Updated: May 3
by: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Canine body language is a tricky thing. Common knowledge of its meaning often is not true or lacks the necessary complexity. Such as a wagging tail meaning that a dog is friendly. A sweeping tail with broad strokes at mid-line with loose relaxed body language would indicate a happy, friendly dog. A tucked tailed that is wagging with tense body language and ears pinned back to the neck would indicate a nervous dog. A dog with a tail up like a flag that is wagging in narrow strokes in a stiff tall-dog posture, hackles raised, is on alert and moving forward toward the target, and likely not friendly. There is more to tell from tails based on speed of the wags, height and width of the strokes combined with other body language signals.
Like body language in people, body language in dogs is complex and has to be looked at in its entirety to understand meaning and intent. A person smiling is not always happy. If that smile is accompanied by relaxed body language, glowing cheeks, and infectious voice the person may in fact be happy. But people smile while crying, or fake a smile when around people they do not like, which would likely feature tense, more guarded body movements. Body language is not simple to decipher in humans or dogs!
This week, I want to focus on the idea of "consent" with dogs. This is a hot topic in the training world, with trainers teaching exercises where dogs will supposedly "consent" to having a blood draw, or nails being groomed, eye drops being applied, etc. Unfortunately, calling this "consent" is misleading and I think it is not productive at helping dogs to get what they need from us. Dogs are not in any position of power. In fact, dogs have very little control of their lives. We decide when they eat, where they defecate and when they have opportunities to do so, who their friends are, when they see them, when and how they exercise, etc. We hold all the cards by controlling all the resources so a dog is never in a free position to say "no". So how can a dog truly consent? The relationship is imbalanced, somewhat similar to parent-child. Can a minor consent to go on a trip across the country with an adult who isn't the parent? Can a minor consent to sex?
What we are looking for is to make them as comfort and relaxed as possible with these things that need to be done, and to have cooperation. We teach them individual steps of the process of these procedures so that they are an active participant who is highly rewarded for their participation. This can be helpful, but what is most important is looking for body language signs where a dog is showing avoidance. This indicates that the dog is not comfortable with a procedure being done, or does not see it as worthwhile. With nail trimming, that could be the dog attempting to move away, or giving whale eye, dilated eyes, lip licking, nipping at the groomer's hands, etc. We want our dogs to be as comfortable as possible -- and we can train to that standard -- but I would not call it "consent". The dog did not wake up and decide he wanted his nails trimmed, or agree upon a time and place to have it done. He cannot choose to leave entirely if he does not like it. So, let's not pretend they have more control when they in fact do not. We are seeking to reduce stress to the animal and allow choice, where we can take breaks if needed during the process of a grooming or medical procedure.
I always look to maximize his comfort and take note of their preferences because I want a dog who feels like his communication matters. As we all know, some things have to be done for which we cannot prepare. A couple months ago, my 2 year old Kooikerhondje, Gilgamesh, tore his dew claw on his front left leg. The veterinarian needed to trim it down to the base, as it was dangling. He was in intense pain and did not want this done. His eyes were dilated and wide-eyed, his body cowering, ears pinned back, panting heavily. He was in pain and stressed. At this point, he did not care about food. He had to be held so the veterinarian could trim the nail. They gave him a pain medication injection and attempted to make him as comfortable as possible with low stress handling. Given his body language they gave him additional pain medication for the next few days. I don't think he would have chosen to have this done even though it was his best interest. Kind of like a child, he is in my charge, so I am making decisions with his best interest in mind.
Learning to read our dogs communication allows us to have a conversation with our dogs to make adjustments. Our team or a credentialed trainer in your area can work with you to counter-condition your dog to grooming and other procedures to help make him comfortable. This is great to start with new puppies, but you can do this with dogs of any age. If I see a dog is becoming overwhelmed and stressed, I encourage anyone to back off and take a break to play, pet, or do something else with your dog. Then come back to it later when your dog is more relaxed. You can also increase the value or frequency of rewards to make it worth it, such as using a lickimat with spray cheese while applying ear drops instead of just giving a treat at the end. Sometimes, we need to make whatever it is we are asking of the dog simpler. Instead of giving one treat per nail clipped try rewarding the dog when you pick up the paw and touch nail, but not actually clipping. Creating positive associations with our touch also builds trust with us. With practice and attentiveness, we can become more fluent in their communication with us and have a more cooperative and fruitful relationship.