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Power Sharing with Dogs: Consent Applies to all Species

“Can you teach me how to make my dog stop barking?” desperately asks the woman on the other end of the phone, her voice shaking with anger and sadness. She’s clearly at the end of her tether, which is why she’s finally calling a dog trainer.

“I also want him to stop pulling, stop growling and running away from me when I do his eyedrops, and stop jumping up on guests.”

Stop. Stop. Stop.

When we get overwhelmed with someone’s behaviour, we start to lose our empathy, and all we want them to do is STOP so we can get back some sense of safety and normalcy.

Without coaching, people resort to shouting, leash corrections, or even hitting the dog. In other words, if dogs violate our boundaries of what feels comfortable, we humans might allow it for a while, but can end up feeling frustrated and eventually resort to aggression.

Dogs do the same thing.

If dogs were able to use the phone or email, this same request for help could have sounded like this, the mirror image: “Can you teach me how to make my human stop holding me back when I’m trying to greet my friends?” asks the Border Collie on the other end of the phone, with a low growl and a bit of a whine. He’s clearly at the end of his tether. 

“I also want her to stop strangling me with a rope, stop holding my face until my eyes sting, and stop just bringing strangers right into the house.”
As a professional dog trainer, my first step is to listen to what the human really needs and to discover, like a detective, how and why the dog learned to do what they’re doing. I teach humans how to look objectively at the dog’s behaviour, the situations in which it comes up, and what need(s) the behaviour meets for the dog, as well as what need is not being met for the human. 

Then we look at how the dog AND the human could change their behaviour in such a way to meet the needs of all involved. Then, and only then, do we start teaching the dog how to behave differently, if that’s necessary.

I’ll never forget how Susan Friedman, Ph.D. says in her seminars that behaviour evolved to have an effect. Our eyes are for seeing, our ears are for listening, and our behaviour is for changing our environment in some way. 

I always think of behaviour as a strategy to a meet a need, and I love how Marshall Rosenberg dives deeply into strategies, feelings, and needs in human behaviour in his seminal book, Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Compassion. (NVC is now also known as compassionate communication).

Author Pam Leo, shared seven principles for parenting (human) children in her book Connection Parenting. One important principle is to let kids know they are listened to and loved by being aware of their emotional needs: “Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs by filling their cup with love or we spend time dealing with the behaviours caused from their unmet needs. 
Either way we spend the time.” Modern dog trainers are coming to realise that the same is true of dogs, as well.

One of the major needs we share with dogs is to feel safe, and to have control over access to our bodies. I’m talking about consent, something that’s fortunately come to the forefront in many areas of life in the last decade. 

In 2018, I brought the word “consent” to the dog training field and filmed a webinar for my online school called “Don’t Just Grab the PussyCat: the Power of Consent in All Species.” 

Barbara Hodel also wrote an excellent article here on Australian Dog Lover about consent in 2018, “Consent and Choices in Dog Training.” 

This work has been a long time coming - many trainers who have been talking about cooperative care for the last decade or two, and I really like thinking of it in terms of consent. It’s really helpful for kids to see us honouring dog’s requests for space or no-touch.

Dogs and people can learn to navigate consent in both directions:

✔️  Entering a dog’s space bubble (including touch, sound, with body or devices.)

✔️ Dog entering someone else’s space bubble (including touch, sound, etc.)

Dogs often enjoy touch and invite us to enter their space bubble for play or affection. Different dogs have a different bubble, ranging from -1 meter (“I want to crawl inside your belly and be your baby”) to hundreds of meters away (“All humans terrify me, please go away!”). The size of the space bubble is contextual, meaning that it changes based on the situation.

Dogs in arms are in a vulnerable position and can't escape. Don't approach them!

For example:

• Familiar is better
• Who is touching the animal?
• What species is the other being?
• Which body location?
• What location in space? (home/vet/surface)
• Does the dog feel safe in the environment?
• What happened just before the experience?
• Are there other stressors?
• Any new tools or objects present?
• What behaviour is the other being doing?
• Does that other being honour the dog’s No?

Dogs can learn to feel safer in lots of situations, especially if they’re able to deny consent, and have us listen. Dogs historically have not been listened to, and lots of things happen to them without consent. For example, have you done any of these in your lifetime?

• Touching a dog without the dog’s permission
• Pulling your dog to greet another
• Petting a dog who is held
• Startling a dog with a leash or electronic collar
• Making a dog sleep outside

If you have, no need to beat yourself up. It’s extremely common. Just learn to do better.

Do you see the dog leaning away from the baby? A cued "Down" can put a dog in conflict.

Our dog’s boundaries are important, and it’s also part of our job, as caregivers, to prevent our dogs from violating other people’s boundaries. Force is not needed here, just consistent positive training. For example:

• Off leash and/or out of control
• Dog sniffing a person whose religious beliefs ban dogs
• Dog licking a baby who cannot escape

So now that we know some of the challenges, what can we do about it? We figure out how to communicate “Do you want to do this? Can you do this?” and how to listen for an active YES from the dog. (I also highly recommend checking out Suzanne Clothier’s Elemental Questions, including “How is this for you?”).

