Abe is getting naughty. He now has three rooms to explore: we added the living room last night. He was afraid at first and went back to pancaking any time we looked at him, but after a few hours, he was clambering up on top of the couch to discover the joy of cushions. That's why we go slow - we break the scary things down into smaller pieces so they're easier to absorb. But I digress - this morning while working on my computer, I found Abe next to me, munching on the zipper of my hoodie. When I moved the hoodie, he decided to see how the table tasted. And he has a new, fun game: head butting the cats! These bits of naughtiness make me happy - I think there might be a personality under all this fear.
But what I want to talk about today is consent.
Specifically, I want to talk about consent and how it relates to petting dogs. Abe has handling issues. "But Laura, he lets you touch him all over!" Yes, thank you for bringing that up, imaginary person. Abe lets me touch him all over: I can look in his mouth, stick my fingers in his ears, roll him into his back, pick him up, and pet him all over. He doesn't tell me 'no.'
He can't tell me 'no.'
And that's not okay. It's part of his brokenness. Dogs should be able to say when they're not comfortable with certain handling. That's normal dog behavior. "Not saying no" is not the same as saying "yes." This is a big, complex issue, so I'm going to focus on just one little piece of it - getting Abe to say "yes!" I want Abe to learn that people touching him can be a fun, positive experience, and his passive consent - his "not saying no" - gives me no help in figuring out what he does like. It's really easy for us to ask dogs to give their consent, and we don't do it nearly enough. Here's how to ask a dog for their active consent:
Stop what you're doing.
Now, what does the dog do? Do they walk away and avoid you? They might have let you pet them that way, but they didn't enjoy it, and they probably don't want you to do it again. Does the dog step away, shake off, maybe sniff a little, and then come back? You might be on the right track, but whatever you were doing might have been a little intense. Try calming it down a little next time. Or if you stop, does the dog look around, find you, push their head or body into yours? That's "YES! Give me more!" That's active consent. Keep doing what you're doing.
Active consent is another way to give shy dogs control over their situations. If I pet Abe on top of his head, he has to shake off and step away for a moment. But if I scratch his chin and stop, he leans into me and pushes his head into my hand. "Yes, person! More!" Because he can't clearly tell me if he's uncomfortable, I stop frequently to ask Abe if he's still having fun - every five to ten seconds at this point. He has control of how his body is touched.
Consent = control = confidence