What My Dog Taught Me About Consent
Before coming to dog training I spent my life working with trauma survivors and educating people about consent and healthy relationships. For over a decade, I advocated for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and understood intimately the devastating effects of trauma caused by coercion and abuse.
I spent my days educating people about the dynamics of power and control in abusive relationships. As an advocate, I believed in and practiced trauma-informed care and knew that to help someone recovering from trauma meant meeting them where they are by providing them with a safe space and respecting their agency and the right to make their own choices.
I liked to think that my experience and knowledge made me a source of support and compassion for someone who was struggling and needed my help. And yet at the same time there was someone in my own family who was suffering and whom I couldn’t help.
We met Larkin on a chilly April night after waiting for hours in a dark parking lot for his rescue’s van to arrive. When I first saw him, he was pushed up against the back of a crate looking out inquisitively while his littermates jumped and barked, overwhelmed by the chaos unfolding in front of them.
Larkin was small and wiggly with big green eyes and floppy ears. When the rescue volunteer finally placed him in my arms, he sat initially motionless, utterly shell-shocked after an arduous 3-day journey from the only home he’s ever known to a new and unknown world. We were instantly in love never imagining just how challenging the adjustment to his new life would be.
Within a few weeks of joining our family, Larkin grew intensely fearful of the hustle and bustle of city life—traffic, loud noises (especially sirens), large objects, large objects that made loud noises, UPS trucks, skateboards, strollers, you name it—all sent him into a panic. You’d never know how many people roll suitcases down the street until you’ve walked a fearful dog.
By mid-summer, he was too scared to leave our building and spent large parts of the day under the bed. Pottying him became a daily struggle. Anyone who’s ever had difficulty walking their dog will understand just how utterly desperate and hopeless this can feel.
What is more, the advice we’d gotten during those first crucial weeks after bringing Larkin home would prove devastating:
Don’t comfort a fearful dog.
Don’t let your dog walk in front of you.
Don’t let your dog lead the walk.
Don’t let your dog sniff on walks.
Don’t let your dog pull on leash even if he’s panicking and trying to flee.
Your dog needs discipline.
Your dog needs leadership.
You need to be the boss.
I can spend hours recounting all the things we tried that didn’t work. Just thinking about those days and all the ways it could have been different but wasn’t still brings me to my knees. It took months of trying, learning, reading, seeking out resources, educating myself, and finally following my instincts until we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Turns out, what Larkin really needed was for someone to hear him, to meet him where he was, to give him a safe space, and to allow him to make choices and the ability to say “no”. Sound familiar? It also turns out that I had a lot left to learn about compassion and consent, and my dog would end up being my greatest teacher.
Instead of the traditional mindset of obedience or else, I started to accept Larkin for who he was and not who I wanted him to be. This meant accepting that although progress is real and achievable, it is never linear and I don’t control its pace. It meant allowing Larkin to tell me what he was and wasn’t ready for.
I started listening when he told me he was uncomfortable and adjusted accordingly. I let go of my expectations of what our walks were going to be like and let him (gasp!) lead our walks. That’s right, I let my dog tell me where he wanted to walk, how long he wanted to stay there, and when he wanted to go home. And as a result, he started to walk further, explore more, and stay outside longer.
I also committed to doing more of what made him happy and less of what didn’t. I began taking him to places where he could be playful and confident, where he could be himself and where we didn’t always need to work at it.
The cumulative effect of this was life changing, both for him and for me. The less he was exposed to stressful and scary things and the more he was able to be relaxed and happy, the more confident and resilient he became in other aspects of his life. And the more I listened to him and began taking accountability for when things didn’t go the way I wanted them to instead of blaming him, the better teacher, partner, and friend I became. Our relationship began to transform.
The truth is that although dogs aren’t people, they are sentient beings who have the capacity to experience a full range of emotions and who need many of the same things we do in order to live healthy and fulfilling lives. This includes the ability to make choices and have control over one’s environment.
In the words of Dr. Susan Friedman, “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.”
The power imbalance in our relationship with our dogs is vast. We control every solitary aspect and resource in their lives. Conventional dog training reinforces this imbalance and encourages us to use power and control as the model of how to relate to our dogs. But just because things have always been this way, doesn’t mean they have to be.
Just because I could have made Larkin do what I wanted him to, doesn’t mean I should have. Just because we can force someone into compliance, doesn’t make it right. Force, fear, and coercion are not values consistent with any healthy relationship, be it with our friends, family, significant others, children, or animals.
There is another way, a better way, a more fulfilling, joyful, and rewarding way we can relate to our dogs. This way is paved with compassion and reciprocity. This way is centered on choice.
And no, our dogs will not always be able to opt out or do what they want. But believe me, those instances are far fewer than most of us would like to believe. Allowing our dogs to have a say in what happens to them and their bodies, giving them opportunities to cooperate in their care, providing them with choices and the ability to consent is not a revolutionary idea. It’s being put into practice every day by countless talented animal trainers across the globe and across all species. It’s an idea whose time has most certainly come.
If you’d like to learn more about how to incorporate consent and choice in your dog’s life, these resources are a great place to start:
Should Your Dog be Allowed to Say No? - Kiki Yablon
Consent: It’s Not Just for People! - Debby McMullen
Matters of Consent - Sarah Stremming
Start Button Behaviors - Sarah Stremming
Does Your Dog REALLY Want to be Petted? - Eileen Anderson
Back in the Black, Rebuild a Bankrupt Relationship - Susan G. Friedman
Fear Free Pets - Reducing fear, anxiety, and stress associated with veterinary care