Dog trainers have navigated consent for a wide range of human behaviour, from interactions like petting, hugging, picking up, putting the harness and leash on to grooming: brushing fur, brushing teeth, and trimming nails, to name a few. It’s also widely used for medical care, including oral examination, getting the temperature taken, and even X-ray and MRI machines!

Here are some benefits of reaching consent:

Empower the dog and yourself (behavioural control of environment)
Build trust / safety
Clarify what both of you need to thrive
Reveal your dog’s preferences
Avoid aggression / fear / shut down

In everyday life with your dog, you can reach consent by making a list of your needs in a given situation and looking at what your dog needs, too. 

This Doberman is learning to do a chin target to consent for eye drops -
Photo Credit: Laura Van Arendonk Baugh

For example, if your vet prescribes daily eyedrops, your needs include safety, cooperation, and a chance to contribute to your dog’s wellbeing. Our dog needs to feel safe, to understand what’s happening, to have choice (to say yes or no to clipping), and freedom to move.

Back to the eyedrops, the most important piece is to actually train IN ADVANCE. You can’t get consent for something that’s painful at the last minute, and eye drops sting. 

Photo: Laura Van Arendonk Baugh
Build up consent by training for a few weeks before you even start with the drops. If you need help, Laura Van Arendonk Baugh from Canines in Action, Inc. has a great class on eye drops with step by step instructions to keep the dog actively engaged in the process.

The key piece of cooperative care is what I call a "More Please Signal", also known as a Start Button behaviour. These are behaviours the dog can do to say “your turn, you do your thing.” The meaning is taught by the trainer responding in a consistent way to the dog’s behaviour. 

For example, in the presence of a bottle of eye drops, the More Please Signal could be chin targeting on a washcloth. When the dog holds that position, the human does some approximation of eye drops (starting by just moving the bottle a little) and then feeds a fabulous treat. That’s the dog’s active “Yes” – consent.

If the dog lifts her chin off of the cloth, that’s her revoking consent, i.e., saying, “No”, and the trainer honours that by not doing anything with the eye dropper. You might then ask for another behaviour, move around, and then see about going back to training in a way that’s easier for the dog. 

Positive reinforcement training for the win!
The idea is to get a continual string of yesses from the dog, and if you ever get a no, change something so that the dog is eager to continue with your silly human game.

I hope that you’ll look around for ways to reach consent with your dog. 

If something is difficult, go back to ‘asking’ things that are easy for your dog to say yes to, then work up from there at your dog’s pace.

Some things to remember:

✔️ Consent is revocable, moment to moment.
✔️ Consent is contextual.
✔️ Consent is only real when it’s an enthusiastic yes.

written by Grisha Stewart, September 2021 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved)

About the writer

Grisha Stewart is an author, international speaker and professional dog trainer who specializes in dog reactivity and canine empowerment.  

She is the creator of The Grisha Stewart Dog School for Professional Dog Training Education Online.  In 2003 Grisha founded and ran the Ahimsa Dog Training school in Seattle for 13 years. "Ahimsa" is a Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence to all living things, which reflects Grisha's focus on force-free methods to promote the well-being of dogs and their humans. 

Canine behaviour fascinates Grisha and she is highly motivated to help improve techniques for rehabilitating and training dogs. Her professional interest in dog reactivity, along with the need to find an effective rehabilitation technique that would work with her own dog's fear issues, led Grisha to develop BAT -  Behavior Adjustment Training, a humane technique for dog aggression, frustration, and fear.

Her seminal book, "Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Aggression, Reactivity, and Fear in Dogs", was published by Dogwise in late 2011. Grisha's popular second book, "The Official Ahimsa Dog Training Manual: A Practical, Force-Free Guide to Problem Solving & Manners", was published in 2012 and updated in 2014. She also has over a dozen DVDs, with 6 currently in print. 

Her third book, BAT 2.0 was released in early  2016 and is available to order here.

Grisha has earned a Master’s in Mathematics from Bryn Mawr College and most of a Master’s in Psychology with an emphasis in animal behaviour at Antioch University. Her first career serves her well in dog training and behaviour consultations, because she relies heavily on problem solving, critical thinking, and teaching skills she gained in that field. 

Grisha is a gifted, passionate and entertaining presenter who creates her seminars to accommodate a variety of learning styles. Through her international dog seminars, DVDs, books, and her in-person and online training schools, she has helped hundreds of thousands of dogs and their people thrive. 

Her Dog School offers the best modern dog training techniques from around the world. There are over 75 exciting courses from Grisha herself and a variety of esteemed instructors and a continuing stream of content is being created weekly. This online dog school is more than just education. It is an international community with some of the world's best trainers and Grisha is  thrilled that many classes are taught by her favourite dog behaviour experts from all over the globe.

Grisha has recently gotten into writing and playing music. She also rock climbs, reads voraciously and loves the outdoors.

Grisha Stewart Dog School:

Facebook: /grisha.stewart Instagram: /grishastewart/ Twitter: @grishastewart


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