Your Dog Is Allowed to Say “No.”

They’re intelligent beings. Let’s give them reasonable control of their lives.

This is what advanced training looks like.

Fact 1: Dogs have a sense of self.

They can think, “A few minutes ago, I licked my paws.” The “I” in that sentence is critical. For years people said that since dogs didn’t recognize themselves in a mirror, they do not have this sense of “I.” However, someone finally thought, “Well what if we allow dogs to use the biggest part of their brain, and best sense to recognize themselves?” Turns out that’s a better test for a dog. So now we know that dogs do have a sense of self-awareness! Science!

Fact 2: When a dog is scared, they’re thinking, “I’m so scared.”

This may sound so simple, but apparently to many dog owners and trainers it is not. Right now, I want you to ask your dog if they want to look into your eyes. (Don’t give them a command.) If they stare lovingly and softly into your eyes for a few seconds, congratulations! Your brains both secreted a bit of extra oxytocin. (The bonding hormone.) This, at least chemically, means that your dog loves you, and you love your dog. Awe. Adorable. Now the next time your dog is scared, I want you to look into their eyes and know that they’re thinking, “Please do something, I’m so scared. I don’t want to do this.”

Which leads me to the main point: Consent.

Oh yeah, I’m going there. Buckle up. Now I’m the last person who would argue that they’re the best person to have an in-depth conversation about humans and sexual consent. For that, I’d refer you to someone actually qualified. However like any decent human being, I’m pretty confident that I understand the basics of consent. You do too, right? So why don’t we ever have a conversation about dogs giving their consent?

Consent is freely given, not coerced.

Excellent trainers use treats or other rewards in classical counter-conditioning to illicit a change in the dog’s emotional response. However, this is very different from coercing the dog into compliance. Some “trainers” will slip a leash onto the dog, pull them close, start petting them, and will say, “See, I’m showing him that I’m not mean. I’m petting him!” The problem here, you dipstick, is that the dog doesn’t want pets from you. Classical counter-conditioning only works when the dog is getting something they actually enjoy.

Yeah, this is my idiot. We have matching hoodies because he’s practically hairless and it gets cold at the coast.

Consent is reversible.

I raised my idiot dog from the time he was 9 weeks old. He’s stayed with me in my car working at an evacuation site during the California wildfires. He’s snuggled with me on my bed almost every night of his luxurious life. However sometimes he doesn’t want to cuddle. Sometimes he gives me a little grumble that says, “Hey, not today.” My response? “Sorry!” I even reward him for that by giving him the space he’s asking for. Would he ever actually bite me? I’m 100% sure I could never get my dummy to actually commit to a bite. He makes all kinds of noise when he thinks he’s tough, but show him a feather and he runs for the hills.

Alright, so let’s get to the practical application of this wacky idea.

I’m not saying we should allow our dogs to be defiant. If you’ve asked your dog to ‘sit’ before they meet someone, you should follow through. Ensure that your dog offers a ‘sit,’ demonstrating that they can handle themselves appropriately around people. If you’ve asked your dog for a “Come” while off-leash, you’d better have practiced that 100 times with really high rate of reinforcement. I’m not saying we shouldn’t withhold what a dog wants until the dog gives me what I want, (as long as what I want is reasonable.) I’m not advocating for being permissive.

Advanced sit/stay work with a dog who wants to work with me as much as I want to work with him.

Certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, college instructor, etc

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