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The Benefits of Teaching Consent

Trust: It Starts With Consent

With names like force-free training and cooperative vet care, it should come as no surprise that consent is a vital step in the way we approach working with animals. In fact, it is a huge part of why these methods are the fastest growing and most successful approaches to animal training and vet care in modern society. Consent is the doorway to a happier relationship between pet and parent. With consent comes trust, and with trust comes confidence in your ability to tackle the world together as a team.

We all, human and animal alike, need to be seen and heard when we say “yes” or “no.” Having to constantly monitor our boundaries in fear of them being crossed causes acute stress and anxiety. This is an unenjoyable way to live and can lead to a loss of trust, as well as issues with learning and memory. Lack of communication presents as behavioral issues like lashing out physically or verbally towards their environment. When an animal's brain is focused on their safety, you may notice them stop responding to cues they know really well and lose interest in games or activities they once enjoyed. They may also begin to growl, lunge, or bite at the aggressor crossing a boundary. If you’ve ever tried to pick up a cat without their permission, you’ve probably experienced this first hand.

You may be saying to yourself, “Yes, but there are things my pet must do. If given a choice they will never opt in.” And you’re right, sometimes procedures must be done! We are human and they are our “pet”, after all. They don’t understand the dynamics and nuances of day-to-day life in society like we do; there are absolutely limitations on what we can allow our animals to do for the sake of everyone's health and safety. This means it is on us, the humans, to do our best to make sure anything they must do, is something they want to do or at least comfortable with doing.

This starts with consent. Knowing a boundary will be listened to, makes opting-in an easy choice because opting-out is still an option if the animal changes their mind.

Many pets fear the vet because there is a history of nonconsensual partaking in uncomfortable and scary situations. Begin integrating cooperative care practices, which provide the animal with the option to communicate when they want to stop, and you will see the animal actively choosing to partake in physical inspections, blood draws, vaccinations, and other invasive procedures.

Most zoos across the world are integrating these practices into their health-checks with the animals in their care. The handler's safety is always at risk when working in close proximity with zoo animals, and using cooperative care gives the animal a way to communicate to the handler before anything dangerous happens. Plus, the animals are more relaxed during the process, which means they are less likely to hide any symptoms because they don’t feel there is a threat to their safety. This means it’s easier to find and treat health issues earlier and faster. An added bonus is the animal isn’t traumatized and further instilling distrust in their caregiver.

Your domestic dog, cat, horse, etc. will reap the same benefits if you establish a similar communication system.

Brains also learn better and retain lessons longer from experiences we choose, rather than ones we were forced to participate in. We are also more likely to show improved performance and enjoy events more if we’ve actively decided to be there. Think about how this might be true in your own life. To pull from my own personal experience, I remember far more from the elective classes I took in high school than I do from required classes like math and history. Much of that is due to actively wanting to be there, rather than wishing I was somewhere else and spending the whole time watching the clock.

So how do we begin integrating consent into our pet’s lives?

Start small, look for opportunities throughout your normal routine. Simple things like daily walks, affection and cuddles, or brushing all lend themselves to situations you could provide your animal with more agency. Think about ways you can ask them their preference and check in if they’d like to continue engaging. Include them in the leashing and harnessing process before the walk and ask (with body language) what direction they would like to walk in. Stop the activity frequently to check in and remember to always allow them the option to stop.

One example is physical affection and touching - while petting your animal, pause for a moment and observe their response. Every individual will have their own way to communicate. Some may lean in and nudge your hand for more. Others might disengage and start cleaning or itching themselves as a way to say “I’m done.”

For further example, every time I want to pick up my cat we have a routine. I verbally ask him “Can I pick you up?” and reach towards him. If he backs away I take that as “no,” and move on. If he arches his back towards me, that’s my cue to scoop him up. Likewise, when I’m trimming his nails I sit on the floor and invite him to come over. When he approaches, I place him on my lap, trim a few nails, give him a treat, then release him. I repeat this process until all of his nails are trimmed. At first I could only trim one or two nails before he asked for a break by not coming back after being put down. By respecting this boundary and giving him breaks when he asked, now he comes back every time and we can finish all of his nails in one session. There’s no power struggle, no biting, or fighting to be put down. Nail trimming is completely stress-free for both of us and it can be for you too.

The life you share with your pet will be changed for the better the more often you give your pet space to speak to you. Start with understanding how your pet communicates and creating ways you can ask when you aren’t sure. Then you’ll be able to work with your pet to find ways to help them feel comfortable and safe in situations they’d otherwise say “no” too. Learn about cooperative care and work with fear and force-free trainers to find all the ways you can build trust with your friend and foster that life-long bond. More consent means less stress and more fun for both of you!

Come by during our Open Training for a session on Saturdays. We are open form 10-4 every Saturday to help you with your training challenges.

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