What My Dog Taught Me About Consent

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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.

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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

Positive Dog Husbandry


Jenny Efimova, KPA CTP is a trainer at The Happy Dog, and founder and owner of Dogminded. Follow her on Instagram at @dogminded.

What is Enrichment and Why Your Dog Needs It

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Here at The Happy Dog we believe that dogs who are humanely taught how to successfully live in our world, allowed to engage in natural behaviors, and are given opportunities to make choices are happy dogs. And happy dogs make for happy humans. 

Here’s what we mean by that:

Dogs who are trained using modern, science-based methods without force, fear, or coercion are much more likely to feel safe, comfortable, and confident moving through the world. As a result, we get to live with well-adjusted companions who exhibit far fewer behavior issues. We wrote about the importance of force-free training and handling here.

Another important (but often overlooked) factor that helps prevent unwanted behaviors is enrichment. For those not familiar with the term, enrichment is any activity your dog finds innately satisfying. 

So let’s think of all the things our dogs love to do—playing, chasing, fetching, digging, scavenging, sniffing, dissecting, ripping, shredding, chewing, licking, just to name a few. All of these behaviors are so satisfying for dogs because they are natural to their species. Engaging in these behaviors on a regular basis is not only normal, but essential to our dogs’ physical and emotional wellbeing. 

Unfortunately, modern living, and city living especially, doesn’t always allow our dogs to be dogs. So they often resort to choosing their own enrichment activities by dipping in to your shoe collection or appropriating the leg of your dining room table. 

To help prevent problem behaviors and give our dogs healthy outlets for their needs, we have to think proactively about ways to enrich their environment and increase their mental stimulation. Whoever said "a tired dog is a good dog" forgot to mention that mental exercise is just as important as physical. A tired dog might be good dog, but a mentally stimulated dog is a happy dog!

 

HOW TO ENRICH YOUR DOG'S LIFE STARTING TODAY:

 

LET THEM SNIFF

I repeat, LET THEM SNIFF. Taking your dog on a walk and not allowing them to sniff is akin to going on a European sightseeing tour blindfolded--not a whole lot of fun for anyone. Am I right?

Dogs “see” the world and gather information with their noses. Sniffing is an immensely stimulating and calming activity, and can be especially helpful for fearful, reactive, or overexcited dogs. Even if you don’t get very far, your dog will get far more out of their walk by indulging in as much sniffing as they want. So on your next walk, resist the urge to pull your dog along and instead take them on a nice sniffari. You both will be glad you did. 

DISCOVER NEW PLACES

Instead of the same old, same old walk around the block, take your dog somewhere new. New places = new scents and new scents = mental stimulation. Your dog will be twice as tired and happy when they get home, even if you just explored a new street in your neighborhood. 

TAKE YOUR DOG ON A HIKE

Unstructured walks in nature where your dog is free to sniff and explore aren’t only stimulating, they are decompressing and stress relieving. Consider using a back clipping harness with a long leash if your dog doesn't have a reliable recall. If you can’t find a trail, try a beach, or a park, or any green space near you!

DITCH THE BOWL

How fast does it take your dog to eat, I mean, inhale their food out of their bowl? I'm betting not very long. Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers who didn’t evolve to eat two square meals a day from a bowl. Help meet their natural scavenging needs by feeding their daily meals out of interactive puzzles and food dispensing toys. This is also a great alternative to free feeding and helps mix up the routine for the picky eaters.

  • Stuff and freeze rubber Kong toys with kibble, wet food, peanut butter, cream cheese, ground meet, pureed fruits or veggies

  • Freeze kibble and broth inside a slow feeder bowl for a long lasting food toy

  • Use the Kong Wobbler or other puzzle toys to dispense their kibble

Here are some examples of how to use the popular burrowing toys as food puzzles:

USE WHAT YOU HAVE

Enrichment doesn’t need to be fancy to be fun. Turn everyday items into interesting puzzles and enrichment activities. DIY enrichment can be tailored to meet every dog’s needs and abilities. If your dog is shy or skittish, allowing them to explore novel objects at their own pace will help build confidence and increase their problem solving skills. My dog was once very weary of boxes, but now diving into a box filled with paper is one of his most cherished activities. 

LET THEM BE DOGS!

If your dog loves to dig, but you don’t want a backyard full of holes, designate a digging spot or get a sandbox. Help encourage digging in the designated area by hiding toys or treats there and rewarding your dog each time they go there to dig.

If your dog is a fan of ripping and shredding, find items around the home they can safely do this with. If you have a big chewer on your hands, provide plenty of appropriate and safe chewing objects to meet their daily chewing needs. And for some extra sniffing fun, try a snufflemat!

When we allow plenty of opportunities for our dogs to be dogs—to engage in behaviors natural and necessary for their species—we are providing them with life improving mental stimulation. Think of enrichment as something no less necessary for your dog than exercise, good nutrition, and medical care.

Keeping our dogs mentally stimulated helps prevent boredom and problem behaviors, decreases stress, and builds confidence. Most importantly, enriched dogs are happy dogs!

Please remember to supervise all enrichment activities to make sure they are safe and appropriate for your dog. Start new puzzles and activities slow and easy, so that your dog can succeed at every step. 

CLICK BELOW TO LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR PERSONALIZED ENRICHMENT SERVICES


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Jenny Efimova, KPA CTP is a trainer at The Happy Dog, and founder and owner of Dogminded. Follow her on Instagram at @dogminded