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The Art and Science of Consent Testing

By Angelica Steinker

Dog leaning into man
When a dog is leaning into a person to initiate closer contact it indicates a “yes” © Can Stock Photo / miss_j

Consent testing is the process of observing a dog’s body language to see if he is fine with whatever environmental change has been presented to him. It can be used informally or formally. Informal use would be during play or social interactions, when two dogs or a dog and a human are interacting.

All the tester needs to do is observe if each party wants to interact. Formal consent testing is when a situation is staged and whereby the tester determines the dog’s desire to interact or not by observing body language.

Body language that is distance-decreasing is considered to be a yes, I want to interact. Body language that is distance-increasing is considered a no, I do not want to interact.

Consent testing allows the dog to say yes or no to situations and interactions.

Consent Testing Uses:

  • Socialization: Use consent testing during socialization to avoid flooding. Flooding is when socialization exposure ceases to be fun and begins to be stressful. Flooding is not a part of socialization and ideally is minimized. It is not something that a professional uses intentionally.
  • Behavior Modification: Many problems in behavior modification occur because of accidental flooding. By using consent testing, accidental flooding can be avoided and programs based on counterconditioning and desensitization are much more likely to be successful.
  • Building Reinforcement History: Simply put, a dog who is allowed to say yes or no and who is supported in his decision is going to form a stronger bond with his trainer and owner than a dog who is accidentally or deliberately flooded.
  • Pet Therapy Visits: Individuals engaging in pet therapy with their dog will be more successful at minimizing stress and maximizing fun if consent testing is used at all times during all visits. If a dog says no, a handler can simply state that the dog needs a bathroom break.
  • Dog Sports: Not every sport or dog sport situation is for every dog; you should empower the dog you are working with to be able to say yes or no.

How to Consent Test

To perform a consent test, simply expose the dog to another dog, person or situation and observe his response. A dog who is meeting another dog and immediately turns away is saying no, I would rather not meet this dog. This communication needs to be accepted and distance between the two dogs needs to be increased. If the two dogs need to be integrated this process can be done gradually.

When a dog is meeting someone new, observe his body language to determine if he wants to interact with this person or not. If the person is touching the dog, this interaction can be stopped and the dog’s reaction can be observed: does the dog move closer to the person and reinitiate contact? That is a yes. Or does the dog turn away from the person and engage in another activity? That is a no.

When entering a room or area, does the dog readily continue into the space? That is a yes, I want to go there. Or does he turn 180 degrees to head back to where he came from? That is a no, I don’t want to go there.

Forcing a dog to engage in contact with another dog, person or area he is not comfortable with may predispose him to develop issues that can range from fear to full blown aggression. It is important to not take it personally if a dog says no to interacting with you or your dog. It is not personal, but it is very useful information.

To accurately interpret a consent test you must be able to observe the dog being tested for distance-increasing or distance-decreasing behaviors. Behaviors intended to increase distance function as a no response to the consent test while behaviors intended to decrease distance function as a yes.

Common Distance-Increasing Behaviors

Some common distance-increasing behaviors are:

  • Tongue flick
  • 90 degree head turn away from person, dog or object
  • 180 degree body turn away
  • Backing away
  • Stress gulp
  • Freezing
  • Breath holding
  • Tail wag with straight spine
  • False smile with whale eye

It is important to know the dog you are consent testing well or to be highly experienced with consent testing to be able to accurately interpret a yes or no. If you are not sure about the body language you are observing assume the dog is saying no. If you want to learn more consider enrolling in a course on canine communication.

Common Distance-Decreasing Behaviors

Some common distance-decreasing behaviors are:

  • Snuggling up to the dog or person
  • Licking the dog or person
  • Gently nuzzling the dog or person
  • Play bowing
  • Freezing and then rapidly unfreezing with a soft spine
  • Tail wag with a soft spine
  • Happy facial expression with almond eyes
  • Moving toward the dog or person

Some of the signals are the same for both lists; this may seem confusing, and that is because it is. Reading dogs’ body language is something that is scientifically proven to be influenced by experience. In general, the more years you have been around dogs the more accurately you will be able to read their body language.

State of Conflict

Some dogs feel two things at the same time. It is not uncommon, especially for herding breeds, to exhibit both distance-increasing and distance-decreasing behaviors at the same time. These dogs will approach, lick and then retreat. Conflicted body language must be interpreted as a no.

Consent testing improves your communication, reinforcement history and ultimately the results of your work. Just say yes to consent testing!

Cognizant behavior consulting (CBC) is an approach that provides behavior consultants and their clients with guidelines that create boundaries and establish ethics. CBC deals directly with the emotional components of behavior consulting. It focuses on the needs of both the client and the dog in order to improve their emotional states. 

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, pp.52-53.


About the Author
Angelica Steinker PCBC-A owns and operates Courteous Canine, Inc., a full service pet business and dog school specializing in aggression and dog sports in Tampa, Florida.

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