We all deserve to have autonomy over our own bodies. Body integrity is essential for both our physical and mental health. Being able to say no, have the right to consent and have a say over what situations we put ourselves in is an ethical right that we all deserve. Being forced to kiss and hug close relatives was once seen as a normal part of growing up for children. It was viewed as rude to refuse. But we are now starting to realise that teaching a child to say no, listen to their instincts, and navigate social interactions in their own time, supports them to be more confident people, who respect their own bodies and know how to keep safe.
Many children who suffer abuse know their abusers, so choice should be something that is instilled early on. But it’s not just about sexual abuse. Its about forcing others into situations that make them feel uncomfortable, fearful or anxious. If you feel socially awkward or anxious, the worse thing people can do is try to force you into situations that make you uncomfortable. A surprise birthday party for some of my friends would be worse than sticking needles in them. Discomfort, fear, anxiety is also contextual and individual to each of us. Just because I am happy sitting with a group of new people and chatting doesnt mean I feel comfortable talking on the phone or walking into a bank to deal with finances.
The best thing people can do for each other is support and not force. “I will come with you” “we can leave whenever you want” “let’s do something else” NOT “you will be fine”, “you have to put yourself in these situations to get used to them”, “dont be so silly”. But it’s not just people that need this type of support, that may struggle in social situations. Not all dogs show their anxiety by putting their tail between their legs and running away. Some may bark, act over excited and even pull towards what is making them anxious.
Some may love to play with dogs but initial greetings are stressful. Just like us, being nervous about going to the party but relaxing once we are there. We can force our dogs into social situations without even realising it. Walking straight towards people or other dogs so they feel compelled to be with us but would rather arc towards others or totally avoid. Being on lead in general. Allowing others to stroke and pat them. Taking dogs on a walk with dogs who constantly pester and want to play. Letting dogs off in an enclosed field. Just this can make dogs feel that they have to interact when they don’t actually want to.
If we think about how we may feel in some social situations with the freedoms we have, then think about how our dogs must feel with the very few freedoms they have. They cannot choose the environments they put themselves in, they cannot choose their own friends. They rarely have choice over how they are touched. We should always be our dogs advocats and really understand our dogs needs and do our best to respect their choices.