Tiro Miller PhD
“I believe the future involves more than just allowing the learner to opt in and to opt out (though that’s pretty cool, it has been around for a while). The future includes asking for the learner’s active permission to start, and to continue, with training. To direct the choices that are made about what is trained, for how long and under what circumstances. The future weaves choice and consent through all aspects of training, behavior work and competition. The future includes using active consent as a reinforcer in and of itself – the right to walk away as a significant part of the reinforcement package and the right to continue as a valued reinforcer – in and of itself. Reinforced by the choice to participate in the activity – kind of amazing really.” – Denise Fenzi1
The vision of a more respectful future with our canine partners that Denise Fenzi outlines in this quote is, thankfully, becoming more prevalent in the dog training and sheltering world. As trainers, shelter personnel, and behavior consultants increasingly see dogs as students, partners, and companions rather than tools, accessories, or “furbabies,” they are coming to grips with ideas of consent, rights, and respect.2 I believe that the most interesting and useful formulations of these concepts, however, are going unnoticed by the trainers and behavior consultants who might care about them the most.
The reason for this is that these conceptions are being developed by “animal rights people,” who are unfortunately misrepresented as a group of extremists who want to abolish dogs forever, and therefore are ignored by some of the people who could benefit most from their work.3 But not all animal rights advocates are against pet-keeping, and many academics working on animal rights are self-described dog lovers. In this article, I will explain how one theory of rights for dogs, developed by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka in a series of publications, can help us make sense of ideas like consent and agency, as well as provide a stronger justification for what many of the progressive dog training community are already doing to improve the lives of dogs and their human companions.
What dog trainers can learn from consent scholarship
Dog trainers have developed an understanding of consent that mirrors some of the latest human-centered scholarship on the issue. One of the key shared elements is that respect-worthy consent doesn’t require the kind of complex self-reflective cognitive abilities that many people believe are necessary for a being to have moral standing. Most people understand that it is good to respect the consent of children and humans with profound intellectual disabilities; progressive dog trainers would add dogs, cats, and wild animals to that list. Dogs do not have to be able to explain why they don’t want to do something for their consent to matter, they only need to communicate that they do not want to do it.
Another shared focus of dog trainers and animal rights scholarship is the cost of choosing to walk away. Dog trainers and behavior consultants understand how to set up contingencies that make an individual much more likely to choose a behavior the human desires than one they don’t. We understand differential reinforcement and extinction, and, hopefully, we’re sensitive enough to a dog’s attempts to communicate and express their preferences that we can make doing the right thing desirable and fun. In recent times, as Denise Fenzi talks about in the quote above, the conversation has expanded to a discussion of what happens if the dog doesn’t want to do the right thing. What does it mean for a dog to choose to walk away from training? How much pressure can we put on them to change their minds before we have crossed the line into coercion? If the cost of saying “no” is prohibitive, then is saying “yes” really something ethically meaningful?
Joseph Fischel has discussed the cost of saying no in his legal scholarship on consent in children and people with profound cognitive disabilities.4 He argues that if there is a power imbalance such that the individual giving consent believes that saying “no” will lead to serious harm, either physically or psychologically, directly (e.g., violence) or indirectly (e.g., neglect, abandonment), then consent cannot be used as a justification for why an act is not wrong. Consent makes an intervention ethical only if the individual giving consent feels like they are safe to say no.
Dog trainers and behavior consultants have to be particularly sensitive to these insights about power, because even positive reinforcement training can stray into coercion.5 Dogs kept in homes as pets are dependent on their human caregivers for their survival. If a dog believes (or rather, if we have good reason to think they believe) that they will be abandoned, injured, or otherwise significantly harmed if they walk away, then their consent doesn’t make what we’re doing good for them, or right for us.
From consent to rights
Respecting consent means understanding that the dog in front of us has the right to walk away, and the right to feel safe doing so. To understand what it means for a dog to have a right to consent, we need an understanding of what it means to be someone whose consent should matter to us. When we acknowledge that we need to respect someone’s consent, we recognize them as being able to flourish as an individual, and having the right to make decisions about what their lives should be like.
