate their decision. While complex for animals that don't speak our language, modern science-based training uses consent as a core principle. Zoos have taught large mammals to voluntarily participate in husbandry and medical care, demonstrating that dogs can certainly be taught similar choice-based communication.



Incorporating Consent into Touch


One way to build consent into your relationship is through touch and petting interactions. Don't assume all dogs enjoy petting without their input. Some may only want touch from certain people or in specific situations. Make touch consensual by inviting them in versus reaching out unprompted.

Hold your hands out to invite them in. See if your dog voluntarily moves in toward your hands or pushes their head or body against it. If not, they may be communicating "no thanks" to petting in that moment. Take pauses every so often during petting to allow your dog to consent again or withdraw consent if they become uncomfortable. Watch their body language to see if they want you to continue.


Giving Choices for Care Procedures


Another area where we can give dogs more choices is around grooming, veterinary procedures, and handling. With "cooperative care" techniques, you teach dogs to willingly participate in and opt into necessary care, rather than forcing them through it.

For example, clipping nails becomes a reward-based training game where dogs offer you their paw, rather than you holding it against their will. If they withdraw their paw, they are communicating to stop. Over many repetitions, you can shape longer durations of nail trims as long as the dog continues offering their paw willingly.


Allowing Choices in Training


Similarly, providing choice in training exercises ensures you are working at the appropriate skill level for the individual dog. If a dog voluntarily leaves or avoids an exercise, it signals the activity may be too difficult or stressful at that time. You can troubleshoot by making it easier and seeing if the dog then opts to participate.


Look for "start button" cues where your dog tells you they are ready and willing to begin a behavior sequence. This could be offering a sit to start a training session or placing their chin on a platform to indicate readiness for you to begin a handling procedure on their body.


Benefits for Dogs With Bite Histories


Some of the biggest beneficiaries of consent-based training are dogs with bite histories. Often, prior to resorting to biting, these dogs gave subtle signs of distress that went unheeded. Now they can be empowered to communicate “no” more clearly, without needing to escalate to teeth.


For example, a dog who sometimes reacted aggressively to being touched was taught to step on and off a platform to indicate consent to continue or stop handling. This gave him an effective way to say “no thanks” before getting overwhelmed.


Why Consent Matters


Some may underestimate a dog's need for personal agency. But canines are sentient beings deserving of choice and a voice in their care. Respecting their consent helps build an empowering relationship based on voluntariness, not force.


Being the "Decider"


While integrating dog consent may seem complex initially, at its core it's about making your dog an empowered "decider." Guide them to understand they can opt into or out of activities using their own behaviors. Then give them that choice consistently.

Consent ultimately strengthens communication, trust, and mutual respect. The ability to say "no" builds confidence to say "yes." Prioritizing consent helps dogs become willing, enthusiastic participants in handling, training, and daily life.


Starting Small


Don't feel you have to overhaul all interactions overnight. Try asking for consent in one small area first, like petting or nail trims. As you and your dog become fluent at that, build out your consent practices gradually. Changing your approach and mindset takes time for us and dogs! Be patient with the process.


The Takeaway


While we can't have a verbal agreement with dogs, they can still give or revoke consent through trained cues and body language. Paying attention to choice empowers them to become active decision-makers in their care and training. Respecting consent reframes our relationship from one of benevolent domination to a partnership built on trust and communication - benefits that extend well beyond just training sessions.



 

Want to learn how to integrate more empowering choices and consent into your relationship with your dog? As a force-free trainer, I can guide you on how to make consent a meaningful part of your daily communication, care, and training.


Click here and let's start a thoughtful discussion on what consensual relating could look like with your unique pup. Whether it's giving them a voice in petting, cooperative husbandry care, or opt-in training games, I'll provide tips tailored to your dog's needs.


Don't settle for domination when you can have willing partnership instead. Reach out today to explore how respecting consent can strengthen your bond and change your training for the better.


I look forward to collaborating with you! Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

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