Consent and Willingness of Animals to Engage with Us

by | Feb 1, 2020 | Animal Behavior, Human-animal bond, Human-animal interventions, Animal welfare

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Tracie Faa-Thompson, co-creator of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® and coauthor of the award-winning book of the same name, builds relationship with two of her horses by scratching the hard-to-reach areas and watching their reactions carefully.

As awareness of animal sentience grows, more people are interested in learning how to create more reciprocity in their relationships with their animal companions. There are many ways to accomplish this, but our focus in this blogpost is on acquiring consent from animals: Are they willing, completely of their own accord, to do what we are asking them to do? Here we look at a very useful approach as well as some great resources.

Seeking Consent

At its simplest, consent refers to getting another’s permission or agreement to do something. With people, we can ask in words, and in most cases, as long as they don’t feel undue pressure to answer in a specific way, others will tell us if they are interested or not. The concept quickly gets complicated, though, because we have to be prepared for a negative response. Sometimes others say “no!” Perhaps the first step toward seeking consent from another, be they human or nonhuman animals, is an attitudinal one–we must be ready and willing to accept whatever answer we get.

The second step is to ask authentically. This authenticity needs to show in our words (for humans), voice intonation, and body language. We must convey our inner state of genuinely wanting to know the answer, whatever it is. A friend of mine who lives in a crowded old town neighborhood thought it would be fun to take her dogs along to visit another friend’s rural property with large fields, but her dogs skidded to a stop when she opened the car door, refusing to get into the car. She was disappointed, but she needed to listen to what her dogs seemed to be conveying with that behavior. Of course, they wouldn’t know that she was  taking them to a great location, but they had just told her that one critical element of this exciting day wasn’t working for them–getting into the car. Their reasons could be several: they haven’t learned to ride in the car comfortably; they associate the car with visits to unpleasant places; they are tired and look forward to relaxing in the sun at home. At that moment, however, if my friend really wanted to obtain their consent, she had to listen and then think about what might make it possible for her to take her dogs in the future, but not that day.

Another consideration in gaining consent is the animal’s history with people. If they have lived under a cloud of coercion in their daily lives, or their needs and choices have been routinely ignored, they might be unable to give consent. If they have learned through prior life experiences that what they communicate doesn’t matter, they might have entered a state of resignation, or worse, learned helplessness. To ask the animal’s consent in these cases, work must be done to und0 this learning history of disregard of the animal’s choices. How to do that is a subject for another day.

These dogs in a herding rescue come in with many different life experiences. Prior interactions with people can influence how an animal responds to consent tests. If they have experienced learned helplessness due to their history with people, they might go along, but without enthusiasm or real choice. That is not true consent.

Perhaps one of the most important skills we need in order to seek consent is to observe our animals without interpretation–to see them as they are rather than as we wish they would be. This is a skill taught in our Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) courses, in our AAPT book, and in greater depth in Tracie Faa-Thompson’s and my forthcoming book on relationships with animals. Closely related to this is the ability to read animal body language well, a skill that takes practice. There are many useful resources for this, as mentioned in my prior blog, The Animal’s Point of View in Animal Assisted Interventions (January 22, 2020),  click here.

Recently there have been a variety of new “techniques” for determining consent coming out of the training community, and while they are interesting, there are also simpler ways. Eric Brad, CPDT-KA, in his recent Canine Nation Blog (January 15, 2020) tackled this subject and pointed to the importance of observing our animals well. His thoughts are well worth the read here:

Here I am asking Kirrie if she wants to demonstrate one of her trained behaviors during a presentation at a local university. She displays her attentiveness and interest at the sound of the cue words. What body language do you see that conveys this?

How Do We Know What Animals Want?

Animals are always communicating. They are expressing themselves as they move through the world, and they communicate with conspecifics, animals of other species, and us. The main problem, perhaps, is that we don’t listen very well. We live our busy lives, check our mobile devices, engage in conversations with our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. We are aware of our animals’ presence in our lives and enjoy our activities or downtime with them, but where we usually can improve is in our ability to be fully present with them–to give them our full attention at least some of the time.

If we strengthen our attention and our awareness, we begin to see just how much they are communicating with us. If we learn their body language, we begin to develop the means by which we can understand what they are communicating in real time. We read individual parts of the body, the body as a whole, and the context surrounding the animal at that moment. We develop hypotheses as we put all that together. We can then test those hypotheses or simply observe more often. As Eric Brad mentions in his aforementioned blog, there are some communications, as shown in animals’ body language that we probably understand even without training. If we give the animals freedom to move however and wherever they wish, if they move away, we understand that (a) whatever we have just done was not of interest or even unpleasant, and/or (b) there is something of greater interest in the direction in which they move.

