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The Value of Non-Verbal Communication

By Angelica Steinker

There are clues that indicate Power placed on the bed he is not reaching for it or eating it (first clue), his ear is moved back (second clue), and he was tongue flicking (third clue, not pictured). In this case the social pressure of my reaching up over Power’s head and actually touching him is so overwhelming that he does not reach for the food. As soon as the person moved their hand away he grabbed the treat (fourth clue) © Angelica Steinker

Consent testing is an informal experiment which allows a dog to offer consent regarding a specific situation. Via her body language the dog communicates a yes or no response. This information is used to:

• Improve the quality of life of the dog.
• Improve a training plan.
• Make behavior modification more effective.
• Generally improve communication.

The yes or no is determined by assessing the dog’s body language and observing for distance increasing or distance decreasing behaviors. Distance increasing behaviors are considered a “no” and distance decreasing behaviors are considered a “yes.”

Conflicted behaviors are also a “no.” Consent tests are single choice tests as a dog can respond with a yes or no in any given situation. If consistently applied, consent testing creates a partnership with the dog, which is critically important, especially for dogs with behavior issues.

Consent testing is not something that should be taken personally and any feelings of rejection on the part of the owner or trainer have no place. After all, all yes results eventually lead to no and any no results may eventually lead to a yes. When a dog’s needs are met, it is called satiation. For example, a dog that is full will say no to food. This is not something to be taken personally, it is just information.

Benefits of Consent Testing

Consent testing is empowering because it allows a dog to communicate choice. If the communication gained is consistently honored it will increase one’s reinforcement history with the dog. Reinforcement history is science-talk for bond. Your bond will deepen because the dog gets a vote about what is happening.

By checking in with the dog regarding her preferences you are positively reinforcing clear communication. This empowers the dog which is, in turn, associated with you. That process increases your bond.

Consent testing creates a cycle which becomes self-reinforcing, and the process ultimately becomes fun for both you and your dog. By definition, consent testing improves communication but it also vastly improves behavior modification and training results. The trainer gets much clearer information about what will be effective and what will not.

A huge benefit to consent testing is that a dog has the chance to communicate proactively. This means she can tell you before something happens if she is okay with it or not. This is in stark contrast to most training advice, which focuses on manipulating what happens after something unwanted has happened.

This is a poor approach because it includes the unwanted behavior in the process. It can also lead to tragic results. For example, many dogs do not survive after they have bitten a human and most homes do not have the skills to handle a dog that has bitten.

Consent tests offer us information before a problem ever occurs. This is empowering to trainers, enabling them to make an educated decision about what situations a dog can be exposed to.

In the traditional model of how we interact with dogs, we often expose them to an event with no idea if it will be unpleasant or pleasant for them. Then, when the dog growls, lunges and/or bites, hurt feelings, and possibly injuries, ensue. This approach is a failure for all parties.

Conducting a Consent Test

dog training Reach consent test no
After giving the cue “reach,” the trainer reaches. Mo responds with “no” by not moving toward the hand or moving away © Angelica Steinker

Think of a consent test as asking a dog a question, to which the dog can respond “yes” or “no.” If the dog says “yes,” she will move toward the person, dog or item you are asking about. If she says “no,” she will move away.

A simple example is petting. Pet the dog and then withdraw your hand. Observe what the dog does. If she moves toward you and leans in, puts her head under your hand, or nuzzles you, that is a yes. If she moves away, that is a no. This information is about the dog and understanding what it is that she prefers in certain situations, settings and her life in general.

If a dog says no to petting, you can associate petting with meals and food to help her learn to enjoy it. Many rescue dogs or dogs that have an abuse history need to learn to enjoy physical touch.

As trainers, it is critical for us to see the big picture. By respecting the body language communication that our dogs offer, we make that body language more likely to occur. Being listened to reinforces a dog who is displaying body language that is congruent with her emotional state.

The alternative can range from minimally to extremely dangerous. Some dogs are punished for indicating no, and usually these dogs will go quiet or silent in their body language. This can create a dangerous dog, a dog that goes straight to biting, giving minimal warning signals – or none at all.

dog training Reach consent test yes
After giving the cue “reach,” the trainer reaches. Mo responds with “yes” by moving into the hand and making
contact. Consent could also be given by the dog using her paw to pull the hand closer, or she could communicate a “no” by pushing the hand away using her paw © Angelica Steinker

Human Language Board

If your dog understands consent testing, you can use yourself as a language board.

