The topic of “consent” with regard to dogs and their behaviour has been a troubling one for me. At best, all of this discussion about giving dogs a means to “consent” is a well-intentioned misapplication of language. At worst, I believe it can become a concept as dangerous as prong collars or barrier-frustration. The simple truth is that our dogs cannot “consent”, at least by the definitions I have researched on the word. Consent is defined as agreement to or acceptance of something. And the key word there is “something.” Whatever that something is, my dog would need to completely understand it in order to give their consent. And that’s where the problem starts.
Science has invested significant research into the cognitive abilities of dogs. We know, for example, that dogs do not learn by internalizing concepts and extending or combining them in new ways. Dogs learn by trial and error. So the ability for a dog to work out all of the potential risks and benefits of a given procedure before hand seems well beyond their mental abilities. What a dog can do is rely on past experience to predict what is likely to happen next (trial and error learning) and judge, moment by moment, whether they will comply with what is happening. And compliance is not necessarily consent.
Trainer Sarah Stremming, in her blog post, “Matters of Consent”, refers to “recent events” (circa 2016) by linking to an essay discussing inappropriate sexual behaviour towards women by men. While this vulgar sexism is certainly an important topic worthy of its own discussion, Stremming seems to co-opt this concept of “consent” and applies it to the lives of dogs. A parallel that I think is not only hyperbolic but potentially harmful to dogs and their relationship with humans.
If I step onto public transport, a bus for example, I will usually ask before taking an empty seat next to someone already seated. It’s a courtesy I learned as a child. It could be argued that I am asking for the seated person’s consent to have me sitting next to them. But there is an alternative interpretation. I could simply be signalling my intention to sit next to them unless they object. I didn’t have to ask. I could have just sat down. And the person sitting doesn’t have to accept this without objection. They could ask me to move, they could get up and move themselves, or even call for security or other help in having me removed.
The point is, by signalling my intention to sit, I have given the seated passenger an opportunity to express their preference rather than just reacting to my sitting down. It’s not about the passenger “consenting” to me sitting next to them, it’s about them having an opportunity to express a preference because I have signalled my intention. Frankly, if I choose not to signal my intent to sit down next to someone, I don’t think that amounts to “passenger assault”. It’s an inconvenience at most and the passenger has a choice of how they will respond.
Similarly, my dog always has options when she becomes uncomfortable with something. Most often, my dog will try to move away from the troubling thing. If that option is not available, she can growl, whine, or make some other vocalization. Ultimately, my dog has a mouth full of pointy teeth that she knows full well how to use but this is a last and rarely used resort. Fortunately, there are many small signals of discomfort that precede even my dog’s attempts to move away and, if I am observant, I can respond to her to help my dog.
Good trainers know
My introduction to Mark and Reward training came from Karen Pryor’s excellent book “Don’t Shoot the Dog.” Pryor describes the process of using a marker signal and rewards to teach a behaviour. The process is simple. Observe the dog to see the behaviour you want happen – Mark the behaviour with a signal the dog knows that means they have earned the reward – Reward the dog with food or something else the dog values. But the key to this entire process is being able to SEE what you are looking for. Mark and Reward training requires good observation of my dog’s behaviours and responses to my prompts. But I learned that being a good observer allowed me to see much more than just the behaviour I was trying to teach.
Teaching dogs is not like assembling something from a set of instructions. The pieces don’t just go neatly together in a particular order. There is a back and forth. A give and take. My dog will learn in steps and I may need to provide more or less help along the way as they try to understand what I’m trying to teach them. There will be moments of confusion, understanding, excitement, or even frustration as my dog works through the process of learning. A good trainer learns to see these emotions in the behaviour of their dog during the training process. One of the important lessons of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is that I need to keep my dog motivated to keep trying while we continue training. If I don’t see and respond to my dog’s emotions, it will affect her motivation to work with me.
To one degree or another, I think all dog owners observe and respond to the signals their dogs give out every day. We know when our dogs are not feeling well. We know when they are under exercised and need a walk or some other activity. The real challenge is being observant enough and to be willing to accommodate our dog when they are showing us these signals.
The husbandry challenge
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of trying to “listen” to my dog’s behaviour occurs during husbandry behaviours. Things like nail clipping, vet visits, and removing dangerous objects from a chewing dog can set up a conflict of interest. My dog wants one thing and I want another. The question is, how do we resolve the conflict? For me, this is where those observation skills become a practical and very useful tool. If I have done my work and watched my dog, I already know the small signs that tell me when my dog is happy, worried, defensive, frustrated, etc. I should also know from observation what the different levels of my dog’s behaviour mean. How intensely they are feeling a particular emotion at any moment.
