In a Human World: Consent, Autonomy, and the Emotional Wellness of Companion Dogs
The human-dog interspecies relationship is unique: dogs and humans have evolved alongside one another, sharing the same environmental niche for thousands of years. Dogs have the ability to interpret our slightest gestures, read our facial expressions, and respond to the subtle tones in our voice. Because of these invaluable abilities, dogs have been bred selectively to benefit our needs. Despite this, not all human-dog relationships are positive. In order to understand why some relationships fail, it is important to first disentangle the underpinnings of how these relationships affect all members. Most social science–oriented research focuses on the benefits of pet ownership for humans. In contrast, most ethological studies examining canine behaviour do not include the human member or household dynamic as confounding variables. In order to understand why some relationships negatively impact dogs, we need to be able to create a connection between cognitive behavioural studies and social science as a way to address such vexing ethical terrain. To do so, we need to understand what social constructions of “the dog” look like, and the impact our interactions have on dogs in order to improve their welfare.
Considering the utility of merging methodologies that use social science and cognitive behavioural research, we can begin to address the societal norms surrounding dogs and our treatment of them, and the interjection of knowledge used to facilitate an augmentation of both consent and autonomy. Consent implies that permission is granted for a particular action to take pace. In other words, a dog must be a willing participant in the action or event, generally mediated by a human member. Autonomy, on the other hand, refers to someone who is capable of making rational and informed decisions on their own behalf. Similar to children, we are aware that dogs lack the forethought needed to live a fully autonomous life within a human-dog relationship and within urban infrastructure. However, it is beneficial to respect that dogs are not children; they are in fact fully formed adults for the majority of their time living with us. Keep in mind, there are dogs that do live independently of humans, either as village/street dogs or feral dogs, as well as wild living relatives.
The ethical issues of autonomy arise around welfare, as well as the laws that govern pet-keeping. And we are responsible to keep our pets safe, cared-for, and happy. But does this come at a price for our dogs? How much “dogness” must they give up in order to live in a human household? I’m not sure we can disentangle the vexing ethical issues of autonomy, but perhaps volition is something that should be considered, by providing and respecting more of the choices our pets make. Clearly, nonhuman animals cannot comprehend and express their subjective interests in the same way autonomous adult humans can. We can teach our dogs to make choices that reflect their safety, while granting them the ability to consent to or decline an action. When it comes down to it, we need to accept our dogs for the fully formed adult animals that they are, and respect their ability to make choices and consent to their interactions with others. We also need to be able to respect the choices a dog may make, as much as possible. And we as humans need to commit to creating a world where autonomous individuals can have more of their choices respected.
Consent is one issue that can and should be addressed in our daily interactions with our dogs. In fact, it should be included as a part of the definition of humane training and regarded as fundamental for improving welfare. It should become common practice in veterinary clinics, taught to children, and practiced in training schools, and should happen, at the very least, within the home. In order for consent to occur, there is an implication that a two-way conversation must occur. But what does this really mean? Since dogs do not have a literal voice, we need to focus on what this should look like. Consent can happen naturally (a side glance and step away when someone goes to pat an unwilling recipient). It can also be learned. We can teach our dogs to be active participants in their own environment. A great example is the Fear Free Pets movement, whose “mission is to prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress in pets by inspiring and educating the people who care for them.” The movement has an important philosophy of allowing nonhuman animals to learn they have a choice in whether they participate in something they may not normally choose for themselves. Most often this involves an entirely necessary procedure, such as a nail trim or medical treatment. These are decisions that our dogs do not have the rationality or prudence to weigh the consequences of, but that we, as humans, are able to judge as necessary for good welfare.
It is important to note that learned consent is still a power struggle between actor and agent, and can still create some conflict. The choice, though present and compassionate, is still: cooperate in order to get the reward, or don’t cooperate and don’t get anything. We are, however, taking away the force component and the fear of the unknown. This undoubtedly is the best plan of action to allow our dogs to have a choice to participate in a necessary action for their own benefit. However, it does not address autonomy, and it is still a learned form of consent. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for this approach, and use this type of system regularly when working with my own dog and clients’ dogs. It is what makes our restrictions of natural behaviours more ethical. It certainly reduces stress and is perhaps our best option for providing a system for our companion animals to consent with a clear two-way conversation. It also educates people about the incredibly important things that our dogs are telling us through their body signals, something we need to spend more time educating the general population about.
Who is “the dog”?