A language board is a board that lists images, shapes or words that are associated with food, water, activities and items. The animal that is communicating points at the image or symbol in order to ask for what is associated with that image or symbol. Primates use fingers to point, dogs use noses or paws. Dog language boards contain images for water, food, treat, walks, etc.

In a language board for dogs some of the images can be used for the dog to communicate what she wants, while some images represent trained behaviors.

However, using yourself as a language board is much simpler than training your dog to use one. All it means is that you consistently name activities that you engage in with the dog and then ask her if she wants to do that at the moment, e.g. do you want to go for a car ride? If the dog moves closer: yes, if the dog moves away: no.

Preference Testing

A preference test is another form of non-verbal communication that you can use to “talk” to dogs. In a preference test you provide access to two or more variables and then take note of what the dog appears to prefer.

It may seem tempting to set up a preference test between two owners to see whom the dog prefers, but I suggest avoiding this to prevent hurt feelings. Most dogs will go to the person that they have the most reinforcement history with, and this is something that can be changed. Play some more games and start hand feeding and the dog that just said she preferred your roommate is now all over you.

What can you use preference testing for? It is limited only by your imagination. You can preference test food, toys, location of bedding, location of walks and types of play.

Have fun doing preference experiments because regardless if this is a new dog or one you have known for years, there is always more to learn.

Cues as Consent Test

An interesting concept is to view every cue you give a dog as a consent test. For example, you ask a dog to sit in a highly distracting environment but she does not do it. You can view this as valuable information.

Scan the area and see if the dog is looking at something. This can provide valuable clues as to what she may find distracting or stress provoking. The no in this situation is valuable because of the data that it yields.

Cues are ideally viewed as requests, a request can be complied with or not. I teach my dogs a cue for going to say “hi” to people or other dogs. However, the deal my dogs and I make is that, if I say, “go say hi,” and they do not want to, then they do not have to. I will honor their decision.

My dogs have clear preferences about which dogs they would like to socialize with so the request of “go say hi” also applies to other dogs. My dogs are always empowered to decline a meeting another dog. Ideally all dogs would be enabled to communicate which dogs they want to say hi to.

You can take cues as a consent test to an even higher level by giving everything a name. For example, dogs that are sensitive about being touched or near moving people can hugely benefit from having each human movement labeled with a cue prior to the movement occurring.

Eye contact, reach, touch, pick up, human stand up, human sitting on couch, human walking, can all be named, thus giving the dog a heads up of what is about to happen and allowing her time to give consent.

Forcing with Food

It is a common misconception that training with food is always positive, but it is possible to force with food by offering it in a way that the dog is no longer feeling safe. This can be determined by evaluating the dog’s body language.

One can also observe that a dog is feeling forced when she hesitates to take the food lure or moves to another area considered safer after consuming the food.

For example, a trainer places food on the ground to encourage a dog to approach. The dog darts forward to eat the food and then moves three feet away from the trainer to an area that she considers “safe.” Ideally, the trainer will shift to the area of reinforcement the dog has selected to be effective.

Pay attention to the details of what the dog’s body does. A desensitization and counterconditioning protocol for example can fail if a dog does not feel safe, but using a poor skill set does not mean DS/CC does not work. Even if one dog compensates for poor training, do not assume all dogs will. As trainers, it is our task to train and coach to the highest skill level, not to take risky short cuts.

Forced Choice

Another concept to avoid is forced choice. This is similar to forcing with food but makes use of over-controlling the environment to the point where the dog is disempowered.

For example, a dog that strongly dislikes her crate is only fed in her crate, forcing her to make a choice: tolerate your crate or starve. But there are creative alternatives, such as taking the crate apart or gradually shaping the dog. Another example is dogs that are not given access to any toys unless they are playing with their trainer.

Scientifically this is called a closed economy and it is a form of force. Otto Fad, manager of the elephants at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, says that one of the first things he implemented when taking over this position was to give the elephants free access to food at all times.

If one of Fad’s elephants comes over to a trainer to work it is not because she is hungry, it is because she is freely choosing to play and/or train.

Open economy is, obviously, the opposite of a closed economy and while this does not mean we need to free feed our dogs, it is a good idea to be aware of and avoid over-restricting access to food, toys or any other desired stimuli. A forced choice is no choice.

Types of Preference Tests

Preference tests can be used to assess:

• Taste
• Touch – level of pressure, type of touch, duration of touch
• Bedding
• Toys
• Space
• Training
• Location of food
• Location of bedding
• Length of walks
• Location of walks
• Types of activities
• Type of play
• With whom to interact

Preference tests can be single choice such as, do you like your bed here? Or they can be concurrent choice such as, do you like this bed over here or this other bed in the other room?

