• Shannon Lynne Sullivan

The Origin of Consent

I am, as of June 2017, a newly minted Feldenkrais practitioner. I also train dogs, and my study of Feldenkrais has deeply impacted this work. The dogland trainer I am today strives to create optimal learning conditions in every moment for all involved. My personal values of deep listening and radical respect were once overshadowed by a habitual, cultural denial of dogs’ right to social freedom and autonomy. Now they pervade and inspire the foundational, flexible kindness that is the basis for my work.

In the earliest weeks of my Feldenkrais practitioner training, I remember spending hours on the floor in perpetual motion. I dutifully followed instructions, smugly certain I was doing it right. But then instructions were repeated, and then repeated again. Clearly someone in the room wasn’t following. Was it me? Should I be ashamed instead of smug? Why wouldn’t they just say who was doing it right and who was doing it wrong so I could know for sure? My mind swam these circles while I worked through pain, employed speed over patience, and generally tried to get to the point of the lesson as quickly as possible, despite all encouragement to the contrary.

With hindsight I see I was unconsciously convinced that my teachers were covertly assessing my performance. I was running an internalized pattern of receiving orders and being compelled to obey, even when I didn’t understand. In my psyche, I was moving because I had to, not because I wanted to, and I anticipated condescension or punishment in response. Below that I longed for praise. It was quite stressful, and also indicative of my lost ability to trust my own bodily consent.

Consent is a word rarely considered in dogland (or even outside of sex or medicine). Non-consideration of canine consent appears to still be the status quo. It is the water, and every one of us in dogland is wet somewhere. Even if we’re not drowning, we are at least a little damp.

There are, indeed, many caring humans who would never force a dog to perform non-essential activities they clearly don’t enjoy. But the reality is that many, if not most, dogs enter our human world under expectations to meet human wishes, wants and emotional needs, instead of as autonomous beings with preferences and desires of their own. And this subtle form of psychic claiming damages relationship.

I hear evidence of this from training clients in their descriptions: stubborn, doesn’t listen, dominant, rotten. I also see it in dog language: disengaging from training due to over- or under-stimulation, or squinching away from the forehead-to-forehead contact we humans so love subjecting them to. In Feldenkrais students, indications of such furtive dismissal can sound quite similar: bad knee, stubborn ankle, defiant muscle. And they too can be passed off as logic, e.g. “It’s my piriformis.” As trainer and practitioner both, my job is to listen below, to graciously honor the subtlest NO, and to seek for lost and new variations of enthusiastic, bodily YES.

On a few occasions my worlds have overlapped, and I’ve had the pleasure of offering Functional Integration to canine clients. Those sessions are among the simplest, easiest, most direct, and most impactful I've ever given. Quite frankly, dogs are excellent students.

One such student, a Carolina Dog named Frisco, had accumulated his 18 years living boldly. He was happy and smiley and constantly on the move since lying down required the eventual effort of getting up, and standing “still” was an ordeal on progressively shaking legs. “He’s like a shark,” Frisco’s human commented, “can’t stop swimming.” Frisco had also lost the ability to turn in all but the widest arcs, so he was quite adept at walking backwards.

Working with Frisco, I was free from the constraints of all of my professional settings. He was visiting with my brother for Thanksgiving, and I gave him an approximate total of 45 minutes of Functional Integration over the course of 3 days. We started in a quiet moment when Frisco swam by to give me a slurp.

Placing a hand on his spine, I began to gently map, vertebrae by vertebrae, through attentive touch. He lingered a few moments and then off he swam. After a couple laps around the room he came back over and presented his side, turning to look up at me. I took up again, and he lingered a bit longer before heading off for a lap and then swimming right back for more. Our intermittent session continued as I mapped and supported Frisco’s spine all the way to the tip of his tail and did the same for each of his ribs. He ended our work by melting in the corner for a nap.

Frisco settles in for a nap

To my eyes, consent is clearly something at which dogs are acutely adept. Case-and-point: Frisco’s self-regulation put my own to shame. He knew exactly when he needed a pause, he knew exactly when he was done for the day, and his communication of those boundaries was unambiguous. It took me two years of professional Feldenkrais training to develop a fraction as much clarity, or rather to begin to re-develop my natural state.

One could say that all I had to do to respect Frisco’s boundaries was to listen and choose to never apply force, but that’s not quite true. For that choice to even be available, I first had to see through the water. I had to be grounded in respect and afford him, a dog, the dignity of personal boundaries in the first place.

For the dogland trainer I am today, questioning whether or not a nonverbal animal is capable of consent is like questioning gravity, but exploring the many ways a nonverbal animal can communicate consent is a rich, joyous investigation. It also evokes a parallel consideration: All communication of consent is first and foremost nonverbal. At its foundation, consent is bodily—even for those of us who speak.

The morning after Frisco’s first session, he swam into our small kitchen packed with humans breakfast-making. He had arrived at an impasse, but instead of habitually throwing it in reverse, he made a neat, tight turn and walked out with his head held high. Later that day he came to me with imploring eyes and I added hip and shoulder circles onto our previous work. By the end of this (also intermittent) session, Frisco was standing on stable legs without so much as a quiver. The next day he welcomed me supporting the balancing movements required to lift each one of his paws. Then on our afternoon walk, my brother laughed with pride when Frisco lifted a hind leg to pee, which he apparently hadn’t done in years. Frisco moved one bush down and lifted the other.

At the end of Frisco’s visit, he ambled up to the truck door where he would normally wait to be lifted, and instead gathered himself to jump. I appreciate the sentiment, as Feldenkrais lessons often leave me sensing possibility in feats of physical prowess that I have no business attempting. But my brother quickly intervened, and Frisco made it home uninjured and with his relearned potential intact. Months have passed and he’s still lifting his legs to pee. It is, as I imagine my teacher saying, quite the functional achievement.

As Feldenkrais practitioners, the curious search for boundaries of bodily consent is one of our primary tools and teachings. We know well the bounties of learning beneath respect-filled nuance of attention. We are proselytizers of doing less to feel more. We know in our bones that struggling through movement is a violation of bodily consent, and that the application of force is costly. We know that when the well-distributed, mutually beneficial relationship is surrendered, all that remains is compulsion.

I think in culture generally, and in dogland specifically, we become explicit about consent far too late if at all. By the time we’re discussing it, it has long been transgressed. We are well past the moment of choice, and solidly into need for repair. But comprehension, and thus rectification, of this can be found at the heart of Feldenkrais.

So I, the newly minted Feldenkrais practitioner, now watch my own students struggle in reaction to my instructions. I watch them try hard, and do more, and disparage their performance despite all my encouragement to the contrary. And I attempt to entrance them, as playfully as possible, in the joyful nuance of their own bodily consent.

Phill, Frisco and Hoden

Acknowledgement to Sarah Stremming, trainer at The Cognitive Canine (thecognitivecanine.com), for introducing me to using the word consent in direct reference to dogs and dog training.

Source images for photo collage from Unsplash, credit to: Ghost PresenterJason BlackeyePhilip VeaterRay HennessyJason Blackeye, and ian dooley.


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