- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
My husband once accidentally dropped a container of pad thai on the floor. Our Schipperke, Fiver, rushed to grab a mouthful of noodles, then darted off. We were laughing so hard, scrambling to get the looted food from his mouth. But we were stunned, too. He normally knew to wait for permission before lunging for a dropped morsel.
We teach our pets a lot about permission—even if it sometimes doesn’t stick, eh Fiver? For example, we might teach our dogs to sit and stay until given a different command, or to not jump on furniture unless invited. We think nothing of training them in this way.
But how often do we think about getting our pets’ permission—in the form of consent for cuddles, petting, grooming, or visiting the vet? Indeed, our pets have their own way of communicating their preferences and training us. We just have to pay close attention.
“By being aware of their body language and letting them initiate physical contact, we can show our pets that we respect their space and their right to say no,” says Julia Jenkins, a UK-based dog trainer and founder of Pet Dog Training Today.
Just as consent is crucial for safe, healthy, and respectful human-to-human relationships, it is vital for human-pet relationships, too. “Gaining consent from our pets may seem like a silly concept,” Jenkins adds, “but it’s actually a very important part of being a responsible pet owner.”
Pets may still be considered property in some places, but awareness of a pet’s agency, individuality, and when appropriate, their right to choose, is growing, as we see in recent research and articles on the topic.
We asked experts, like Jenkins, and others for more insight on the subject of pet consent.
What Does “Consent” Mean in Our Relationships With Pets?
One of the most common things we do with our pets is touch them. After all, they’re cute, soft, and kissable, and they provide a lot of comfort in our lives. But consent with petting matters.
“If a dog is feeling under the weather, tired, or just wants some time alone, we should happily accept if they choose not to be close,” says Linda Simon, a veterinarian in the UK.
It’s OK for our pets not to want to be touched or cuddled, and responsible pet parents will accept a pet’s choice.
If you try to engage with your pet, but your best friend moves away or cowers, that likely means they just need a little personal space. Dr. Simon recommends that petting be done when your dog or cat is not in a crate so that they have a choice to change their surroundings if they want to.
Initiation can help you gauge your pet’s consent. “This means waiting for them to come to you for strokes and pets, rather than going to them,” Jenkins explains. Even if your pet initiates interaction, keep in mind that consent isn’t ongoing.
Jenkins recommends stopping every five seconds or so while petting to ensure your dog or cat is still enjoying the attention. “If they want more,” she adds, “they will make it obvious by nudging your hand or leaning into your touch.”
Learning Your Pet’s Consent Cues
Every pet will be a little different, but there are few common signs your pet is not into being touched.
Your pet is saying no
- puffing their fur
- opening their eyes wide
- stiffening their whiskers
- flattening their ears
- arching their back
- swiping their paws at you
- stiffening their tail at its base
- turning their head away
- flattening their ears
- licking their lips
- shifting their weight away from you
- growling, snarling, snapping
“Always let your dog move away if they’re feeling overwhelmed,” Jenkins says. “Forcing them to stay in a situation they’re not comfortable with can lead to anxiety and stress, neither of which is good for your relationship.”
But your pet may not react with a “no” behavior. Just like humans, some pets will freeze when they’re in a situation they’re uncomfortable with. “Remember, just because they don’t say no,” Jenkins explains, “doesn’t mean they’re saying yes.”
You’ll likely be able to notice some common signs your pet wants some affection.
Your pet is saying yes
- hopping up gently
- kneading you
- bunting you by pushing their face against your hand
- purring at you
- placing their paw on your hand
- nudging you with their nose
- leaning into you
- relaxing their ears and wagging their tail
- resting their chin on you
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Pet Consent for Strangers, Visitors, and Kids
As our pets’ trusted caretakers, we have the responsibility to ensure that other people respect our pets’ boundaries. “A stranger or visitor should never assume your dog can be pet,” Dr. Simon says. “They should ask you and then ‘ask’ the dog.” If an interaction is acceptable to you, she suggests the person slowly offer their hand for your pet to sniff. Your pet will either invite further interaction or not.
