Most of the time when we humans interact with our dogs we have the mindset that what we say goes. The dog must comply with our wishes even if it is something that the dog dislikes. This especially applies to things we HAVE to do to our dogs such as vet visits, nail clipping, grooming, and meeting new people (if the dog is wary) etc.
When a client comes to me for instruction with a puppy that she wants to train, the usual training program includes getting the puppy used to doing the above things without any negative associations or without having to force the dog to do it. It is faster and easier to just start training for these things at the beginning of the dog’s life rather than later when the dog has already established dislike for a particular procedure or activity.
Do we usually ask for a dog’s consent before doing these things? Not usually. We just start putting the equipment on and really just expect the dog to “get used to it”.
I Don’t Know How It Happened
Putting on a sledding harness is one of those difficult things for some dogs. One of those dogs is my Australian Shepherd JoJo.
There are likely a host of reasons why a dog would dislike have any handling done to him, but most often we would not be absolutely sure what that is for any particular dog. Many dogs are not given the opportunity through training to accept handling, but many dogs would also have been exposed to situations in which they were forced to have a harness put on and developed an aversion to it.
With JoJo, I don’t know exactly what caused her issue. She came to me with an aversion to having her collar put on, or having anything put over her head. As well, she was uncomfortable with having anything lying across her back, such as a sledding harness would do.
Because this type of handling was causing her stress, it also made me uncomfortable putting collars or harnesses on her. She would actively try to avoid coming close to me if I was holding a harness near her head or whenever she saw me holding her collar. I don’t like making a dog feel uncomfortable, especially my own. It’s not right and creates an environment and relationship of negativity.
So I decided to do some simple training to help JoJo become accustomed to these things.
The idea of having a dog give consent to a procedure may sound odd to some people. There has been much work lately on the topic in the dog training world and I have seen several webinars about this. The video below shows a dog giving consent to be bathed.
In order to work on this with JoJo, I decided to use a similar tactic – the consent or “I’m Ready” position.
To put a harness on your dog, you have to have her actually NEAR you in a stationary position, i.e. not moving around or trying to avoid you. The dog has to want to be there and have a positive association with that position. In the video above you can see Gypsie is giving consent by standing on the stool. The training then progressed from there. The “consent” action has been reinforced with food many, many times so that it is very reinforcing to even just stand there.
For JoJo, I decided her “consent” or “I’m ready” behaviour would be having her put her head willingly into the harness opening and possibly even rest her chin on the harness. This meant we had to do several training sessions working towards our goal behaviour. For each dog and situation there will be a different position or behaviour needed.
What is it, Really?
Basically, you are teaching your dog to be comfortable with what you are doing and conditioning (training) your dog to do a specific thing in order to facilitate doing the procedure or activity. Your dog is not actually “consenting” in the way us humans would consent. The dog is being taught to be completely comfortable with something. Some dogs may never be completely comfortable with certain things and therefore will not be able to be trained to have a consent behaviour to give. Nevertheless, much can be done for many situations.
The “I’m ready” or consent part of it is really for us humans only to work with our dogs better.
Below is the video showing how I started working on this with JoJo. We had done some work on this earlier, but not since the video was made. JoJo was still uncomfortable with having the sledding harness put on, although we did make much progress with putting the collar on, so that she now sees putting the collar on as fun.
My dog Emmett has his own version of the “consent” behaviour: he stands there and wags his tail. This was something I had worked on with him since he was young.
For your own dog, do some observing to see if she/he seems wary of any procedure that you do together regularly. You may be surprised to find out that the body language of your dog shows a hesitation for something that you maybe hadn’t noticed before. If that’s the case, consider training an “I’m Ready” behaviour to help your dog become more comfortable with that procedure or activity.
In the process, you will likely also improve your relationship with your dog.