Something interesting researchers found is that when a preference test is between two things the results are consistently reliable, but when you test preference between three or more things the results are not necessarily consistent. This is fascinating and may be because animals enjoy variety or because they may like different things about different items.

Researchers also found that when more than five things were presented at the same time results became less reliable, so it seems best if preference tests are kept to four items or less (Raffa, et al.).

Consent Tests and Fear

Conflicted body language, which indicates behaviors consistent with both yes and no, must be considered a no. Using conflicted body language as an indication of yes is risky and can completely undermine a behavior modification and training plan.

Most importantly, in such instances trainers are working with both behavior and emotions. If the emotional state is not ideal, trainers are chaining that into the outcome and, as canine behavior consultants, we owe it to our canine clients to improve their emotional states.

Consent Tests and Training Sessions

A dog to needs to be empowered to disengage and leave any training session. This does not mean we do not use leashes for safety but it does mean we avoid forcing participation.

Dogs choosing to train with us is a compliment and an indication that we are keeping training fun and interesting. If the dog does disengage the trainer needs to consider:

• The length of session
• Environmental stressors
• Toy choice
• Food choice
• Overall fun factor, etc.

Pattern Training

Pattern training refers to a respondent conditioning process by which the dog is “patterned” to perform a specific behavior. Scientists have found that when an animal has already learned a choice it can be hard for them to go against that choice even when it appears to be clear that conditions have changed. It is thus important to be aware that training can interfere with consent and preference testing (Grandin, et al.).

Can a well-trained dog still choose? This is an important ethical question. If you have done a good job training a dog to jump into the back of a car, does the dog jumping in really mean consent to a car ride? Do not confuse pattern training with consent.

Preference Testing Systems

The first preference test systems were designed by H.J.M. Blom who was the first person to create a simple Y- shaped structure that would allow an animal to choose one area over another.

Researchers painstakingly controlled for other factors like temperature, elevation and so on to ensure that both parts of the structure were exactly the same. They then measured duration to determine preference.

If all things are exactly the same but the animal spends more time in the area that has the softer bedding, then it is safe to assume that the softer bedding is preferred (Blom, et al.).

There is an actual study on dog preference by researchers Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne using a concurrent choice preference test to evaluate if dogs preferred petting or vocal praise.

The results were overwhelming. The dogs voted for petting, so the researchers titled the study, Shut up and pet me!

There is also something called free choice profiling. This type of scientific process is intriguing because it allows observers to make use of an experimental methodology that gives observers complete freedom in choosing their own descriptive terms.

The researchers then analyze the descriptive terms via a scientific process to standardize the descriptive terms. Results show that the observer’s terms have strong internal validity, meaning that observation of behavior used to assess an animal’s emotional state is likely to be accurate (F. Wemelsfelder, et al.).

Touch Preference Test

Using both of your hands you can touch two different body parts on a dog. Observe the dog’s body language to see which location she prefers. Distance decreasing behaviors such as leaning in are indications that that location is preferred.

You can use preference testing for physical touch for a variety of variables, some ideas include:

• Light pressure versus deep pressure.
• Duration of length of time of touch.
• Technique of touch stroking versus scratching.
• Moving with the grain of the hair or against.
• Moving your hand in a predictable pattern versus varying patterns.

Food Preference Test

Food preference tests are straightforward. Using two types of a food at a time you can present both simultaneously, then visually and tactically monitor the dog’s behavior. Which piece of food is snatched versus more politely taken? The snatched food is what the dog considers more highly valued.

If you notice that the preference test is not consistent, for example, when the dog picks food A one time and food B the next time, the preference being communicated may be variety or novelty. Observe the dog for eye popping behavior. Food that is considered more desirable often causes dogs to open their eyes more widely so look for this clue.

Toy Preference Test

As with the food preference testing, you can gauge preference by how hard the dog bites and holds onto the toy. The intensity of the grab and the duration of the holding on to the toy are all important clues.

How quickly the dog grabs the toy after it is first presented can also be an important clue. Using the front feet while mouthing the toy to pull it closer can be another strong indication of preference.

Location or Bedding Preference Test

Conducting a location preference test is again straightforward. Simply place the same type of bedding in two locations and see which one the dog prefers. Common patterns are for dogs to want to stay cool or seek warmth.

Try a location under the air conditioning vent and another location in the sun to see which bed your dog is more likely to pick. Some dogs are cool seeking to the point where they prefer to lay on tile rather than on soft bedding.

