If we are asking an animal to do something then we generally expect them to do it. There’s a really strong feeling (and I’m not only talking of aversive trainers) that humans are in charge and animals have to do as we say. I argue that it doesn’t have to be this way.
I first came across the notion of allowing an animal to say no during a university lecture many years ago. A lecturer mentioned that Ken Ramirez was working on a no behaviour so that animals could indicate a no signal rather than feeling compelled to follow a behaviour cue or ignore it. At the time, this puzzled me, why would we want an animal to say no? I thought this to be quite bizarre! Over the following year, as my brain pondered the information, my attitude softened somewhat; although I considered it ethically sound, I still believed that teaching animals a no (I don’t want to do that) signal would be complex and too much for most trainers or clients, who, after all, are looking for compliance.
I was wrong. It took a Susan Friedman seminar to show me that I’d been overthinking the concept. We can teach animals a way of saying no very easily. I think we can do it simply by having an awareness and respect for what they are trying to tell us rather than the, you will do it because I said so, attitude.
Why does it matter so much for animals to say no? It matters because it is important to the animal. If it’s important to them then, as good guardians, it should also be important to us. It’s incredibly arrogant for us humans to dismiss the feelings of an animal and remove their ability to make choices. It may sound like a whimsical idea but the whole function of behaviour is to allow animals (including humans) the ability to perform rewarding (reinforcing) behaviours and avoid aversive stimuli. To remove choice is akin to ignoring the past 4 billion years of evolution; every life form ever known responds to appetitive or aversive stimuli.
As we can’t all be the training genius, Ken Ramirez, how might us mortals allow animals to say no?
Imagine you pick up a puppy (or small dog) and he struggles. Our impulse is often to hold the puppy more tightly. In actual fact, if we were to put the puppy down at the first hint of a wriggle he would learn that to get down he only needs to give a slight wriggle. In the long run, the ability to get down when he wishes is more likely to make him not mind being picked up. Contrast this with the dog who is tightly held on to; he may become very averse to being picked up because he knows there is no way out. This may well result in behaviour problems, such as nipping the human.
There must be hundreds of similar applications where we actually get more of what we want by allowing the animal to say, no thank you, I’m not too comfortable with this. Of course, we need to keep our animal friends safe and that must be our priority, but if we can safely give a choice then I think it’s our duty to do so.
Until next time, take care of yourself and take care of your animal companions.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behaviour: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read