I pulled into the parking lot for my weekly competitive obedience class. I went around to the back of my car, opened it up, and saw my dog settle further into the back of his crate. I knew he didn’t want to go in. I reached for him, snapped on his leash, and he hauled himself up. He knew he didn’t have a choice. The same dog, in a veterinary setting, had a growth removed from his eyelid without sedation. He did not appear stressed, he allowed me to hold him and the procedure was over quickly. That’s one of many examples of his steadfast ability to roll with things that were happening to him.

Fast forward nearly 20 years. I am a professional dog trainer and I teach sport dog handlers to see consent to work as a cornerstone of good training. If the dog doesn’t opt in to the work, the dog isn’t asked to work. And for this we get better workers, more quality performances, and smarter trainers. If my dog didn’t want to get out of the car at sport class, I’d never make him now. This shift is, in part, responsible for the fact that if one of my dogs said no to a dog class, I’d not only never force them, I’d be going straight to the emergency vet to find out what was wrong.

Felix watches a seminar ringside. He is allowed to decide if he is comfortable enough to work.

But I would still hold my dog while an uncomfortable medical procedure was performed. I’d still not ask for consent in that arena. So what is the difference? And how can we help not only sport dog handlers but average pet owners, to embrace choice as a vital part of their dogs’ lives, when so few choices are actually available?

Seeing yes vs no
First of all, if the client can’t see it, they can’t honor it. Teaching our clients to recognize what the clear opt-in or opt-out looks like is vital. Sometimes it is as simple as the dog moving toward the car on their own, or putting his own head into the harness or collar. Other times it is as subtle as the dog looking away as your house guest reaches for her. Providing clear-cut examples and consistently pointing out what enthusiastic participation looks like will help pet dog owners and sport dog handlers alike to recognize their dogs choices.

Providing more choice on purpose
Control over one’s own outcomes is a primary reinforcer we are all driven to seek. It could be the fifth step to behavioral wellness. Choice is the perfect antidote to anxiety. Because we must control most of our dogs’ lives for their own safety, we can (and should) provide them choice whenever we can. This can be done with chews, harnesses, bed choices, and especially during exercise. You’ll be surprised how much this improves the connection between your clients and their pets.

Here, Felix chooses which harness he would like to wear on our walk.

Handling no-choice moments well
If moments where dogs will not be given choices look too similar to the moments in which they get to choose, problems arise. Confusion about when choice will be honored and when it will not creates unnecessary conflict between people and dogs. So we also need to teach our clients how to be very clear with their dogs regarding when and how choice will be honored. Handling what I call “no-choice” moments with clarity and kindness is an essential point I want to make with all of my clients.

I am going over the details, and more, in a new workshop for the Fenzi Pet Professionals Program. Registration opens November 22, 2019. I hope you will join me.