The Right to Walk Away

What can pet owners learn from the way scientists give animals choices in research?

A cat choose to walk away from a small child
Photo: Shapiro Svetlana/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

When people take part in research, scientists must ensure they give informed consent. When the participants are pets, owners give consent on their behalf: they understand the risks of the research and they have the right to end their participation at any time (e.g. if they feel their dog is stressed). We can’t ask animals about their feelings, but scientists have several ways they give the pets a choice.

In Sarah Ellis et al’s recent (2015) paper on feline stroking preferences, cats were stroked in their own homes by two different people and were free to walk away at any time. 18 out of 34 cats walked away at some point during the first study, and 3 out of 20 in the second study, showing the importance of the choice.

Sometimes scientists offer dogs a piece of food before starting an experiment, or wait for the dog to approach a person or location. Dogs are first given time to get used to the experimenters and the new surroundings. Then if they don’t want the food or approach, it could be because they are stressed (stressed animals are often not interested in food). It’s not unusual for a few dogs to drop out of a study for this reason.

In Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne’s (2015) experiments to test whether dogs prefer petting or praise, dogs were given time to get used to the location and experimenter, and shown that one person was offering petting and another praise. Then the dog was taken to the starting position. They write that four dogs “were dropped from the experiment because they did not approach either alternative in the first 5 min period.” 

Just as in Ellis’s study with cats, dogs could walk away from petting at any point in the study. Because the study was about choices, they write that, “When providing petting, the assistant petted and scratched the dog with one hand on the side closest to the assistant so that the petting did not interfere with the dog’s ability to move away.”

Dogs aren’t only dropped from studies due to lack of interest or stress; sometimes they are actually excluded for being too confident. An example is Isabella Merola et al’s (2012) study of whether pet dogs look to a person (their owner or a stranger) for social support when stressed by something. The scientists chose a fan with streamers attached as the slightly-scary object. Of the 90 dogs that took part, 25 were excluded from the study because they confidently approached the fan. 

Social referencing paper PLoS One doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047653.g001
A dog looks at the fan with streamers in Merola et al's experiment

Note that dogs were never forced to go near the fan; they were free to move around the room so they could approach, or not, as they wished. At the end of the study, dogs were given food near the fan so they would not be frightened of fans in future.

What is the relevance to ordinary pet owners? Try to ensure that your dog or cat (or rabbit or …) has the opportunity to make choices. If they don’t want to interact with you at a particular time, that’s fine. Wait, and try again later. 

While to many this may seem obvious, to others it’s a revolutionary idea. One of the (many) problems with outdated dominance views of training is the emphasis on forcing animals to do as you wish. 

Not only is this ethically questionable, it can backfire in several ways. It is potentially dangerous for the person and animal, and risks creating fear and a poor human-animal relationship.

A puppy sits with its back to the camera with a purple background
Photo: Adya/Shutterstock
Choices are especially important for fearful animals, for whom enforced interactions might only make the fear worse. 

If your puppy is shy in class and wants to hide, let her, and she will come out in her own time. If your dog is afraid of fireworks, comfort him if he would like it or let him hide if he prefers – and later on, figure out a plan to help him with this fear. See eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe for some ideas.

If your cats prefer to hide under the bed when young children come to visit, that’s fine too – let them stay in their safe place until things are back to normal, if that’s what they want.

If pets don’t want to be trained at a particular moment in time, that’s okay – but consider how you can motivate them in future. 

Some people are surprisingly reluctant to use food for training, but think about how much dogs like to eat! You could use high value food such as your dog’s favourite treats, pieces of hot dog, cheese, fish, or even steak. 

Dog training is an unlicensed profession, so there is no requirement for dog trainers to follow the same ethical standards as scientists. Ask your dog trainer how they motivate dogs, and if the answer is not food, you might like to exercise your own right to walk away.

How do you give your pets choices?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
Ellis, S., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat's response to being stroked Applied Animal Behaviour Science DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002  
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.019  
Merola I, Prato-Previde E, & Marshall-Pescini S (2012). Dogs' social referencing towards owners and strangers. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23071828

You might also like:
How many dogs is enough for canine science?
Describing dog training: Weasel words or clear descriptions?
Do dogs prefer petting or praise? 

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  1. I think it is important to give our pet dogs choices whenever we can. I let Max (5-yr-old St. Bernard/Lab) decide if he wants to meet someone. I ask him, "Want to say hi?" He usually goes towards them as he is very sociable, but sometimes he stays put and I just tell the person he doesn't want to greet right now. That's okay with me because I don't want to push him to interact with people when he doesn't want to.

  2. Sometimes my labradoodle Max shows he is a bit tired of being petted by moving to a different spot. And I make sure he isn't followed.

  3. Great article, thanks. But the last sentence regarding walking away if a trainer's answer isn't food motivation.... should read something along the lines of ..positive means such as food, toys or praise.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Some dogs are indeed motivated by toys, and sometimes this can be a good choice. But there are several studies that find food is a much better motivator than petting or praise in dog training. If you put 'praise' into the search bar, you'll find my articles about them. Many people do find this surprising!

  4. I love this article. Somehow it seems to be such an obvious yet such a controversial topic in our society as animals are still considered to be property. I do wonder about fearful animals - some are so fearful that no amount of temptation seems to make them want to take the risk (kind of like me and spiders). I've found that giving them no option but to face their fear while providing those temptations and still giving them ample space to move away from the feared object/person without being able to flee or hide seems to work. It is incredibly hard to gauge the line though - where you're actually forcing them and therefore making their fear worse and where you actually get them out of that vicious fear cycle.

    I'm currently working with a cat that wasn't socialised with people until she was 6 months, resulting in a phobic response to people. Over the last ten years, several therapies have been tried, and she has become more adept at navigating people, realising she is faster than them and that they are in fact a great source of food, but still evading them at any cost. And the yearly veterinary trip of course confirms her fears to some extent.

    The question of course is...will this cat ever not be avoidant of people? And is it cruel to push her past her limits? She'll eat food, as quick as possible as if it is her last meal, right next to you, if you corner her. But won't leave the safety of a scratching pole even if the food is literally left outside her door, with a person present in the room. There is no way to get consent from her about addressing her fears. So is it kinder to leave her to live with this fear for the rest of her life? Or will it benefit her more to push through?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the article.

      For fear we would use desensitization and counter conditioning (depending on circumstances a vet might also recommend medication). Desensitization involves staying below the threshold at which the animal is afraid, so that’s where we draw the line.

      This process can be very slow and one of the common difficulties is that people often want to go too fast. But it’s important to work at the animal’s pace. Another problem for people who are not experienced is simply recognizing the signs of stress; they may go too fast without realizing the animal is afraid. (There is a very interesting study by Michele Wan et al (2012) that found people without experience aren’t so good at recognizing signs of fear in dogs).

      With fearful animals, it’s important to help them feel safe. We need to stay at a point where they are comfortable, and not push them to be afraid. An animal shouldn’t have to ‘face its fear’ in order to eat. So I think desensitization and counter-conditioning is the kindest thing to do. Changes to the environment (such as hiding places, including some high-up) may also help a cat feel safe.

  5. I love your article. I allow my Labrador choice in most situations...even though it is sometimes frustrating. Thus obedience work is a process of learning what she would most likely want to do, and what food would be a high enough value reward. But, that said, there are times when being allowed to explore her environment has a higher reward value than any praise, play, or food 😃 (I'm going to look up your article on the praise / food motivator now)


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