Thursday, February 25, 2016

Bad Touch

I have this really crazy idea that my dogs should be allowed a certain degree of body autonomy. I know this is radical, but stay with me here. Body autonomy is a pretty progressive concept with human children as well, but it's one worth considering. The basic idea is that your body is your own, and you have the right to determine how people touch you.

How does this pertain to dogs? Well, they already think they should have body autonomy. When a dog is uncomfortable with another dog intruding on their space, they make it known through body language by stiffening up, lifting a lip, growling, or maybe even snapping. This is not an attempt to "exert dominance" or "be the boss". It is not "being mean". It's just communication, the only way a dog has to say "I'm not comfortable with that".

Dogs also tell people that they are not comfortable with intrusions into their personal space, or having their bodies handled in certain ways. Unfortunately, most people don't seem to be listening. Many think they are listening, but get the wrong message entirely. So much of canine communication with humans is viewed as disrespect, or bad behavior without any further thought expended on the matter.

I feel extremely lucky to have very sensitive dogs that do a fantastic job of letting me know what they are and aren't cool with. They are also tough as nails and will not back down from a confrontation, so using force to get my way is likely to get both of us injured and/or traumatized. Australian cattle dogs are very mouthy dogs, and Brisbane and Sisci will both gently mouth my hand to let me know when I've reached their limits. If I try to force the issue, they will start nipping and eventually would probably actually bite me. I could overpower them, but that would end with a sad, fearful dog that gives no warning before they bite

Of course, it is absolutely necessary to physically handle our dogs sometimes. We have to provide grooming and medical care, and sometimes just move them from one place to another for their own well-being. How do we respect their body autonomy while accomplishing all of that? By simply listening, and asking permission whenever possible before touching a dog that is asking not to be touched.

My dogs and I agree that it's rude to walk up and grab someone with no warning. A lot of dogs have learned that a hand grabbing their collar means bad things, so they stiffen up, back up, or even mouth the grabbing hand. This isn't disrespect, it just means "That's scary, please stop." However, leading a dog via a hand on their collar is very effective when they need to be moved and don't understand where to go. When I handle skittish or mouthy dogs, I make an effort to reach around the bottom or side of their head instead of over the top where they'll find hands threatening. Move slowly, pet their shoulder or chest a little bit, and then gently take the collar and apply the minimum pressure required to get them moving. This says "I know you don't like this so let me show you that it isn't scary and show you what I want you to do."

Likewise, with any sort of touching, I try my best to read body language and respect the signals I see. If a small dog needs to be picked up and gets stiff and growly, I slow down and pet non-threatening areas until they relax a little before trying to scoop them up.

The same idea goes for grooming and handling for medical reasons. When I have a dog on the grooming table for a nail trim, I always talk to them and ask permission to touch. "Can I see your foot?" with a hand running from their shoulder down to their paw instead of just abruptly grabbing their leg. This seems like basic decency, but I see far too many people handling dogs like they have every right to do whatever they like. 

Body autonomy for dogs only goes so far, and ultimately we humans have to do what we have to do. Still, I think we owe it to them to pay attention when they politely tell us they don't like being handled in certain ways. It's our job to help them feel at ease, and teach them via counter-conditioning and just plain respectful handling that it's not so scary after all.

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