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Let's Talk About Consent in Dogs

Updated: May 14, 2023

Let’s talk about consent… it’s a big topic in humans but have you ever thought about how it applies to your dog?

Just imagine a random stranger approaching your child on the street, fussing over them, offering them sweets or touching their hair, you would be horrified and most likely report the incident. Now put your dog in that position, maybe that’s a normal part of your walk or maybe you just don’t see the problem with it… he’s a dog right, he loves it!?

There are countless dogs labelled as ‘aggressive’, ‘reactive’, or ‘unfriendly’ because they don’t appreciate people approaching them and they’ve taken it upon themselves to tell people to BACK OFF in no uncertain terms.

Maybe you own one of these dogs and you just wish he would let people fuss over him, or that he would stop barking and lunging whenever someone came near him.

This is where CONSENT becomes so important. Typically with a puppy we’re encouraged to introduce him to as many people as possible, pass him around children and adults and generally expose him to all sorts to ‘socialise’ him. However, have you ever considered your puppy’s feelings in all this? Perhaps you did, and you thought “he loves it!”, or if he didn’t look so keen you just thought “he’ll soon get over it”!

Like humans, dogs have individual personalities, some are more extroverted while some will be introverts, and you have to take time to consider how your dog feels in social greetings. We’re often told to socialise the dog more if he’s shy of people … by introducing him to more people he’ll realise there’s nothing to be scared of and he’ll soon love everyone. It’s probably best to just force him into it and that will sort him out. Unfortunately, it rarely works this way and it’s more likely to push the dog further into fear and self-defence… so what about CONSENT?

What does it mean for dogs and how can it possibly work?

It’s all about giving your dog choices and then respecting his decision. The more you help him out with this, the more he will trust you, and in turn, he will be in a better position to grow in confidence, especially when given choices in greetings.

A dog who wants to interact with someone, will choose to do so, they should approach in a relaxed way and choose to remain in this interaction.

A dog who doesn’t want to interact might back away or freeze, he may also escalate to growling, barking, or snapping if his initial signals are ignored. He doesn’t want to be encouraged, talked to or lured closer, because he is desperately asking for SPACE, not interaction.

If all he offers you is a sniff with his nose then he’s not asking to be hugged and overwhelmed with attention, he’s trying to get a bit of information from you and will probably choose back off again.

If you’re not sure what the dog is saying, give him more time to make a choice. Don’t tempt him over. Wait for him to offer something … he might choose to approach and you can pet him, but pet him for a couple of seconds and then stop … now does he move away or does he move closer – that’s when you know whether he wants to continue this interaction or whether he has had enough. If he moves away, RESPECT that, he has given you a clear, polite signal that he’s had enough for now.

It can feel awkward to say ‘no’ when someone asks to pet your dog, but you can explain that you need to ask your dog. If he chooses to interact you can use it as an opportunity to reinforce good behaviour (i.e. no jumping, calm greeting), but if he chooses not to then you must acknowledge that and decline the greeting on his behalf.

Perhaps explain that he’s not feeling so good today but maybe next time.

Most people will respect this but it’s helpful to have a back-up cue to use if someone thinks they know better and wants to force the interaction anyway… good options are a ‘let’s go’ command to move your dog away (see the let’s go post here) – it may seem rude to the approaching person but for your dog it’s incredibly beneficial and saves a bad experience.

You can also teach your dog a ‘middle’ cue and have him stand between your legs (generally people will be unlikely to persist with a greeting when your dog is positioned here!) and you can then explain the importance of consent! Using a visual aid can also help, for example, putting a lead or jacket on your dog which states that he’s nervous or can’t be touched. However, some people seem to be blind to these signals so it helps to have ‘let’s go’ or ‘middle’ as your back-up option too!!

The more we explain the importance of CONSENT and CHOICE in our dog’s interactions, the more we can educate people to respect dogs in this way.

If your dog struggles with meeting people it can be hard to know how to help him so seeking help from an experienced trainer is a great idea.

Or if you would like some more advice and guidance with teaching cues such as ‘let’s go’ and ‘middle’ then have a look at Adolescent Dogs where both the online and residential courses can give you the tools you need!

Written by Naomi White

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