Your dog should be allowed to say ‘no,’ too

Chantal Mills kneeling with her hands on a dog laying down at each side.

By Chantal Mills

Dogs will give subtle signs of stress when being placed in uncomfortable situations they don’t feel ready to handle. Recognizing these signs can help avoid problems in the future. Photo: Santa from Pixabay
Dogs will give subtle signs of stress when being placed in uncomfortable situations they don’t feel ready to handle. Recognizing these signs can help avoid problems in the future. Photo: Santa from Pixabay

When I first started training dogs, almost two decades ago, I subscribed to the concept of per-mission-based training. It was, I believed, important that dogs be asked to sit before being re-leased to eat their kibble, look at their owner before being let out into the backyard and wait for permission before they could take the treat

All good things were controlled by the dog owner. No “good dog” would dare jump on the couch, hop on the bed or go through a doorway without getting approval first. This, I thought, was the way to teach a dog how to have more self-control, not to mention excellent manners.

Control is an illusion

When Everest waltzed into my life, my goal was to teach him how to obey commands. I even occasionally used a training strategy called “planned failure” whereby Everest would be set up to fail to create an opportunity to teach him what to do instead. How patient he was . . . and forgiv-ing. The road to having a well-behaved, obedient dog was paved with good intentions.

At the time, I did not understand the power of offering choices, the importance of consent, nor the ben-efits of setting up worthwhile training sessions that made it easy for the dog to be reinforced.

Consent also applies to animals

Trainer and blogger Eileen Anderson has a wonderful blog post titled “Does Your Dog Really Want to be Petted?” where she breaks down the behaviours offered by a dog who consents to petting and one who doesn’t.

Being able to recognize your dog’s subtle signs of stress before they escalate can make a world of difference. Understanding a dog’s body language allows you to better take into consideration how your dog feels about an interaction. Allowing the dog to say “no thanks” to being petted can help them feel safe, can prevent them from getting over-whelmed and possibly not over-react to the stranger reaching out to touch them.

The power of choice and consent can be seen in many zoos where positive reinforcement trainers have worked on voluntary husbandry with the wildest of animals. Given the ability to opt in or opt out, a hippopotamus will allow her teeth to be brushed, a tiger will stay still for a blood draw and a lion will push his hind end against the fence to allow a vaccine to be given.

Opting in

If you want to trim your dog’s nails, you might get away with holding down your dog and at-tempting to get it over quickly. Rover will quickly learn that the nail clippers predict something that is unpleasant. It may not be the nail clipping that proved to be aversive, but the restraint. I have yet to meet a dog that chooses to participate in an activity that, to them, doesn’t feel safe. Voluntary husbandry is possible with the domesticated dog as well!

What does opting in look like? For Bug, it means going on the yellow yoga mat. At first, the mat was a place to chill and get treats and other great things. Then, I introduced the nail clipper. The progression is done at Bug’s pace. Treats are not used to lure him or distract him, but to reinforce. Bug gets a lot of breaks, which involve getting treats and other favourite things while not on the yellow yoga mat. If he chooses to go back on the mat, he knows that nail trimming will resume. He has many opportunities to give consent.

Opting out

If Bug gets off the yellow yoga mat, he is saying “no”. Bug is a willing, enthusiastic participant because of classical conditioning and because he has agency.
By letting him set the pace during our training sessions and giving him the option to say “no”, I am empowering him.

As Dr. Susan Friedman wisely said, “The single most important thing I have learned over 40 years studying learning and behavior is the benefit of giving animals control over their own significant life events. Although it may seem counterintuitive given our cultural fog, research demonstrates that control over consequences is a primary reinforcer, meaning it’s essential to survival like food, water and shelter.”

Offering choices

Letting your dog choose which toy to play with, which bed to sleep in or which path to take dur-ing their walk are easy ways to offer Rover some choices. Allowing your dog to consent to being petted, by strangers and by people closest to him is a great way to give your dog some agency.

I realized quickly that even when Bug wanted to get into the tub or join me on the sofa, he wasn’t comfortable being picked up. He would duck as my hands approached him and move away. The solution? Give him a way to say yes! With a verbal cue and a hand signal I invite him to be picked up. If it’s a “yes”, he moves into position and waits to be lifted. If it’s a no, I accept and respect that.

Giving your dog agency doesn’t mean allowing them to do what they want, when they want, no matter the consequences! Health and safety come first.

Managing the environment as best you can and not putting them in situations they’re not ready for helps to set them up for success. There are many ways to offer your dog a way to opt in or to opt out. It’s a different way of relating to your dog. If you’re worried that Rover will choose to opt out, or will become “disobedient”, think again. Research shows that the more control and choice we give our animals, the more willing and cooperative they are.