I’m not going to go too deeply into the question of whether and why dogs have rights, but I will include a few of my favorite resources on modern animal rights theory at the end of this article. To be very brief, animal rights theory starts from the premise that every living creature with a unique, subjective point of view on the world matters morally in the same basic way. Anyone with a life that can go well or poorly, who has the capacity for hope, desire, disappointment — in short, anyone with the traits that we see in our dogs every day, that make them such beloved companions — should expect to be considered as part of “who matters.” This is true of all humans regardless of their abilities, and should be true of all animals regardless of theirs. If we care about doing what’s right, about acting in a way that promotes justice and flourishing, and steers us away from cruelty and suffering, then we have no good reason to exclude nonhuman animals from our moral worldview. Learning to listen and respect consent wherever it can be given is good for the individuals who are expressing themselves, and it’s good for their caregivers and the rest of society too — paternalism and oppression harms everyone involved, albeit in different ways.6
I want to explore what it means for dogs and humans for us to accept that there are some things that dogs have a right to expect from their human companions and from the communities they have been brought into. But first, let’s make one thing clear: Believing animals have rights does not mean believing animals should be treated the same as humans, or that every interaction between a human and an animal is morally suspect. Many dog trainers express concern about “animal rights people” telling them that their dogs are living miserable lives, comparing them to enslaved humans, or even that dogs as a species should not be allowed to exist at all.7 This extreme abolitionist view, that says that there is no ethical way for humans and dogs to live together, is understandably horrifying to anyone who lives with and loves dogs, and ultimately self-defeating for the animal rights movement.8
It is possible to be committed to animal rights without disengaging completely from the dog world and from relationships with dogs. Indeed, as Barbara Smuts puts it, we feel the presence of another self in an animal more profoundly than simply knowing it is there.9 For many animal behavior professionals and many animal rights activists, our first spark of genuine connection with an animal came through our relationship with a companion dog.2 It is because we recognized an individual nonhuman animal’s self that we became committed to making the world a better place for dogs and their human families. Instead of turning our backs on the idea that that moment had moral significance — for the sake of misplaced scientific reductionism,10 or out of embarrassment at our emotional vulnerability — we should lean into it and never forget how it felt to look into a dog’s eyes and feel there was someone there.
Against the abolitionist viewpoint
While some animal rights activists’ claims about how dogs are treated are based on uncomfortable truths about oppression and paternalism, the abolitionist point of view is not the only conclusion we can draw from the premise that dogs are the sorts of beings who matter morally. In fact, giving dogs the respect they deserve means bringing them more completely into society, not abandoning them or allowing them to become extinct.
“There is no reason to assume that the remedy to the original injustice of domestication is to extinguish domesticated species. Indeed, we might well think that this abolitionist proposal compounds the original injustice, since it can only be achieved by coercively restricting domesticated animals further (e.g., by preventing them from reproducing). The remedy, rather, is to include them as members and citizens of the community.”11
Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have developed a theory of animal rights that argues against abolitionism, by working from a conception of relational rights and community membership.11,12 Whatever we think about the morality of domesticating a wild animal species as humans did to canids in the distant past, dogs now live as part of our communities. While our duties to wild animals are best summed up as “let them live freely in their own communities,” for domesticated animals like dogs, their community is our society. They rely on us, and we have a special set of obligations to them because, to be blunt, we made them this way. Finding a more just and kind way to live with companion dogs does not mean disconnecting from our relationships with them. In fact, it means finding new modes of living with them that are less oppressive and, hopefully, more complex and joyful. This starts with bringing dogs more fully into society — giving them social recognition.
Social recognition for dogs
Although we still have a very long way to go before most people accept that dogs have rights that ought to be protected by society, we are already seeing signs of a huge shift in the public’s perception of their dogs. Pet dogs are increasingly being seen as members of the family rather than property — animal law scholars cite a number of legal cases around divorce, dog bites, and inheritance where petitioners have demanded that dogs be treated in the same way as a human child.13,14
Families and communities have obligations to their members — things that their members have the right to expect, like medical care, sufficient food, and species-specific enrichment. Dog trainers and behavior consultants know this because we are often brought in not just because a dog is behaving in a way that disturbs humans, but also because our clients feel a sense of responsibility to help their dog flourish at home.
We don’t have to claim that dogs are full legal persons in order to argue that they are not property. Even though personhood is the goal of most animal rights theory, Kymlicka’s included, recognizing the rights of dogs as social members is still an important step forward. Social recognition is a way to understand both how we should respond to dogs as one intelligent creature capable of love to another, and to explain how we already view dogs as more than just things.
Bringing dogs more explicitly into our society as fellow community members is not a simple thing to do. Perhaps the most fundamental change it would require is for humans to believe that they have an obligation to listen to dogs and to respect them when they communicate. That doesn’t mean we have to do everything they say (nobody is advocating that we install a canine dictatorship!) but it does mean that, like with humans, we should only restrict their freedom to choose what happens to them if we have a good reason to do so.
Dog trainers and behavior consultants can already understand a great deal of what dogs want and why. We can play the role of interpreter and advocate for dogs, working to create more suitable family dynamics and home environments for them as well as teaching them to fit in and express themselves in a socially appropriate way.
Beyond a general obligation to respect dogs as members of our mixed human-animal society, Donaldson and Kymlicka outline three areas where our treatment of dogs needs to change: socialization, training, and accessibility.