Whether or not you know equine body language, take a look at the cover picture (included again below):

What do you notice about the Gypsy Cob on the left? Do you think the horse likes the scratching? What specific aspects of his body give you that impression? You might notice his head in a relaxed downward position turned toward Tracie, his tail hanging straight down, his stance, and the fact that he could walk away at any moment, but doesn’t. Now take a look at the Arab on the right. What do you notice about his body language? His ears are forward, his eye appears relaxed with the lid partially lowered, he has moved in close, his stance is leaning forward, he appears to be using his nostrils, and his tail is moving in a relaxed position. Even though we must be cautious when looking at still photographs, we can still form the hypothesis from all of these observations that the Arab is interested in what is going on.

How Do We Ask?

Asking authentically for the animal’s preferences is sometimes referred to as “consent testing,” although this term is sometimes used in other ways. Consent testing refers to the process in which we engage in a behavior with the animal for a short period and then stop and watch for the animal’s reactions. This is sometimes called the 3-second rule because we often conduct our behavior for 3 seconds and then stop. If the animal stays with us, nudges or paws us, or otherwise seeks more, we then repeat the behavior for another 3 to 5 seconds. After it becomes clear from the animal’s body language that he or she likes it, we can remove the time limitations and offer more of the behavior. On the other hand, if we perform the behavior for 3 seconds and the animal moves away, it is likely that the animal (a) doesn’t like the behavior, (b) has another idea for that moment, or (c) perhaps doesn’t like some smaller aspect of the behavior (for example, the animal likes being scratched, but the pressure is too hard or light).

The following excellent video, Petting Consent Tests (Dogkind Channel on YouTube, November 28, 2018) shows this process in action: video.  I wish everyone who lives and works with animals could see it! Another very useful video is Does Your Dog REALLY Want to Be Petted? (Eileenanddogs Channel on YouTube, August 29, 2012), video. These both focus on dogs, but the same process can be used with many other species.

Use of Consent Tests with Fearful Animals

This process can be used with very fearful animals, although adaptations are usually required. In my experiences with formerly-feral Katie, I used consent testing a lot, even though I don’t think I knew it by that name at the time. For those unfamiliar with Katie’s story, she came from a puppy mill into the rescue where I have volunteered for a long time. She immediately climbed a very high fence and lived in the woods by herself for 2 months when she was 6 to 8 months old until she was recaptured. I took her on as a foster to try to help, and she eventually decided to stay with us. She was exceptionally fearful of everything and everyone–people, dogs, movement, a single leaf drifting to the ground. She refused to eat or drink even when we put down tasty things for her and left the house. We did a variety of things to help her overcome fear and build trust, but there was a central principle that we applied to all interactions, and that is one of consent or willingness. In essence, we were asking the question, “Can you do this?” or “Is this okay?”

Each time that I shifted something in her environment, usually designed to create more safety for her, I stopped and watched her reaction. She had no positive behavioral reactions to anything (her focus was always on escape), but she was very clear when something was unpleasant for her, moving or running away, exhibiting numerous stress signals such as extreme panting, whale eye, look aways, turn aways, leaning away, hunkering down in a corner as far away as possible to name a few. She also had a more neutral reaction, where she remained in position and didn’t show stress signals. So I would use the 3-second test with her, watch for her reaction, and then adjust. If she had a negative reaction as evidenced by the behaviors described above, I didn’t perform my own behavior again and looked for a way to adjust it. If she remained neutral, I took it as a “that’s okay” sign. For example, if I was 12 feet away and knelt down to the floor, and if she moved away or showed stress signals, I moved farther away and/or placed myself lower. I quickly learned that the only acceptable position for me in the early weeks was to lie prone on the floor 15 feet away, facing away from her. She remained neutral when I did that. Interestingly, after four months and some gradual changes to the environment, including my behavior, she gave me her first affirmative sign. I was lying on the couch and she ran by me so that her back touched my dangling hand. Our lives consisted of this process for a long time, and she gradually gave me more signs of consent–standing closer, approaching me for a quick sniff if I sat with my back to her, accepting food that I tossed behind or off to the side of her (I never try to lure fearful dogs closer).

In early days, Katie showed many stress signals around people, dogs, and anything that moved. What stress signals do you see here?

This entire process was about listening to her and waiting for signs of consent, specific behaviors that indicated what she was able to cope with, and perhaps even curiosity as shown in her approach-behaviors. Over time and with lots of this careful effort, she chose to spend more and more time with the family. She began to enjoy our touch. We continued to use consent testing to ensure we avoided anything that would be frightening for her. Much of her behavioral feedback to us was related to our body positions and movements. While this process was designed to help her develop positive associations with people (classical conditioning), it involved no food (other than leaving her meals) until a bit later in the process because she showed us that the appearance of a person with food was scary to her. It involved listening to her communications and adjusting our behavior and the environment until she showed that she was willing to be with us.

