I talk about consent a lot. Most of the time I am talking about it in a dog training context, but I think its pretty important all the time–don’t you dare insist my niece give you a hug, for instance–and its value extends so much further than can be seen at first glance. In our basic interactions with our dogs, from grooming to leashing up or getting into the car, consent matters. We should be giving our dogs as many choices as we can. But what is the value in performance? And what do we do if we have paid our entry fees, traveled to the show, stepped to the line, and our dog opts out?
A Culture of Consent
First, safeguard yourself against that from happening by building layers of consent into each phase of your training. Giving your dog options at each phase by utilizing consensual reinforcement strategies (tossing the food away, letting go of the tug toy, etc.) is a good place to start. Watching your dog for very subtle sings of opting out is another great thing to do. If you are sure your dog is consenting to training, not just hanging in there for the reinforcers, you will be less at risk of that painful inconvenient “no.”
But What If?
Seeing it when your dog says no and choosing to honor that is harder than it sounds. So many competitors are conditioned to just ask their dog a second time or third time when a response is not seen right away.
We have to get used to pausing and observing our dogs when they do not respond the way we assumed they would. Because asking until you get a yes is sort of the opposite of consent. So if you decide to involve consent in your training, you have to have a contingency plan in place. If the dog says no, you leave the ring, take a break from training, or skip your turn in class. It has to be that simple. When keeping this in mind we must also realize that anything other than “hell yes!” should be translated into “no.” There is not room for grey areas here.
Working a Dog That’s All-In
Having worked both a dog whose training involved a lot of coercion and dogs whose training is consent-based, I’ll tell you what I prefer: the dog that is shouting YES from the rooftops.
It has occurred to me recently that not everyone has experienced both. Some people have only experienced the all-in dogs, and more people still have always had to cajole or coerce their dogs into the game. All dogs can be taught that they have the power to start and stop the game; not all handlers are ready to hand over that control. But once you do, you’ll never look back.