Day 24: Choice & Choosing – consent to touch

Welcome to Day 24 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!

Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.

Don’t forget to review all the information leading up to #100daysofenrichment and more here on playing safe. Know your dog!

Arlo is a little head shy so never really liked petting and cuddling. We develop a little choice ritual for these interactions, all on his terms within a beautiful dance of communication. I set a blanket up on his table and he would stand beside it, indicating he wanted up. I sat on the chair beside and he jumped up on my lap, then up on to the table on the blanket – no touching necessary. When I held out my hand, as above, he would rub his head or scratchy areas. Choice-led and consent-full!

Consent to Touch

At a glance:

  • giving dogs a say about what happens to them, in close-up contact with humans
  • social based enrichment
  • there are some areas where the great-species-divide is clear, and petting is certainly one that shines through in human-dog relationships
  • humans have a tendency to interpret others’ behaviour and intentions in ways that confirm our bias and attitude (the price of having a big, complex brain!) – we expect dogs to enjoy petting and touching…but do they…really?
  • this is one for the adults to establish, but those observations must be applied to child-dog interactions carefully
  • sit back, do some observation, do less touching; ask the dog

What do you need?

  • just you and your pet

Enrichment Goals:

  • to allow dogs a say in what happens to them in close contact with humans
  • to encourage dogs to choose and introduce choice into their day to day life
  • to improve awareness in human-dog communication
  • to help dogs opt in, or not, to touching, approaches, reaching, handling and petting from humans
  • to listen to the dog
  • to reduce conflicted and stress related behaviour (even mild) in human-dog interactions
  • to build that bond between dog and human

This falls into the social enrichment category but here lies many crossovers, including cognitive and sensory aspects.

During these activities, your observation skills and willingness to re-adjust your approach is what’s really being examined. Developing this awareness will enhance your relationship with your pet, boost trust and communication, and strengthen your understanding of one another’s preferences and individual comforts.

There’s no test at the end of this and you and your pet are not under any pressure. Learn to enjoy the time together, whether you achieve the goal behaviour or not. That’s what’s enriching here…the social and cognitive outlets such exercises provide (for both species).


Choice & Choosing

Throughout their day, dogs must make choices about which behaviours to demonstrate. For the most part, dogs would choose behaviours that we would probably not like so we ‘train’ in the hope that the dog will choose behaviours we prefer. This is why #100daysofenrichment is so important for dogs.

No matter what approach or attitude to teaching your dog you take, we are training the dog to choose our preference rather than theirs. We teach dogs to be less dog, so we can live with them. Getting to be more dog is the central tenet of #100daysofenrichment!

Reinforcing behaviours makes them happen more often so the dog is more likely to choose behaviours with a good reinforcement history. Punishing behaviours makes them happen less often so dogs learn to avoid choosing those behaviours.

Our dogs are learning to train their environment, including us humans. How easily trained are you?
Does your dog know how to get you to provide things he likes? Do you make it really easy for him to do that? He chooses behaviours that get you producing reinforcers.

Why we want to maximise reinforcement based approaches is so that our dog isn’t learning to avoid situations that produce punishers because them might include avoiding us.
I want dogs to enjoy choosing behaviours I like…it’s the least I can do, given they might actually prefer to do something else.

Life can’t offer free or even abundant choice; too much choice isn’t beneficial at all! But, where we can, I believe we owe it to dogs, who get so little choice about everything in their lives, to allow them to make some choices, learn that their behaviour makes a difference, and get to be more dog.

We have more Choice & Choosing challenges over the 100 days so this will be a theme we revisit.
Dogs and more so the choices they make is a central tenet of #100daysofenrichment – for enrichment to be enriching, the animal’s choices are prioritised and realised. Examples of how our challenges can be applied in choice provision, her: Forks in the road.

I have battled with and rambled on about choice in dog training before and continue to investigate the best ways to empower pets and other animals with whom we are in contact.
Susan Friedman has been talking about choice in animal teaching forever; choice is a primary reinforcer, she teaches, and that means that animals will naturally seek out situations where choice is available. If it’s evolved as a primary reinforcer (nature selects for this tendency) it’s pretty vitally important to animals, just as food, water, shelter and sex are.

What goals can you add to this list for your pets?

How can we achieve these goals?

  • think about the sorts of decisions your dog has to make in living in the human world; what are they basing those decisions on (what’s reinforcing the chosen option, what’s punishing the rejected options?)
  • observe the decisions your pet makes about approaching, interacting, seeking contact, the type of contact, and whether they are truly choosing to opt in, or not
  • based on those observations, how can we provide them better options to choose from?

What adjustments will you make for your pets?

