Consent: Why It Matters for Dogs

Share on
Reading Time: 4 minutes

I had barely stepped in the house when the client attempted to hand me her puppy. The puppy was clearly terrified, dangling from the woman’s extended arms. I backpedaled right back out the door, “Please don’t give her to me. She’s afraid. This will just make it worse.” But the client, beaming with new puppy pride, kept coming, offering the pup with the enthusiasm of a perfume salesperson accosting customers in a department store.

“Please stop,” I said more firmly. “Your puppy is scared.” By now I had backed into the driveway and was contemplating getting back in my car. “STOP!” She finally halted, looking puzzled.

Didn’t I want to hold her puppy? Who doesn’t want to hold a puppy?! But the puppy clearly indicated she was scared. Handing her off to a stranger was not going to help her at all, and indeed could make her fear worse and damage her relationship with her new mom. I convinced the client the better approach would be to let her puppy come to me at her own pace. By the end of our lesson with the help of freeze-dried chicken treats, we were best buddies.

When I first started training dogs almost 30 years ago, hardly anyone worried about what the dogs wanted. Dogs who displayed fear behaviors at home, during training or during veterinary exams were “stubborn” or “willful.” Today, we have a greater understanding of canine behavior and motivation. We look at dogs more as family and partners in our lives. Whenever possible, we’ve learned it’s better to give dogs a choice when it comes to activities or potentially scary experiences. We offer chances to consent to participate.

Offering Consent Is Not Being Permissive

Just because you offer your dog a chance to consent in certain experiences doesn’t mean you let him walk all over you. It doesn’t mean he’s off the hook for anything he doesn’t like. There will always be times when your dog must participate in something he may not enjoy, such as receiving a shot or getting medical care for a painful injury. The more you can offer your dog a choice, however, you’ll discover a much more positive outcome.

For example, take that scared little puppy. If you were terrified of a complete stranger and your parent shoved you in the stranger’s arms, how would you feel? (Does this remind you of any Santa or Easter Bunny photo fiascos?) Your fear would not lessen, and now you would have less trust in your parent. You had no choice in the matter.

After I explained this to the client, I went back inside the house and sat on the floor. The client sat down with me and placed the puppy on the floor a couple feet away. I tossed treats towards the puppy, avoided eye contact, and started chatting with her mother. The puppy tentatively started nibbling on the treats. After a couple bites, she took a few steps toward me. The treats kept coming and I put no pressure on the puppy to approach me.

In about 15 minutes, the puppy sniffed my elbow. I slowly extended my hand, offering a treat and she took it from my hand. Then I got a few finger kisses, and in another 15 minutes she was on my lap. She was given the choice to approach at her own pace. If we had forced the issue, it would have taken much longer for us to become friends, if ever.

This puppy was very fearful, so I recommended the client take her to a Fear Free Certified veterinarian, who would work with them to make vet visits more pleasant and less scary. For example, her veterinarian may get on the floor with her rather than put her up high on a table, offering her treats like I did to win her over.

How You Can Incorporate Consent in Your Dog’s Life

Think about how you spend your day with your dog. How can you allow him to make some choices?

My Belgian Tervuren, Sawyer, didn’t like having his nails trimmed. He was scared of the rotary sander I used to file his nails, and he didn’t like having his paws restrained. I didn’t just stop doing his nails because he didn’t like it, nor did I force him to hold still while I did his nails. I trained him to participate in the process. Today, Sawyer offers me a front paw, I file down a nail, and he gets a treat. He gets to choose which paw he gives me. He gets to choose when he’s ready to give it to me during the session. By allowing Sawyer to make some of his own decisions in the process, I now have a dog who doesn’t avoid nail trims.

What do you think would have happened if instead, I had taken Sawyer to a veterinary office where they might have held him down to cut his nails? He would have been frightened and likely would have growled in fear. He would have developed a distrust of the staff, which would then make it harder for future veterinary visits. I knew that, so I never put him in that position.

As it is, Sawyer loves his veterinarians and flirts with them shamelessly. I guess he doesn’t believe consent goes both ways, because he never gives them a chance to say no to petting him!

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Want to stay in the loop on the latest and greatest in keeping your pet happy and healthy? Sign up for our free newsletter by clicking here!

Recent Articles

View and Search All Available Content >