On consent and choices in dog training


“When people take part in research, scientists must ensure they give informed consent. When the participants are pets, owners give consent on their behalf: they understand the risks of the research and they have the right to end their participation at any time (e.g. if they feel their dog is stressed). We can’t ask animals about their feelings, but scientists have several ways they give the pets a choice.” Zazie Todd, Companion Animal Psychology

Unlike humans, dogs can’t sign an informed consent form prior to training. It’s up to us to determine whether our dogs are stressed, fearful, need a break, or need clearer instructions to make training successful and enjoyable.

One common way to determine whether the dog is saying “yes” to more training is via a “consent” test. When given the choice to walk away or say “no more training,” what does the dog do? Consent tests are important, but as I continually remind clients, we want more than just consent. We want a no-holds-barred “yes!” to the following questions:

  • Is the dog still approaching happily?
  • Is the dog comfortable at all times?
  • Is there a +CER (positive conditioned emotional response) to the training setup?
  • Is the dog asking for more training?

A huge factor in whether we have a dog’s consent or an enthusiastic “yes!” to more training is choice. We can’t always give completely free choice in training. (Remember, as trainers, we can control the amount of distractions, availability of reinforcers, and other antecedent set-ups.) But we can be mindful of a dog’s internal state, environment and preferences, and incorporate these factors into our training protocols as best we can.

For example, we can adjust for how long we train and the chances of the the dog being successful through criteria set-ups. We can also ensure that, more than simply availability of choice, a dog has favorable choices to choose from.

After all, just because a dog has choice doesn’t imply that dog is relaxed, enjoying the training, and feeling emotionally safe. If he must choose between option A and option B, but option B is aversive or scary, he may have a choice, but it’s not necessarily a good choice.

“When a dog retracts, retreats or refuses, the dog has made their choice.  The dog is saying, ‘A sucks.’  Communication goes two ways.  We can respond to the dog’s message that ‘A sucks’ through our actions. I can continue doing the same thing, justifying it by saying that the dog is free to leave.I can change what I am doing, so the dog no longer wants to leave.” – Yvette Van Veen, Awesome Dogs

Training isn’t a fixed point in time, but a continual adjustment in how we interact with the dog’s needs, preferences and the environment. When it comes to choice, the following questions are always in play:

  • Is the choice forced?
  • How much choice?
  • Are any of the options aversive to the dog?

If we find ourselves in a training setup where a dog has limited or unfavorable choices, or where a dog is walking away from the training session, we shouldn’t keep pushing. Ignoring these red flags leads to eroding +CERs and increased stress during the training session, both of which affect behavioral outcomes.

The bottom line: Don’t simply look for “consent.” Adjust your training so the dog gives an enthusiastic “yes!” to the training set-up each step of the way.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.