Katie grew in confidence the more we listened to her communications (body language) and went at her pace. Here there are a number of signals that could be interpreted as confidence – what are they?

She overcame most of her fears and began seeking touch, barking excitedly when she wanted to go out, and even voluntarily walking into the middle of one of my AAPT training groups comprised of 12 strangers. While I was able, after the early months, to do more formal training with her for specific behaviors, our relationship was grounded in this process of building consent, listening to her choices, and waiting or adjusting the environment. Interestingly, when we first began conducting short periods of positive-reinforcement-based training, she showed me that she was willing to engage in it only when she was standing on a bed, later consenting to it when she was at floor level. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know. I have some ideas, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I paid attention to what she was communicating and together we found a way for it to work.

The following video is dark, but it depicts consent testing for scratching Katie around her head. She does show some stress signals because she disliked the camera pointing toward her, but it also shows her reactions to the scratching. After this minute, I put the camera away and continued with the scratches and stopped intermittently for her reactions. The stress signals disappeared immediately (hence, together with past interactions, my claim that the camera was the likely source of stress), and the nudging continued, yet another example of consent testing that yielded a “no” to the camera and a “yes” to the scratches. She didn’t need to be taught to do this – I  was the one who had to learn to listen!

With apologies for the dark lighting, this shows consent testing with formerly feral Katie. Through her behavior she communicates her stress with the camera and her interest in further scratches. She was free to walk away at any time.

Willingness to Engage in Animal Assisted Interventions

It should be part of any Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) program to ensure that the animals are willing to engage in the work at any given time. Just because an animal consents to work with clients one day does not mean that this consent will be there the next day. In our AAPT book (VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017, Animal Assisted Play Therapy, Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press), Tracie and I discuss at length our approach to ensure that animals actually enjoy the work we invite them to do. There are times when they simply don’t show signs of wanting to engage with clients, though, and then it is our job to work with clients to help them handle whatever feelings are a result of the animal’s choice. This often yields some rich therapeutic material.

Some of Tracie’s horses have chosen to stay with the new people (workshop participants) they have just met, while the pony has said a quick hello and headed off to pursue something on his own agenda.

It can be valuable to teach clients in AAI how to engage in consent testing, too. It helps them attend to the needs of another and to show empathy, skills that can transfer to human relationships, too. Gaining consent amounts to a conversation where there is give-and-take between both parties.

Tracie, a training group, and I had just met these horses while conducting a workshop in the U.S. several years ago. The horses were relatively disinterested in us at first, perhaps due to their past interactions with people being largely about being ridden. Here, Tracie demonstrated consent testing with one, checking on his reactions to scratches of different parts of his body and differing  degrees of pressure. Eventually he began bobbing his head and then swinging his head around as shown, seemingly giving his approval and consent. What body signals is he displaying?

Ensuring that animals consent and participate voluntarily is one of the hallmarks of AAPT. We learn to read the body language of the animals and species with whom we work, and how to attend to it as we ask for various behaviors at all times. Listening to our therapy partners is not a “sometimes” thing. Fortunately, the more one listens, the more one learns, and that learning is fascinating in terms of the individual animal as well as our relationship with him or her.

Just as I was finishing this blog, I saw a video posted online by one of the Certified Animal Assisted Play Therapists (CAAPT) in our program, Lisa Mink McGowan. She was engaging in consent testing with a young donkey. I wrote to ask her permission, as well as that of the sanctuary where the donkey resides (Jennefer Lawson – see caption for info), and they both generously provided it. This is an excellent example of the communication that occurs between human and animal in the process of asking consent. Lisa is asking the question, “Do you like to be scratched like this?” Watch the video and see how clear you think the answer is!

This excellent example of consent testing with 2-year-old mini-donkey Piper features Lisa Mink McGowan, LMFT, RPT-S, CAAPT. Piper is part of the nonprofit Healing Hearts Farm Sanctuary in Tehachapi, California and owned by Jennefer Lawson, LMFT. Permission to share this video was granted by both Lisa and Jennefer–thanks to you both!


*Animal Assisted Play Therapy is a trademark of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc. and its International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®.


Author VanFleet asks Border Collie Dirk, newly arrived at Pat McCann’s rescue where Risë has volunteered for many years, what he would like to do. He replied by going to get one of the toys lying in the vicinity.

Author: Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC (licensed psychologist, registered play therapist/supervisor, certified dog behavior consultant), co-creator with Tracie Faa-Thompson of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® is shown as she gets acquainted with a newly arrived dog at the rescue where she volunteers.

The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® offers online and live training courses for those interested in the many aspects of involving animals in a voluntary and reciprocal way in their mental health, allied health, and education services.

Article and photos © 2020, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, All rights reserved.