They’re intelligent beings. Let’s give them reasonable control of their lives.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “This is that same dickhead that said I can’t tell my dog ‘no.’ My dog is allowed to say ‘no,’ but I can’t!? Ridiculous!” I acknowledge that this sounds like a ridiculous stance to take if you don’t accept two critical facts:
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.
Instead, how about you learn some patience and just sit on the floor tossing the dog treats until it decides to approach and investigate? How about you just leave the damn dog alone for a bit? How about we allow the dog the freedom to make their own choices, and stop coercing them into submitting to our casual wants? I know, I know. That’s insane, right?
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.
That part isn’t important. I don’t care that he would never bite me. He reversed his consent, and it’s my duty to respect that. Is this really such a weird concept?
I won’t keep going on the direct parallels between sexual consent and consent in dog interactions, because ultimately I don’t want to give the impression that I think they’re the same conversation.
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.
What I am saying is that you should respect your dog’s autonomy, and your dog should have some way to safely communicate, “I don’t want to go for a walk today.” “I don’t want to meet this person.” “I feel sick this afternoon, I don’t want this kid laying on me.” The alternative is a dog who idiots label “aggressive.” The dogs growl, lunge, bite, etc. Then we euthanize them for communicating the only way they knew how. That totally makes sense, right?
Acknowledge that your dog is pretty dang smart. (Even my idiot is admittedly very intelligent.) Your dog has the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves, and we have to stop faulting them for making those decisions. I advocate to my training clients that our goal is to live together with understanding, respect, and effective communication… That shouldn’t be some radical new idea.
As always, I always recommend a good relationship with your local certified dog trainer and/or behavior consultant. It’s 2021, most of us are online now. Everyone is now local. There’s no excuse.