Dogs, Kids, & Consent
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

I recently had a conversation with a father whose dog has recently begun snapping at his four year old daughter. The dog, a high-strung herding breed, had always done some normal "herding" type stuff like nipping at the girl when she was running around the home, but had now in two instances actually snapped towards the daughter's face. So what were the circumstances?


In the first, both parents had left the room, and the daughter closed the dog into her playroom and attempted to hug her, resulting in a bite on the face.


In the second, the parents had hoped to reintroduce gentle petting as a means of engagement between the two. While the dog was laying on her bed, Mom began petting, and allowed the daughter to do the same. The dog immediately snapped at the daughter, but Mom was fast enough to hold her back and prevent contact.


Now, if you've read my Grumble/Growl Zone post, you'll know one of the reasons why neither of these situations was appropriate. But, putting aside the lack of escape, and handling the dog on her resting place, what else is missing from these interactions?


Consent.


There's a Family Paws saying that perfectly sums it up - "Invites decrease bites." When we invite our dogs to interact with us, or our kids, we are giving them an opportunity to say, "No, thanks!" Having that option is HUGE.


Dogs are more likely to choose to engage more often when they know they can opt out at any time. Why? Because they have agency. Imagine being invited to a family member's house. You like spending time with them, but it can be a little draining. If you know you're going to be stuck there all night, how likely are you to accept the invitation? Probably a lot less likely than if you know you can wrap things up and head out when you're ready to do so!


Don't get me wrong, I get it. It can be hard to have a dog that wants very little to do with your little ones! Just like this well-intentioned family, we want to "show" our dogs that the experience is enjoyable or "not that bad." But by forcing them into something they aren't ready for, they are less likely to engage next time. Instead, giving them a chance to opt in or out makes them more likely to feel comfortable trying out different kinds of interaction, knowing that they can end it when they're ready.


But this is also a GREAT learning opportunity! Consent is a big buzz word right now, and not only in the dog community. Teaching our children not only that "no means no" but also that ONLY an enthusiastic yes means yes goes way beyond the realm of the sexual. Being aware of consent is a great skill to have in play and friendship, as well as in interacting with family members and animals. For example, many children struggle with learning when it's appropriate to hug their friends, to play physically, to tickle, etc. And these skills carry through life.


Using our dogs is a great opportunity to begin having these discussions. Not only will our kids benefit in their human/human interactions, but they'll have safer interactions with strange dogs, too, when out in the world.