In this insightful article we welcome Certified Animal Behaviourist Lucy Aalders who talks about the importance of choice, consent and being aware what our dogs are trying to communicate.
How often do we ask our dogs if they are happy to come along with us, be touched by us, wear collars, leads or harness’s, be brushed or picked up? Do we really listen when our dog’s express hesitation or unsureness about situations we put them in? Are we aware of the subtle communications our dogs might give to say “I’m not sure”, “please stop”, “give me time and space”? Or have we just assumed they are ‘fine’ because they have not growled or even bitten us yet? Everything from petting your dog to putting his lead on or taking him to the vets, all have the possibility to be a scary experience, but can be more positive if we, as carers, offer choice and teach comfortable consent.
How would you feel?
What if, every morning, when it is time to leave the house, another member of your family grabbed a hold of you and put your coat and your shoes on for you. Even if you didn’t ask.
Imagine you are heading out for a daytrip. As you approach your car, your partner scoops you up without warning and packs you into the car, like a bag of shopping. Even though you can walk and get into the car perfectly well yourself.
Some people do need assistance to do some of the everyday tasks. They may have family members to help or even care assistants with them daily. Usually these people have been asked if they need help. They understand what is happening around them and they have consented to the assistance.
Let’s consider, if your option to give consent were taken away in a variety of situations, how would you feel? Your right to object to another person coming into your space, handling you, manoeuvring you. Your right to have an explanation of what to expect before something occurs.
“He’s fine, he gets over it.”
Thinking about this there is an important question we should ask -Do we ask consent of our dogs enough? Afterall, they have emotions, just like us. They have a survival instinct that tells them to fear the unknown and avoid things that feel like threat.
Too often I hear things like “oh he’s Fine. Once it’s done, he gets over it”. In one case that springs to mind, with an adolescent Cockapoo – I was stood in the kitchen doorway watching the dog cower in the corner of the room as his owner approached to put his harness on. Wide eyes, keeping his body crouched against the wall, licking his lips several times, making all attempts to keep away from his owner who was creepily stalking him round the kitchen. Did he really look “fine”? I didn’t see ‘fine’; I saw a dog that was fearful. A dog giving lots of communication to say, “I’m not sure, I am not ready, please give me space”.
The moment at which the owner clasped her hands on the dog and grappled to put the harness on; a situation that she expressed “he is fine with…”. I saw the dog shut down and submit. He recognises this is an inevitable outcome. He does not want conflict and he cannot see a way out. He is backed into a corner, so he just gives in eventually.
I don’t’ doubt for a moment in this situation that the owner is doing what she feels is best and is OK. She has his best interests at heart and he seemingly ‘gets over it’ once out the door. But does he?
What if over time, with repeated daily stress around this situation, the dog tried to communicate harder? What if he began to curl his lip, growl or even snap or worse, as his owner approached? It does not bear thinking about. Especially when it could be avoided with a little patience and understanding.
The value of being listened to.
I recently went for a blood test for the first time in many years. I have to admit I was fairly apprehensive. In my head the needle would be huge and painful and go all the way down my arm. They would drain pints of my blood and deflate me like a punctured balloon.
By the time I arrived at the nurses’ room, my heart was thumping and my hands were clammy. I sat on the edge of the seat, poised as if ready to run if I needed too. My arm and hands tucked into my body as tight as I could. My eyes flitted from nurse, to the door and back while she introduced herself. I blurted out in a polite, but slightly shrill voice “I’m a bit scared of needles!” Much to my delight the nurse was calm, friendly and patient. She reassured me I didn’t need to worry and engaged me in some chit chat for a few minutes. Smiling all the way. My tense, squished body began to relax and let go. By the time it came to do the actual blood test I was having a completely different experience to what I had anticipated. She explained the blood test process, what it was for, how it was done and what I should expect.
Having the time to understand what was about to happen, be reassured I was safe and have my worries acknowledge, along with the patience to only begin when I said I was ready, made the entire experience considerably more pleasant. The nurse’s compassion for my individual sensitivities and the respect she gave me to not rush me or coerce me, meant that I had a positive experience.
We can all relate to situations like this. The fear of pain or discomfort or something unfamiliar. The fear of being out of control or under threat. Feeling unstable. Not knowing or understanding what is happening around you. Not having choice or feeling listened to.
Surely, we should offer the same patience and understanding to our dogs?
Teaching consent is communicating trust
So, can we teach consent? Can we communicate there is choice? Choice to have more time. Choice to move away. Choice to consent when they are ready. The answer is yes!
Simply showing a dog the item in your hand before you use it, gives the dog a chance to sniff it, figure out what it is. This a good starting point. Waiting for the dog to come to you instead of chasing him round the kitchen. If the task is a ‘need to’ and not a ‘can leave it for another time’, at least offer something nice such as treats to add some positive association to the experience. Give more time, slow things down, do not rush. Think ahead, plan and practice.
I appreciate that dogs cannot speak English and none of us can read their minds, but we can read the body language signals they use to communicate with us. We can set up a situation that gives clear signals back to the dog to say, ”you have choice and time to process; I will be patient and teach you in small steps; I will offer you ways to feel empowered, to be in control and feel safe; I will allow you to move away and come back when you are ready, without pressuring you. I will even try to make it fun or enjoyable”.
Paws for thought
In my experience over the last decade of working with dogs, dogs have readily offered consent to situations I have asked them to take part. I believe this down to the time I have taken, to build trust teach clear structure, allowed time to process and offered choices. In some situations, this hasn’t always possible, such as in the cases of welfare, where there is no time to build that relationship versus the need to give the animal medical support or get them to safety. However, these cases are rare. In my opinion there is rarely a good excuse for not allowing time and giving choice and waiting for the dog to consent before moving forward.
For our own dogs at home, for all new puppy owners and ‘dog owners to be’ in the future (especially with the current ‘stay at home’ status). Can we spend some time to build consent in those tricky, possibly scary situations? Can we re-teach putting a harness on in a way that the dog comes to you and says “yes I am ready to accept this now”. Just a few mins practice each day, in a fun way. What if just a few moments of patience, sitting still, offering and not forcing, meant your dog’s experience of that task was altered from scary and stressful; to “it’s Ok, I can do it; I am safe, I am listened to, I consent. I trust you”.
The next time you have to approach your dog for something that you know, deep down, he does not really like. A situation you know you have previously had to restrain him in order to get the job done. I want you to put yourself in his paws. If you were your dog, in that moment, how might you feel? What would you do? If you were your dog, how could the experience be made more comfortable and less scary for you? What would help you to feel safe? What could be offered to you to make it more enjoyable? How many times would need to practice before you felt more relaxed about it? How much of it could you tolerate in one sitting before you needed a break?
My point here is not to suggest that anyone of us doggy loving folk are doing things wrong or with mal intent. But simply could we do it better? Are we really listening enough to our dogs? Can we listen more, see it from their perspective and help them feel safer and happier.
We all want to live inharmony with our dogs, without conflict. I firmly believe trust and consent is the foundation for this.
Follow this link for a video on how to teach your dog to accept his harness.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7edMjwEY1c By Emily Larlum (AKA. Kikopup)