Another fun preference test is to experiment with different types of dog beds.

All dogs, and especially those with issues, require excellent self-care to minimize stress and maximize behavior training improvements. Use preference testing to help ideally customize a dog’s home life.

Preference Testing for Dog Sport Activities

If you play backyard games with your dog you can set up your area for different games and then allow the dog to choose which activity she wants to engage in by moving toward that area. You can set up a small obstacle course and boxes for a food searching game and let your dog choose which activity she wants to engage in at that time.

Preference Testing During Walks

During walks you can let your dog choose which path to take, to move to shaded areas or stay in the sun, and which type of substrate to walk on. You can also consent test time of day or type of weather for walks.

Not a Consent or Preference Test

Many dogs with issues will bark and lunge at other dogs, people or objects. It is important to understand this is not a consent or preference test.

A dog that is barking and lunging is stressed and is likely using this behavior to attempt to increase distance between herself and the feared stimulus. When a dog is highly stressed or agitated there is no time for consent or preference testing.

It is critical to remove the emotionally aroused dog from the situation and then analyze what led to this failure. It is critical to avoid exposures that stress a dog when engaging in a behavior training protocol.

Behavior Patterns of Needy Dogs

Dogs that experience anxiety often exhibit behavior that is consistent with frequent physical attention seeking. Anxious dogs can be considered clingy and needy by their owners, who can many times be drained by the dog’s constant need for comfort seeking.

It is important to not confuse behavior patterns consistent with anxiety with consent or preference testing. A dog that is giving consent is mentally and physically healthy. Prior to using consent and preference testing all medical issues, whether mental or physical, must be addressed.

Choices are Empowering and Fun

Almost all beings find it positively reinforcing to have choices. In particular, dogs with behavior issues can benefit tremendously from consent and preference testing.

Use the non-verbal communication systems of consent and preference testing in your interactions with dogs and, most importantly, teach your clients to use them. It can literally be life-saving when what is learned prevents a dog bite.

Ultimately, where does one draw the line in implementing consent testing? What is too much and what is not enough?

In dogs with behavior issues consent testing is imperative but, even in every day pet situations, it seems the use of as much consent testing as possible would be ideal because there are so many things, such as vet visits, nail trims, etc., that many dogs already experience as aversive.

Consent testing offers the opportunity for everyone to form partnerships with their dogs and to be able to listen to what they are saying.


Raffa, K. F., Havill, N.P., & Nordheim, E.V. (2002, November). How many choices can your test animal compare effectively? Oecologia,133, 3, 422-429

Grandin, T., Odde, K.G., Schultz, D.N., & Behrns, L.M. (1994). The reluctance of cattle to change a learned choice may confound preference tests. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 39, 21-28

Blom, H.J.M., Van Tintelen, G., Baumans, V., Van Den Broek, J., & Beynen, A.C. (1995). Development and application of a preference test system to evaluate housing conditions for laboratory rats. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 43, 279-290

Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures. Behavioral Processes, 110, 47-59

Wemelsfelder, F., Hunter, T.E.A., Mendl, M.T., & Lawrence, A.B. (2001). Assessing the ‘whole animal’: a free choice profiling approach. Animal Behaviour, 62, 209-220

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, January 2016, pp.26-31

Angelica Steinker M.Ed PCBC-A, president and founder of Courteous Canine, Inc., has specialized in dog training methods that create “Results the Fun Way” for more than 20 years. Using consent testing and empowerment training, she and her team have successfully trained thousands of puppies and adult dogs in basic manners/obedience, trick training, problem behavior modification, agility, dock jumping and other skills, all while increasing the bond of trust between dogs and their human companions.

She is also a published author in the field of dog training and agility. Her books, Agility Success: Training and Competing with Your Dog in the Winning Zone and Click and Play Agility, address the handler of the agility team and the use of clicker training techniques in the sport respectively, and emphasize the importance of playing and bonding in order to train agility behaviors to the highest level. Her newest project is on dog aggression, something she is particularly passionate about. Her current book Play Therapy for Dogs is due to be published this year and addresses how to use play to create optimum behavior change.

She a former member steering committee and founding member of the Pet Professional Guild, and co-founder and former faculty of DogNostics Career College. She has been published in the Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior and the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, and as a regular columnist in BARKS from the Guild, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ Chronicle of the Dog, and Clean Run. She is also a former advisory board member and faculty at the Companion Animal Sciences Institute (CASI) and a CASI dog behavior program graduate.

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