The incredible innate abilities dogs have developed living with humans in the past 12,000+ years have undoubtedly been exploited. We have bred dogs to suit our needs, for their aesthetic value or utility. We have taken away from them what it means to be a dog by injecting our morals and values of what society deems a dog should be. Any dog that falls outside this realm of normalcy needs “fixing.” Dogs are often expected to obey, love unconditionally, and want to please. Think of how many times you have needed to explain to a client that dogs need some form of positive reinforcement because they do not, and should not, perform out of unconditional love and simple willingness to please.
Society has shaped our view of “the dog.” Many dogs are expected to stay isolated all day as our busy lifestyles dictate their seclusion and isolation. A dog should be polite, calm, socialize well with other dogs, and never bark or whine. And we haven’t even touched on the fallacy of pack theory, and the expectation of tolerance. In the book Dominance and Affection, Tuan (1984) says: “The pet… must learn to be immobile—to be as unobtrusive as a piece of furniture. The single most important trick taught to a dog is instant obedience to the order ‘sit’ or ‘lie down.’ … The ability to stay put is a necessity in a hunting dog and it is clearly a great convenience to humans in a busy, modern household, where time is tightly organized.” This may be a tad divisive, but in my experience it really isn’t so far from the reality and expectations of many dog-human households.
There is a famous quote by Robert Caras that frequently makes the rounds on social media sites: “Dogs might just be a small part of our lives, but for them, we are their whole lives.” This truth resounds in that pets are in fact our “captives” in a human-dominated world, as difficult as that is to admit. It is a hard pill to swallow, since many humans (myself included) love their pets as though they are children (Blouin, 2015), and certainly as a part of the family (HABRI, 2016). However, regimented lifestyles and outdated and inhumane training methods create a plethora of emotional wellness problems. As many of us are well aware, there are enough behaviour-related issues in dogs, including anxiety, aggression, and reactivity, to keep our schedules full.
Humans tend to supress a lot of behaviors that gratify our dogs, such as digging, barking, and even running at will. Most of this is, of course, for their safety, and a result of the laws put in place to further control the nonhuman population. In order to live with humans, dogs have to compromise many of their own desires and needs. In doing so, dogs lose much of their ability to choose to operate as they may otherwise see beneficial or inherently rewarding without human-mediated actions. Wellbeing can be affected as we attempt to shape and design our dogs to fit into our socially constructed normative default dog format: quiet, obedient, beautiful, and fun when it suits our schedule.
What is pleasing to us is not necessarily on our dog’s agenda of natural wants and needs. Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff (2019) discuss in their new book, Unleashing Your Dog, the clash between human culture and dog culture. Respect for dog culture means placing value on decisions a dog makes of their own volition without human interference (for example, digging, running free from the restraints of a leash, or eating something unfavourable), as well as valuing decisions that are human-mediated, such as choosing to cooperate in a nail trim for a food reward.
Some of the choices a dog makes may not be socially acceptable (for example, barking). However, we do have the ability to create options for our dogs that allow for desirable outcomes from the human point of view too, through management and training of certain behaviours like a strong recall, for example.
It is considerably difficult to view the world through the eyes (or nose) of a dog. We are human, after all, which carries an inherent bias. But we have to train our brains to ask questions such as: “What is my dog telling me?” “From watching my dog’s daily agenda, what would my dog prefer?” And additionally, “If I cannot permit my dog X freedom, perhaps Y freedom would be a good alternative,” or even, “How can I potentially grant X freedom in the future?”
With our growing knowledge of canine behaviour, let’s not forget the intention we bring to each interaction, how we can provide as much autonomy as possible within our confines, and how we can work to increase autonomy through learning and practicing the foundational skills that help our dogs navigate this human-centric world? Consent can then follow suit, but only through educating our clients, dog professionals, and society as a whole that at the most fundamental level, a dog should have the choice whether to interact, stop to sniff, or say hello when both parties feel comfortable and are willing to do so.
Erin has a passion for the nonhuman animals in our lives and continues to learn and share her knowledge of how to improve the lives of our canine companions through compassion and cooperative communication. Erin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) through the CCPDT and a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant (CDBC) through the IAABC. Erin works for Journey Dog Training as a writer and online course instructor, and also runs the Merit Dog Project, a private behaviour consultation practice and education platform in Christchurch, New Zealand. Erin moved to New Zealand from Canada early in 2019 to complete her PhD at the University of Canterbury – New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies. Her research focuses on the human-dog relationship and social constructs surrounding the dog, and how this influences the adoption of humane training. Erin and her husband currently live in Christchurch, New Zealand, with their dog, Juno.