If I told you there’s a very important concept that you may not have been taught about, one that is essential to both your dog’s care and your own personal wellbeing, and actually the wellbeing of everyone around you, would you hear me out?
I hope so. Here it goes. The concept is consent.
Defined as permission for something to happen or agreement to do something, consent is a simple concept. When consent is granted, all parties have agreed to participate. We should all understand this; in light of recent events we know that we don’t all understand it. As dog trainers we need to understand it when it comes to the dogs in our care.
Cooperative veterinary care and grooming is one of my special interest areas, and I am thrilled to see this concept truly taking off in the world of companion animal training. Still too often though, when I am approached for help with a dog’s comfort in veterinary care, grooming, or basic husbandry it is not until the entire scenario has been poisoned by coercion. It is not the inherent discomfort of grooming or the unavoidable pain of veterinary procedures that make these things so horrifying to some dogs; it is the nature of force, the loss of autonomy, the sickening feeling we all experience–for this is biological, not cultural–when our consent is not earned in regards to our own bodies. It wasn’t the blood draw but the restraint, not the bath but being dragged to the tub, that have destroyed these things for our dogs. Progressive zoos across the world have trained voluntary husbandry to all kinds of animals proving that yes, an animal can tolerate something uncomfortable or even painful, as long as they are granted the ability to choose.
So what does that mean? How do we gain consent from a nonverbal creature? Luckily, it’s not only possible it’s easy to do, as long as you are willing to accept no for an answer–every time.
Incorporate a “Yes!” Signal
We can’t get consent from something that can’t say yes. Rather than assume your dog is interested in participating, give him a clear way of saying so. For husbandry work I typically teach my dogs to hop onto a platform that they can easily get on and off of. If you need to use a grooming table I suggest using a lower platform (like an ottoman or couch) as well so that you don’t need to lift your dog up. I spend some time just clicking and treating the offered behavior of hopping up, so that it is likely to occur in the presence of the platform. Shortly after, I will start husbandry work as soon as the dog hops up (brushing, toenails, vet procedure practice). They learn that the consequence for hopping up is now that husbandry work will begin. That way they can always choose to hop up, and throughout my sessions I toss food off the platform multiple times so that they get the opportunity to tell me “yes” all over again. Here’s Felix’s learning about how he can say “yes”:
Train Cooperative Behaviors
Teaching a few simple behaviors with positive reinforcement will help this process immensely. Dogs have no understanding of the procedures we must do with them to keep them healthy and clean, so cooperation must be taught. Targeting with nose and individual paws, as well as positional cues of sit, stand, and down are easy places to begin.
Take “No” For An Answer
Perhaps the most important piece of this concept is that if your dog has been asked if she’d like to participate, you must honor her right to say no. Not long ago I broke this rule with my dog Idgie. The cards were stacked against me as far as good decision-making is concerned: I was worried about her, I was about to embark on a 20 hour road trip, and I happened to be seeing her vet anyway. Human emotions and convenience factors are the most likely to cause us to falter in our values when it comes to cooperative veterinary care, and I am obviously not immune. Idgie clearly said no to my request for her to stand for a blood draw (she has given blood voluntarily countless times, and on this day she was obviously bothered by the idea). Rather than keeping my hands off her, I gently held her neck up for the vet to access her jugular. Blood was taken, and off we went.
Fast forward a week. Idgie had an appointment with her massage therapist, Maddy. Previously Idgie had hopped onto Maddy’s table willingly, and through Maddy’s expert observation and understanding; she’d never been made to feel emotionally uncomfortable–quite the contrary. She would sit there, soft-eyed, and fight sleep as Maddy worked. But a week following my serious error, my egregious breach in our contract, Idgie said no. She sat on the floor as far from the table as she could get, flattened her ears, and actually shook with anxiety. Was she upset about what Maddy might do? I’d argue no. I’d say she was upset that she would be made to do something she didn’t want to do. I can’t ask her, of course, but I believe she was afraid of being forced. Forced into what didn’t matter.
I told Maddy what I had done, and we spent that hour decidedly NOT making Idgie do anything. She did some tricks for Maddy in exchange for food, and then I put her in the car. We returned to see Maddy this week and Idgie still refused to hop onto the table. So we moved to the floor and utilized her understanding of cooperative care to get some bodywork done on her. I’d call it a huge success, here’s some footage of that work:
Dog training is divided; this we know. I don’t feel the myriad subdivisions of shaping vs luring, harness vs head collar, tradition vs evidence, DRA vs CC/D, (and the list goes on) are important or even interesting. The division I care about, the one that needs to be discussed and examined, is the same division that is splitting our earth heartbreakingly in half. There are those who feel that everyone deserves bodily autonomy and those that don’t. We can accept that dogs are thinking, feeling, intelligent beings who deserve choices, or we can go on pretending that because we can have power over another, that we get to.
As for me, I recognize that I have the power. The power to teach rather than force. The power to advocate for my dogs even when my human needs are at stake. The power to hold consent as a core value, even when that means I pay the vet for her time and come back next week to try again.
Register for my workshop on cooperative veterinary care in Portland, OR, December 17-18 care by emailing Maddy Turner at email@example.com
Can’t make it to Portland? Bring me to you, firstname.lastname@example.org