Socialization is the process by which a young animal learns the behaviors that are acceptable in their community. The American Veterinary Medical Association defines socialization as “the process of preparing a dog or cat to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places and activities.” With the advent of Puppy Culture and other early-stage socialization programs, much more attention is being paid to socialization by dog breeders than ever before. Dog trainers also have specialized classes for puppies, some highly structured and others more free-form, and a number of studies have shown them to be effective in promoting social integration and preventing behavioral problems.15,16
In their book Zoopolis, Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that if we are to respect dogs as fellow citizens, we need to develop relationships with them that are not oppressive and paternalistic. Adult dogs are not “furbabies,” and classing them as perpetual children gives humans license to dominate and override their wishes in a way that is incompatible with recognition as co-citizens (p. 125). They go on to argue that socialization needs to focus on giving puppies the scaffolding to navigate the world with as much agency as possible, so they don’t need to be subject to constant restriction and confinement.
Progressive dog culture is working hard to create individuals who are able to flourish in a mixed human-animal society. A deeper understanding of the ethical motivators for socialization, beyond creating pleasant dogs who integrate well into human families, could inform development of even better programs by breeders.
Respecting a dog’s right to consent is intimately related to training in two ways. First, both dogs and their human companions need to be educated in a shared language, so that both sides can communicate what they need and desire from each other. Whether that’s pressing a bell to go outside or giving a verbal cue to get off the couch, training allows dogs to express themselves proactively, and humans to communicate clearly when they need to.
Second, the goal of training should be to help dogs flourish in their world. Training should not be done for speciesist reasons, that is, only for the sake of human comfort, convenience, or enjoyment. The goal of training should be learning new skills in a way that’s compatible with respect for the dog’s right to walk away. In Zoopolis, Donaldson and Kymlicka suggest that there is nothing inherently wrong with training dogs in basic obedience, in sports, or to perform emotional or physical labor for humans. However, working dogs need to be engaged on very different terms from how many are treated now.
For such use to be non-exploitative, the animal must be in a position to give a clear indication that they enjoy the activity, that they thrive on the stimulation and contact, and that the work is not a price they need to pay to receive the love, approval, treats, and care that are their due (and need)… If the only way a dog gets treats, play time, or affection from others is by performing tasks to please them, this is blackmail, not education.11
Some service dog organizations are already making progress in selecting for only those dogs who genuinely thrive in their work, and in developing training programs that don’t cross the line into coercion.17 A clearer conception of the rights of these canine workers — to fair working conditions, and to quit their jobs without fear of reprisals, as scholars are developing in the emergent field of animal labor studies18-20 — could help service dog trainers do even more to change their practices in ways that benefit our mixed human-dog society.
Going further, we begin to understand that being a member of a society that includes individuals with different capacities and modalities of flourishing means we should build a community that provides scaffolding for everyone to have a chance at realizing their own subjective good through their own agency. Using confinement and preventing dogs from sharing our spaces are ways of asserting our dominance over dogs, and we should be much more thoughtful about why we need to give them so little freedom.
Recognizing animals as citizens has three key implications for mobility rights. First, it means extending to domesticated animals the same general presumption against restraint/confinement, and the positive right to sufficient mobility for leading a flourishing life. Second, citizenship theory encourages us to attend to questions of structural inequality — that is, is society constructed in ways that limit unnecessarily the mobility of certain individuals or groups? And finally, it asks us to attend to questions of recognition and respect — that is, are there ways in which society uses arbitrary restrictions on mobility as a way of marking inferior status? 11
In the United States, we restrict our dogs in so many ways, much more than in Europe or elsewhere in the world, and yet many Americans have pointed out how well-behaved European dogs are when they see them quietly hanging out in the cafés of Paris.21 The exception to this rule is dogs who live with homeless people — these dogs have more freedom than dogs living in homes, and show fewer behavioral problems than their counterparts in settled homes.22
Again, many dog trainers are already working toward a world where crating for extended periods (or at all),23 being left alone all day, short leashes, and being walked only when and where the human chooses are things of the past. We already know about the value of off-leash hikes, sniff walks,24 and letting a dog choose their own walking route. Making the world accessible enough for dogs not to need confinement at all is a distant dream, of course, but dog trainers and behavior consultants can do their part by promoting training that gives dogs the skills they need to navigate the world, and convincing their human families to reduce confinement and restriction wherever possible.