(Link) Filming for this day’s challenge with my demo-dog extraordinaire…and he would rather play this game. What a wonderful expression of choice from a dog whose life has been filled with choice.  So we play his game – just because I am writing these resources, doesn’t mean he must perform; he didn’t choose this life.
Be more dog. Ask the dog. 

Applications of choice in touching:

No training exercises today, or complex puzzles. Today, we observe the dog, ask the dog, listen to the dog.
Very much like Day 4, we are going to do a lot of being together today.

We humans are primates, and with our opposable thumbs we are set up for gripping, hugging, petting, patting, massaging, scritching & scratching.
Dogs, in their social lives, have not evolved such appendages and as such all that primate stuff doesn’t really feature as part of their social interactions.

Then they came to live with us…

There is some mythic version of dogs that is rife in our culture, having all sorts of effects on the welfare of companion animals. Today we are going to talk about our belief that dogs want to be petted and patted, massaged and hugged, scritched and scratched.
So much so, culturally, we don’t even question this. We just pet the dog, we reach for them, we hug them, we physically manipulate and restrain them. We just expect the dog to put up with our primate ways, and to like it!

Today, I ask you to examine your tendencies, your expectations, your approach to touching your dog.

Dogs who know their choices count, can use behaviour to ask for relief, then can ask for things they need.
They don’t need to badger and they don’t need to aggress. Choices allow dogs to navigate the human world with confidence because they can control what happens to them.

It might seem like we are starting small but these little moves toward offering more choice can have a big effect.

You will be giving your dog a voice, allowing them to choose  plus providing a little bit more predictability and controlability. That’s what appropriate choice does – it busts stress and boosts confidence.

Enrichment Options

We often presume that our pets experience a good standard of welfare because they live a life similar to ours, in the human world. This is especially the case for pet dogs.


But, what would our dogs choose, if they had the choice?

Are they just tolerating our approaches and touching?

Are we blind to their requests for space and time in interactions?

Are we allowing them to choose to say no, to opt in/out to being touched, handled, manipulated?

All those primate social approaches are not really for dogs. Dogs as a species show affection and demonstrate social bonding in other ways, that are beautiful in their own rite.

While looking at species typical tendencies gives us some clues, we must also look at the individual’s preferences for answers. And to do that, we must ask the dog.

I have no doubt, if you are joining in on our project, you are doing a wonderful job at providing the best dog-life for your dog.
We can’t possibly offer our dogs all the choices, or indeed many options they would prefer, despite our best intentions. But we can certainly offer them better choices – two crappy options are no better than no choice at all.

So, today, our mission is to find our dogs better choices by asking them. Giving them the option to choose, and making sure their choices are meaningful. Their behaviour matters. Today, we ask the dog.


Despite dogs and humans not sharing identical approaches to expressing affection, we certainly share similar etiquette in social interactions. We just do it slightly differently.

When humans greet one another, we lean in, extend a hand, bare our teeth, make direct eye contact.
Pretty much the opposite to what dogs consider appropriate for greetings; dogs will avert their gaze, round out their body, approach aiming for cheek-to-cheek presentation, keep their body parts of themselves, sniff genitals.
If we were to greet other humans with any of that carry on…well…things would get awkward…

If, when we meet new people, we were to spend a lot of time touching them, moving our hands over their body…it would be inappropriate. Our lean in and handshake in greetings are very brief; any longer than a couple of seconds and it’s uncomfortable.

We don’t do that when greeting new people, and dogs don’t do it when greeting new dogs…why do we expect dogs to tolerate this from new humans?


That clip is from a workshop with some A Dog’s Life fosters and dogs
(Starring Romi and Patch, now in happy homes).

When greeting dogs, first ask, does the dog really want a full-on-body-contact-greeting. For the most part, dogs won’t want this.

Greetings among dogs are high-octane affairs. Dogs who are happy and friendly toward one another, will involve quite a bit of movement in greeting. They might circle, their might have a bendy body with a lowered back end, and their tail may be moving lower and fast. Loose and waggly usually indicates less tension.

But dogs don’t make interpretations easy. Frenetic movement, even low and waggly, may indicate some internal conflict and the first fidgety layer of stress related behaviour in dogs.

stress signals

Decker is a good example of this. He is a compulsive greeter – must see the people…they’ve come here to see me, right?!

He will grab a toy or any other item, run enthusiastically toward them, very low rapid wag and back end, flat ears, small eyes but he is moving and moving and moving. He is all about the new person, delighted that they have visited, but he keeps moving.
Despite that he has no personal space bubble (zero), he doesn’t want to be touched by the new people.
And of course, what does every try to do? Touch him, hug him, pet him, massage him.
What does he do? Keep on movin’.

His behaviour is likely stress related (stress can be good and bad). It’s certainly arousal related. He grabs a toy or item to hold to have something in his mouth; this is probably calming for dogs. The toy and the game he will draw the visitor into, is a good way of controlling the interaction.
He’s moving, which may act as a release and provides him distance from touch.

