Seeking consent of a dog
During our classes, I explain to students that they need to take time before touching a dog and first check if the dog is okay with touch. In our last class, one student asked me how one determines if a dog is okay with touch. Serendipitously, we managed to capture the answer to this question on our recent Lives of Streeties, data collection expedition. Have a look at this video. I am approached by two dogs, one after the other. The first one, Ollie, is very clearly not okay with touch, while the second dog, Droggo absolutely loves it.
After my brief meeting with Ollie, someone quickly walks out and warms me that Ollie does not like to be touched, but if I had gone ahead and touched Ollie, that warning would have come too late. Fortunately for me, I was able to get that message from Ollie himself and so I still have all my fingers intact. If you turn up the volume on the video, you can hear the man warning me and you can hear me reassuring him that I had already been given that message by Ollie.
...I am approached by two dogs, one after the other. The first one, Ollie, is very clearly not okay with touch, while the second dog, Droggo absolutely loves it. Fortunately for me, I was able to read Ollie himself and so I still have all my fingers intact...
But, how did I know not to touch Ollie. Up until then, we had been meeting friendly streeties and we had ended up petting and playing with more than 50 dogs. So why did I not touch this one. Notice Ollie’s body language and facial expressions and contrast that to Droggo’s. Ollie approaches me tentatively, stands behind me, extending just his snout far enough to sniff me, remains stiff through it all, his eyes are wide and he throws in a few barks, for extra measure. After inspecting me, he quickly walks away. Droggo, on the other hand, has a very relaxed body language, all wiggly and looks up at me affectionately. While it is hard to pinpoint the exact body language features, it is easy to see he is relaxed, while Ollie is not.
I promptly shared this video with my students and explained to them that when meeting a new dog, they must always wait to first see if the dog is okay with touch and proceed to touch them only after they are sure they have gotten the necessary consent from the dog.
...When meeting a new dog, we must always wait to first see if the dog is okay with touch and touch them only after having gotten the necessary consent from the dog...
There may be many reasons why a dog does not like touch. It could be due to chronic pain issues, neural issues, history or just personality. Many of us humans too, have different opinions about touch. This reminds me of an approach a few teachers seem to be taking, allowing children to choose how they would like to be greeted. Some chose a hug, some shake hands, some opt for no touch at all. If I were to imagine these two being given the option, Ollie is picking “sniffing” and Droggo is picking “petting”.
Don’t all individuals deserve a certain autonomy over their own body. Ollie is not a bad dog and he mostly minds his own business. He just does not like to be touched, just like some of us humans are sensitive to touch. Ollie does seem to have people around him, who care for him, respect his right over his body and seem to rush protect that right. But not all dogs are so lucky. Dogs are often touched without consent and if that resulted in the dog expressing displeasure, the dog is the one that almost always pays the price. In my class, I point out to my students, that the sad reality is that it is us, ardent dog lovers, who are quick to violate the personal space of the dog and because we love dogs, we expect that all dogs love us too. Rarely do we stop to think if the dog wants to be touched. But, should we not be thinking about it? Some dogs may tolerate it, but if we profess love of these amazing animals, then why not learn to respect their space and seek consent.
...Don’t all individuals deserve a certain autonomy over their own body. Dogs are often touched without consent and if that resulted in the dog expressing displeasure, the dog is the one that almost always pays the price...
I not only make it a point to seek consent of dogs before I touch them, I also try to be mindful that not all dogs are the same and not all dogs like to be touched the same way. Cheeru likes a certain kneading action on her neck and rump, while Nishi likes to rest her chin on my arm or sit on me. There are times they seek touch and other times they do not want it. They do tolerate a lot more touch than they appreciate, but I don’t see why that should prevent me from paying closer attention to what they do appreciate and to respect their space. I prefer to touch them when seek out my touch, rather than have my touch “tolerated”. My experience tells me that when I do that, I often earn much more trust. But more importantly, being a woman in a country like India and having tolerated “touch without consent” frequently, I know what that feels like and I am unwilling to subject another to such an experience, be it a man, woman, child or animal.
About the Author
Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist, an engineer by qualification and an educator in Bangalore, India. She is passionate about ethological studies of free ranging dogs in India. Sindhoor is the founder of BHARCS.BHARCS offers a UK-accredited level 4 diploma on canine behaviour and ethology and boasts of students from all parts of India and across the globe. Sindhoor is also the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE). While she wears many hats, being doggy-mommy to her dogs, whom she considers her inspiration and her greatest teachers, is her favourite role.