Teaching kids about consent can prevent bites, scratches, or other injuries from a surprised or scared dog or cat. Often parents teach kids to ask a dog owner if they can pet their dog, Jenkins adds. But that’s not the same as getting the pet’s consent.
You may even wish to demonstrate to a child how to invite your pet to interact and then how to respond if the invitation is accepted. For example, maybe your cat hates belly rubs and their paws touched, but generally likes gentle strokes on their back or behind-the-ear scratches.
It’s important to be an advocate for your pet and to set boundaries with people who want to touch them.
Remember, just because someone asks doesn’t mean you have to let them interact with your pet. “It’s important to be an advocate for your dog and to set boundaries with people who want to touch them,” Jenkins adds. “Be aware of your surroundings and your dog’s body language. If you are unsure, it is always best to err on the side of caution and end the interaction.”
And consent has nothing to do with forcing a pet to play with someone or another dog or cat. “This is a recipe for disaster,” Dr. Simon explains, “as your dog may be highly anxious and could react in a negative manner.”
Training With Consent
You can also use consent as a main feature of your training sessions to help build trust with your pet. To do so, opt for positive reinforcement techniques, says veterinarian and animal behaviorist, Dr. Paola Cuevas, who was trained in Mexico but works in multiple countries.
The relationships between the animals and trainers are built on trust.
“The animal performs behaviors and participates out of wanting to win,” Dr. Cuevas explains, “and the relationships between the animals and trainers are built on trust.”
Positive reinforcement is often done with treats as a reward for learning a command. But you can also reward with praise and petting, the latter if your pet is interested, of course.
Consent With Groomers and Vets
One of the trickier aspects of pet consent is the sometimes necessary visit to the groomer or the vet that is in your pets’ best interest but can be unpleasant for them.
Here are some important things to keep in mind.
When it comes to grooming, Jenkins recommends starting with short sessions first and gradually increasing time as your pet gets used to it. Your pet might indicate the need for a break and then letting the groomer—or you, if you DIY—continue.
Positive reinforcement techniques can help anxious pets become accustomed to the groomer or the vet.
“Use positive reinforcement to make the experience as pleasant as possible for your dog,” she says. “If your dog is resistant to grooming, don’t force them. This will only make the experience more unpleasant for both of you and could make them more resistant in the future.”
For vet visits, pet owners and vets hope for the same thing, which is for a pet to be comfortable during their visit.
“However, we do need to do these things for our dog’s health,” Dr. Simon says of routine visits and vaccinations. Ultimately, your pet may need an examination, even if they aren’t totally onboard with it.
You can use positive reinforcement techniques to help your pet get accustomed to the vet, however. For example, if you live near your veterinary clinic, stop in occasionally while on dog walks to get a treat from the front desk. Your vet might also spend a little time trying to earn your pet’s consent at the start of an appointment.
To find a vet who is well-versed in working with clients who are anxious or stressed at the clinic, search for a Fear Free Certified Practice or Professional in your area.
Exceptions to Consent
Our pets are curious individuals who can be oblivious to the dangers we navigate everyday. Making choices for our pets may be required in the best interest of the pet. A sharp tug on the leash to keep your dog from wandering into traffic, or lunging to grab an indoor cat from dashing out the door is all just part of being a responsible pet parent.
And though they can be less-than-fun for our pets, regular vet visits and for some breeds, trips to the groomer, can help our pets live longer, healthier lives.
In the case of the pinched pad thai, we had to pry it out of Fiver’s mouth—this, of course, after a request to “drop it.” Fiver simply had a hankering for our meal and he was not giving it up. But we’d made it too spicy for his sensitive stomach and respiratory condition, and we needed to intervene for the sake of his health and safety.
I’d like to believe he’s since forgiven me for not sharing our dinner. And in retrospect, it’s the unpredictable moments like these that define our relationship with our pets and remind us just what we would do to protect them
Of course, the image of Fiver with more noodles hanging from his jowls than he could ever hope to eat still elicits a fit of giggles.
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