He’s probably experiencing some internal – want to be with them and interact, doesn’t want the touching. Wants to meet n greet but also wants to calm from the excitement.

He doesn’t aggress, he doesn’t freeze, he doesn’t show any signs of escalated stress (so-called distance increasing signaling) but he’s pretty clear. So much so, it’s a bit of a test I use with our new students – we cover this in detail: “Does he really want to be petted?” They are learning to ask the dog.

Practice greetings:

Whether you are greeting your own pet or some other dog, first ask, do they want to be petted?

In all the excitement associated with greetings, it’s probably more that the dog wants to bask in your presence, dance in joy, or avoid close contact altogether. Give them time and space to get this excitement out of their system.

When that’s done, think about an appropriate greeting:

  • move away from the dog and see if they approach you
  • no luring, no calling, just give them the opportunity to choose
  • if they approach, keep your hands to yourself
  • all them choose how they will interact, position themselves, and move
  • don’t loom, lean back and only lower if it’s safe
  • touch gently, with one or two fingers, the part of their body closet to your hand – usually their side, shoulder or lower back, if moving
  • apply a little scritching motion for no more than a three-count
  • withdraw and ask them if they would like that to happen again
  • repeat and then leave it be

Talk to them, make soft and brief eye contact, be happy. Doesn’t require touching though.

Please note this is for dogs presenting friendly signalling. If the dog doesn’t approach in a soft, waggly manner, no greeting.

Let ’em choose

When you meet a dog for the first time, or even with a familiar dog, how do you know they want to be touched?

When you bend and reach out toward them, what do you expect them to feel about this interaction?

How would you know how they feel?

Practice 3-count interactions:

This one is for all interactions with all dogs, even dogs you know and love. We are asking them and giving them the opportunity to opt in and refuse.

  • as for greetings, allow the dog approach you
  • remember, just because they come over, doesn’t mean touching is what they’re in to
  • pet with a couple of fingers (one hand only at a time) on the body area closest to your hand
  • count to three and withdraw
  • wait for the dog to let you know if they would like a repeat


I particularly emphasise this with puppy-people. Everyone wants to greet adorable puppies and because puppies appear tolerant, it’s presumed that they want to be hugged and mauled by every passer by who has taken a shine.

Again, culturally, we assume puppy enjoys this. We expect that.
Puppies are picked up, physically manipulated, hugged and petted because we can. Then we complain about puppy biting and puppy teeth. Puppies come to expect that hands mean mauling and puppy says no!


Touch-free Zones

On Day 10, we talked about providing choice in resting places for our dogs. You can add some more choice to this, in combination with today’s challenge.

Make your dog’s bed a touch-free zone. Decker’s beds are touch-free, approach-free, disturbance-free zones. If he goes there, the deal is, I leave him to it.

We might play and he might take himself off to his bed with his toy. That’s fine. That’s the game he wants to play. He might lie down and chew it, maybe he just wants a break or a rest. Doesn’t matter. Hassle-free zone.

This is taught over time, with good management. I prevent ‘stealing’ and he learns that he has his stuff, and it’s awesome, so no need for other stuff. We don’t have problems with this because I have been diligent, particularly for his first 18 months.

But even if the dog does get something, regardless of where he goes, I don’t pursue. I go in the other direction and create an irresistible diversion there. Dog is redirected, I can reclaim the item. All is cool and calm.

Allowing him his own space doesn’t turn him into a demon. He’s safe and sound, he can make choices and he can communicate his needs clearly.


No touching?

When we start talking about this, people get really worried. Can’t I touch my pet? See? he enjoys it?!

Nobody is saying you can’t or shouldn’t touch your pet. For the most part, dogs learn to tolerate and some enjoy our primate ways. But, we can do better. We can ask the dog.

Today is about finding out what sort of touching your dog really likes. You might be able to make observations about their choices and likes, just by greeting appropriately and letting ’em choose.

Clip This fantastic choice is easily communicated and easily understood. Invasive and personal handling can be easily turned on and off, by choice. 

While allo-grooming is common in some species, especially primates and birds, dogs do things differently. Or it certainly appears different when viewed through our human lens.

Dog-dog interactions are not about NO touching, but they do involve very specific types of touching (just like human-human interactions). Dogs who are bonded and comfortable with one another, lie or rest with one another, and sometimes on one another. They often lie back to back, they often like to pile up or spoon.
This sort of contact may be heat related but it should never be underestimated in terms of social bonding. This is communication; it’s communicating a feeling of togetherness, support, safety. This is enough for dogs, indeed it can be everything for dogs.