Dogs need us. We know that if we treat them with respect and attention to their individual and species-specific abilities, they are capable of experiencing good lives, full of joy. We know that some of them love to work with and for us, whether that’s providing emotional labor to their families or as therapy dogs, directing their behavioral tendencies toward things like resource guarding and territoriality to things like livestock guardianship, or doing highly specialized tasks in detection, sports, or services for Disabled people. We know, through our work with them, through living with them every day, that it is possible to have a relationship with a dog that is not paternalistic or dominative, one that is founded on love and mutual respect between two beings whose abilities are different, but who both have the same fundamental interest in sharing a good life together.
Dog trainers really can change the world for dogs and humans to make it more joyful and more just. They can also be a rich source of experience, knowledge, and insight that lets them advocate for the right of dogs to live in a society that’s as much theirs as ours. The simple fact that dogs are sentient is enough for some people to know that we cannot use them, exploit them, or kill them for “the greater good.” But for many others, it takes both a moment of mutual recognition with an animal and education about how cognitively complex animals really are for them to see this moment as more than “silliness” and “over-emotionality.” Dog trainers are perfectly placed to facilitate these moments — they can use scientific methods that rely on dogs’ intelligence to create more harmonious family situations where love and respect can flourish.
Thanks to Teresa Tyler, Dr. Andrea Breen, and Erin Jones for their encouraging and useful comments on earlier versions of this article.
- Fenzi, D. (2018) The future of progressive dog training.
- Brown, C.M and McLean, J.L. (2015) Anthropomorphizing dogs: Projecting one’s own personality and consequences for supporting animal rights. Anthrozoös 28:1, 73-86
- Dolby, N. and Litser, A (2019) Animal welfare and animal rights: An exploratory study of veterinary students’ perspectives. Society & Animals 27:5-6, 575-594.
- Fischel, J.J. (2019) Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Sexual Justice. University of California Press.
- Stremming, S. (2020) When positive reinforcement is coercive. Cog-Dog Radio, Feb. 18, 2020.
- Goodman, D.J. (2011). Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups. NJ: Taylor & Francis,
- Greenebaum, J. (2009) “I’m not an activist!”: Animal rights vs. animal welfare in the purebred dog rescue movement. Society & Animals 17:4, 209-234.
- Chiesa, L.E. (2016) Animal rights unraveled: Why abolitionism collapses into welfarism and what it means for animal ethics. Georgetown Environmental Law Review 28, 557-587
- Smuts, B. (2001) Encounters with animal minds. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8:5-7, 293-309
- Lepeltier, T. (2020) A critique of some appeals to science in animal ethics. Journal of Animal Ethics 10:1, 33-40
- Donaldson, S. and Kymlicka, W. (2014) Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford University Press.
- Donaldson, S. and Kymlicka, W. (2014) Animals and the frontiers of citizenship. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 34:2, 201-219
- Bartlett, S.J. (2002) Roots of human resistance to animal rights: Psychological and conceptual blocks. Animal Law 8, 143-176.
- Kymlicka, W. (2017) Social membership: Animal law beyond the property/person impasse. Dalhousie Law Journal 40:1, 123-155
- Howell, T.J, King, T. and Bennett, P.C. (2015) Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine (Auckland) 6, 143-153.
- Duxbury, M.M. et al (2003) Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes. Journal of American Veterinary Medicine 221:1, 61-66.
- MacPherson-Mayor, D., van Daalen-Smith, C, and Poodle, B. (2020) At both ends of the leash: preventing service-dog oppression through the practice of dyadic-belonging. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 9:2, 73-102.
- Blattner, C.E. (2020) Towards a prohibition of forced labor and a right to choose one’s own work. In: Animal Labour: A New Frontier of Interspecies Justice. Eds. C.E. Blattner, K. Coulter, W. Kymlicka. Oxford University Press.
- Porcher, J. and Estebanez, J. (2019) Animal Labor: A New Perspective on Human-Animal Relations. Columbia University Press.
- Porcher, J. (2017) The Ethics of Animal Labor: A Collaborative Utopia. NL: Springer International
- Brown, K. (2016) Why are European dogs so well behaved? The Bark magazine.
- Williams, D.L. and Hogg, S. (2016) The health and welfare of dogs belonging to homeless people. Pet Behavior Science 1, 23-30.
- Sleiman, J. (2019) Is a dog crate really a den? How this very American practice took off. WHYY The Pulse, October 10 2019.
- Horowitz, A. (2014) Inside of a dog: What dogs see, smell, and know. New York: Scribner.
Some literature on animal rights
This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a small collection of books that I personally gained some knowledge or insight from.
Tiro Miller, PhD is the managing editor of The IAABC Journal. They hold a doctorate in bioethics from The University of Edinburgh and have written on dog behavior and ethics for various magazines including The Bark. They are also a peer reviewer for the Journal of Critical Animal Studies, animal rights activist, and shelter volunteer. Tiro lives in San Francisco and shares their life with Edie, a beloved Chihuahua.