And this is where much of the “consent” discussion confuses me. Let’s take, for example, a process developed by animal trainer Laura Monaco Torelli called a Canine Chin Rest Behaviour. In this video, Torelli demonstrates beginning to teach a dog to rest and hold their chin on a target (in this case a towel). This is an incredibly useful behaviour to teach a dog, especially for husbandry like ear cleaning or vet visits that need to check around the head. But during this video Torelli at one point says that teaching her dog this behaviour is “giving him the option to walk away.”
Well, my dog always has the option to walk away. The only real question is how difficult I want to make that for her. Leashes or other restraints could make walking away difficult, if not impossible. Grabbing at my dog is another option. But my dog has already signalled that they don’t want to be doing this by trying to move away. If I choose not to respond to those signals, I’m inviting a conflict with my dog. By rewarding the dog for keeping his chin resting on the target, Torelli is rewarding her dog for staying with her. Rather than “giving him an option to walk away”, Torelli is giving her dog a reason to stay in position! I think that is an important difference.
Agency and labels
So much of what I’ve learned about modern reward-based training is concerned with being clear and not using language that obscures the observable facts of my dog’s behaviour. For example, my dog is not “being stubborn” when she doesn’t respond to a recall cue. Instead, she simply did not come to me and I need to find a way to motivate her to be more responsive to me. Behaviour consultant Dr. Susan Friedman calls this “labeling”, using the language of emotional states to describe an animal’s behaviour. The problem is that labels like “frustrated” or “stubborn” or “confused” speak more to the internal motivations and emotions of the animal than they do about the observable, physical actions the animal is showing us.
Science has determined that animals do have emotions, although somewhat different than human emotions. They respond emotionally to their environment. But when we use the emotional language of “labels” with our dogs, we attribute intentions and motivations to them that may or may not be there. In effect, we tell them what they are feeling. To me, this makes it difficult to understand what the dog is trying to say. We jump to a conclusion and lose the opportunity to be a good observer.
Simply put, when we use labels with our dogs, we take away our dogs’ ability to express themselves and substitute our own interpretations however incorrect they may be. That seems particularly unfair. This is why the term “Consent” concerns me. It is just another label we want to apply to our dog’s behaviour because it is convenient for us to do so.
A much needed conversation
The good news is that we are having a conversation about cooperating with our dogs rather than “commanding” them. While “Consent” may be an inaccurate and overly simplistic term to use, we are at least talking about how to address what our dogs are telling us through their behaviour. Dogs are social creatures and they are always communicating if we take the time to observe and learn what they are trying to tell us. Recent advances in reward based training seem to have produced several new techniques to teach our dogs to communicate with us in a way we would prefer. Unfortunately these protocols may or may not be giving the results we want. Is my dog trying to communicate with me or is she trying to get the promised reward for the behaviour I taught her?
It seems to me that Laura Monaco Torelli’s Chin Rest Consent, Chirag Patel’s Bucket Game to empower dogs with choice, and even Jennifer Arnold’s Bond-Based Approach to working with service dogs are all using well known and well understood principles of behaviour modification. The only thing new about them is the language they use to frame the issue. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each of these “new” approaches focuses so closely on what would help the human that we miss the bigger picture. The dog is already communicating! Wouldn’t it be better to focus on learning how they are communicating rather than to try to teach them to say things in a way that’s more convenient for US?
Books and videos are available to help us make sense of the nuances of canine body language. Brenda Aloff’s “Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide” and Roger Abrantes’ “Dog Language – An Encyclopedia Of Canine Behavior” serve as wonderful reference books to learn more. But the truth is, we know a lot about our dogs already. The slight tug of a paw while I’m trimming my dog’s nails is an indicator that my dog wants a break. A lowered head, a furtive glance, and moving beside or behind me on a walk is an indicator that she is uneasy about something ahead. The only question is how I choose to respond to these things.
Observe Respond Motivate
There are many “new” techniques, approaches, and systems being promoted today that talk about “Consent”, “Choice”, “Empowerment”, and various terms that give our dogs more control over their lives and environment. And that’s a good thing! But the danger of labels lies in their inappropriate or sometimes OVER use. Once I start to believe my dog has the power to “consent”, it can become very easy to convince myself that she consents to all kinds of things with a simple chin rest behaviour. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many of these “empowering” behaviours are trained using basic reinforcement techniques. How can I be sure that my dog is doing a behaviour she has learned to express her consent when she may just be doing it to earn a reward?
And this is to say nothing of the internal pressure placed on the dog when faced with a situation that they would prefer to avoid but then are being enticed with the promise of a food reward. These are not simple issues that can be solved with a clever technique or a simple behaviour. They make life easier for the human but I think we owe it to our dogs to try to be more responsive to them.
I don’t think we need to use labels like “consent” and “choice” in order to make our case. We need to provide options for our dogs. More importantly, we need to accept the options our dogs choose and be willing to come up with creative solutions to solve life’s everyday conflicts with our dogs. No one likes to be forced into options they would not prefer. I have learned that if I listen and accommodate my dogs when they communicate with me, they are far more likely to listen and accommodate me when I ask them for things.