Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)
Did you ask for their consent first?
The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.
But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?
It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.
A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.
To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.
As dog-respecting humans, we should:
- Not pet dogs we don’t know
- Never pick up dogs we don’t know
- “Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
- Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
- Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
- Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
- Not allow others to pick up our dogs
- “Ask” our dogs before picking them up
We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.
Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.
Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.
Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!