After we started working with a trainer for our fearful, anxious dog, it became clear to us that despite panicking when he was touched (especially if the touch was sudden), Omega actually wanted to be touched. He wanted to snuggle on the couch, climb onto your lap, and get belly rubs. But because of his sensitivity to sudden movements and unwanted attention, we had to find a way to give him the touch he was craving on his terms. This is when our trainer introduced us to the idea of petting consent.
I've always had dogs who were more than happy to be petted anywhere and at any time. So asking a dog for his consent to let me pet him was a completely foreign concept to me. But by giving Omega the option to accept or reject petting, we gave him the power to not only draw the line on unwanted attention but also to create a safe and comfortable environment for himself.
What is petting consent?
As the name implies, petting consent is asking your dog for permission before you approach and pet him. Not only is this a perfect opportunity to make your dog feel safe and comfortable, but it also gives you an opportunity to build better communication with your dog and better understand their cues. In order for your dog to give consent, it's generally agreed that three things need to happen:
- Your dog needs to have choices provided
- Your dog needs to understand what those choices are
- Your dog needs to communicate which choice they've selected
The following steps are how we taught Omega consent. I wouldn't recommend doing this with a dog you don't know*.
- Start with a consent test. Reach for the dog and attempt to give 1-2 pets, then immediately stop, keeping your hand in sight of the dog. Try petting the chest or neck so that you aren't reaching over their head. If your dog is especially anxious or fearful, you can start by simply offering your hand without actually petting them.
- Watch for your dog's response. Body language will be especially important here. If your dog is displaying "no" behavior, such as turning away, looking away, licking his lips, or any other sign of discomfort, you have not received consent and should stop the exercise. If your dog is displaying "yes" behavior, such as moving closer to you, leaning into you, nudging you, or any other behavior that indicates they would like the petting to continue, you have received consent and may pet them more.
- Continue to ask for consent. A "yes" can turn into a "no," so stop every few pets and allow your dog to give consent again.
*Disclaimer: I am not a dog trainer. These tips come from my own experience working with a trainer and with my own anxious dog. For more assistance with these training techniques or working through other training challenges, please seek out a fear-free trainer. Alison with The Daack Pack helped us with Omega and is absolutely amazing.
As you continue to work on petting consent with your dog, your dog will become more comfortable and you'll learn to better recognize his cues. Petting consent helped us to build a stronger bond with Omega, and to give him the space he needed to feel safe and comfortable in our home. He's been with us for three and a half years, and we still practice petting consent with him, though he's comfortable enough that he'll typically come up to us with a nose boop or a lick to let us know he'd like to be pet.
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