Dog-dog interactions also involve a lot of choosing and allowing choice. Appropriate interactions, especially among unfamiliar dogs, will involve tons of breaks in contact, asking, opting in and out. That’s what most play bows and other meta-signals, are all about.

Be more dog. Ask the dog.


Find the touching that your dog craves:

Maybe your dog has a magic spot (a scratchy spot) that makes them go weak at the knees.


Many dogs find having their lower abdomen massaged gently pleasant. It’s generally thinner of hair and you have skin-skin contact.

This clip shows our choose-to-touch work. The session goes on as long as he chooses so it’s pretty long here.
Can you spot how I ask him? Can you spot how he answers? Can you spot how I listen?

Asked and answered:


Maybe you and your pet have a little ritual.

He lines up, I massage, he licks my chin, I massage, he leans in, I massage. (Link)

For the most part, dogs don’t want hugging, looming, leaning from humans. But they might opt in to some close up contact, if they have been given the opportunity to opt out.

Regardless, we still ask. Touch for a three count and ask the dog.

Lost in Translation

Misinterpretation is often at the heart of these breakdowns in communication and there are lots of commonly misunderstood dog behaviours.

In close contact situations:

  • a wagging tail is often presumed to be a sign of a happy dog…well, tail wagging is not necessarily happiness and more so arousal, so things could go either way.
    The way the tail is wagging and its combination with other body parts, along with context will give us more information.
  • licking – dogs lick for all sorts of reasons, and affection is probably closer to the bottom of the list than the top.
    Jennifer Shryock, founder of Family Paws, coined the phrase Kiss to Dismiss to describe some licking; she explains in more detail here.
  • being “fine” – people use that word, generally, to describe when their dog is still, quiet, biddable, apparently calm in some situation that usually involves some sort of social interaction or pressure.
    Dogs are easy to intimidate, even unintentionally, and they go still and biddable quickly when the social pressure is turned on.
    Have happy, waggly, loose in your mind as your baseline – if your dog isn’t acting like their normal silly, lively selves, they are probably overwhelmed by the situation.
    Staying still, freezing, shutting down indicates a pretty considerable level of stress.
    Often followed by a shake off, movement, jumping, or displacement like scratching or sudden sniffing.
  • jumping up – this can happen for all sorts of reasons, outside of greetings. Greeting jumping usually involves front legs up.
    Arousal jumping looks different; the dog might jump up, straight in the air, little contact with the person, or they may slam their chest into the human.
    The dog is looking for relief, possibly from the environment, from the interaction
  • belly up – we tend to believe that a dog presenting his belly is looking for a belly-rub, and while many dogs do learn to do this because they enjoy this contact, in dog and in greetings, belly-up is a request for relief. It is often accompanied by peeing and this is further indicative of the high arousal and loss of inhibitory control the dog is experiencing.

For more on canine signaling, I really like these two clips; they are clear, concise, simple but detailed, at the same time: here and here.


Petting as reinforcement

First, let’s be clear here. Something is only reinforcing if it strengthens behaviour. And the learner, in this case the dog, gets to decide when and if something is reinforcing.

What’s more, we can only tell if something is reinforcing if we review and see that there has been an overall increase in some behaviour.

There has been a little bit of research looking at the effectiveness of petting as reinforcement, versus other things like food rewards, and for the most part, dogs don’t find that type of contact as worth working for as food. There are lots of caveats to this, of course.

In my experience, to generate behaviour quickly in training situations, we need something more strongly reinforcing for the vast majority of dogs. I have worked with thousands of dogs over three decades and I have met maybe two dogs where petting, human contact and engagement were consistently reinforcing, across many behaviours being learned, in a variety of situations.
Everyone else works consistently for other things; things we term reinforcers (because they reinforce behaviour).

There is some reluctance to have dogs working for food rewards, over time, and many pet owners want their dog working to access their affection and approval. This is based in further misunderstanding, often, about how dogs and humans get along (and how behaviour works).

More on using food in training here.

So, people will pet their dog when the dog performs and may give a food reward before or after the petting. What I see more often than not, is the reinforcement of behaviour, but that behaviour is usually ducking or avoidance. The dog doesn’t want the fussing, they want to get to repeat a behaviour to earn the real reinforcer…the thing that’s really reinforcing.

First find out what sort of petting and touching your dog chooses and then you can assess whether they want to work for it.

Check out our goofy engagement filled session – very little touching but a whole lotta joy! (Link)

Engagement is our goal and it’s attainable, but there’s lots of work to be done. We will talk about engagement and getting started over the 100 days. With engagement established, the presence of food isn’t the central focus…choosing interaction is.

Your challenge

Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!

Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂

We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!


Lying on you, leaning against you, resting beside you is a choice. Doesn’t mean they necessarily want primate-style touching though. We still must ask the dog.