Jul 27 / Teresa Tyler

The Three C’s: Choice, Consent & Compliance.

Perhaps there should have been a fourth as controversy often surrounds the use of these words in relation to training animals. I wonder why they are so controversial though. I begin by taking a look the dictionary definitions.

Choice: an act of choosing between two or more possibilities.
Consent: permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.
Compliance: the act of obeying an order, rule, or request.

To me these definitions are pretty clear, yet they cause huge discussions about what they are and how much animals should or shouldn’t perform them in any given situation. I shall give some examples. I was walking with five of my dogs yesterday and we crossed a shallow river as part of our journey. On the way back, we retraced our steps back across the river, yet one of the dogs decided to stay on the far side to carry on sniffing a scent he had detected. The rest of us carried on and once over the other side, I called him. He came running towards me, stopped at the river and then decided to run along the far bank because to him it was more interesting. He was exhibiting choice and not complying with my request. To some this would be seen as disobedience, but for me I saw him as a dog who was feeling confident and safe enough to make a choice. He crossed when he felt ready and caught up with us.

Let’s consider another example. A dog is taken to the vet for a routine blood test. The dog has to sit still and allow a strange human to restrain him (hopefully minimally) and then another stranger to stick a hypodermic needle into his leg or neck to draw a blood sample. Is this dog consenting or complying? Does he have a choice? Should he have a choice? Is compliance a demonstration of consent? Can dogs even give consent?

The ethics of consent and choice in dogs have been debated for years. As someone who enjoys observing dog behaviour, it is quite clear that dogs do consent or otherwise with each other and with humans, especially when it comes to things such as touch, play or sharing valuable resources. I can see this communication through their body language. Dogs who are not consenting to touch for example, will stiffen, look away, move away, will change facial expression, move ears, eyes tail etc. An individual’s repertoire of language can soon be learned through careful observation. Those that do consent will invite it with relax posture, soft eyes and maybe even ask for more touch by nudging or pawing.

Choices should be allowed and encouraged, why not? Unless the dog is in a dangerous situation of course. Allowing dogs to express choice is empowering and gives them some freedom in the human world we choose to impose on them. In wild settings, dogs make choices all the time; when to play, eat, mate, sleep, all the things that companion dogs have very little choice in as we usually control these for them, to suit ourselves. Off-leash walks, play with other dogs and allowing dogs to exercise choice gives them the freedom to be dogs. When this is does not happen, a dog can lose the ability to feel secure in her own decision making and place within group settings, potentially creating problems.

To me these definitions are pretty clear, yet they cause huge discussions about what they are and how much animals should or shouldn’t perform them in any given situation.

A final note on compliance. Compliance isn’t always a choice to consent. It can be a conditioned response or an act that happens because the dog feels there is no other choice. Seeing dogs choosing to comply because they want to is very different.

I hope that when we consider dogs in human environments we become more mindful of the importance of choice and consent, more respectful of dogs’ freedoms and actively try to empower them to show their preferences through choice.