Pet Column: Agency in a dog’s life is a must

Choices help pets feel more control over the environment and outcome. Photo by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

Agency is the perception that one has control. For us humans, our sense of agency helps us to be psychologically stable, yet flexible in the face of conflict or change. And we have found this to be true for our pets.

If I told you your dog needs agency in its life more than obedience, you might question if I’m a real dog trainer. Well, yes, I very much am, and my job is much more than teaching a dog to enjoy listening. My job is to give dogs a happier and healthier life. So mental health is at the top of my priorities.

That’s why agency is a must-talk-about subject for anyone who has a dog. Without providing your dog with a sense of choice and control, obedience means nothing. In fact, without agency, an obedient dog is far more likely to experience fear and stress. Obedience won’t help a fearful dog overcome fear, it might put it in a position where it feels it has no choice but to follow cues, but it will still be a fearful dog no matter how compliant it may appear.

Let’s take crate training for example. Too often I witness people forcing a dog into the crate. The dog learns no matter what actions are taken, it won’t affect the outcome. The crate is not an enjoyable experience. Instead, it’s an unpleasant and unavoidable environment. 

When dogs learn the crate is a choice, encouraging exploration by adding pleasurable experiences in the crate and allowing the dog to come out at will, the dog is far more likely to return to the crate. This is one of the key benefits to agency, increased exploratory behavior. The same behavior we want to encourage a dog to do when faced with minor stressors and fears. We want our dog to get comfortable through exploration rather than experience the flight or freeze response. When agency is given, dogs are less likely to show reactive and defensive behaviors.

Agency can be simple, like teaching a dog it can choose to go into the harness rather than being forced to have it put on. It could be letting a dog choose to go up into the car but also out of the car before going back in for a ride. Give it choices, like when it gets touched or handled. Listen to its body language to see if it’s okay with being touched, and stop touching when it tells us it’s uncomfortable.

Agency applies to pleasureful experiences as well. It can be having your dog choose the toy it would like to play with, which dogs it wants to interact with at a park, or something as simple as choosing when they drink water and when they go outside to urinate.

Then there are the more detrimental ways of taking away agency. This is when adverse training tools such as prongs or shock collars (AKA e-collars) come to mind. Even when placed onto a dog with previous experience with the tool, the eminent threat of being pinched or shocked takes away choices it might have wanted to make (like stopping to smell something or looking at something other than their handler). The dog learns that it doesn’t have choices while the tool is on and this often results in learned helplessness. 

Learned helplessness and a lack of agency can go hand in hand. Take a study conducted using two rats. Rat number one was placed in a chamber that administered a shock but had an exit point. After being shocked, the rat chose to leave. Rat number two was placed in the same chamber that shocked the rat but the exit was closed off, it was denied agency.

When rat number one was placed again into the chamber, the rat simply chose to leave. But when rat number two was placed into the shock chamber again, but this time with the exit point opened, it stayed in the shock chamber, even when presented with the choice to leave. Rat number two had learned helplessness due to agency being taken away at the start.

So what about those times a dog has to do something to avoid a worse outcome? That’s where training for these moments becomes beneficial. Things like the crate, where at some point you will need to close the door to limit their space should be trained before you need to leave your dog for a long period. A dog who learns it has a choice in an environment at the start, is far more likely to choose the environment again, even if the choice of leaving the environment is taken away. 

In the pet professional industry, vets, groomers, and trainers all can benefit from giving their canine clients choices from the start to build trust and positive associations with what the professional is hired to do. So it’s not just the home dog owner who can benefit from giving agency. Many vets, groomers, and trainers get certified by FearFreePets to learn ways to implement cooperative care for their clients’ pups. And it doesn’t even take more time teaching dogs it has choices in places, like the vet’s office means future visits go much smoother. 

It’s not a hopeless situation if you have unintentionally taken away agency from a dog in the past. Reintroducing previous fearful experiences with choices, encouraging your dog to make a choice using positive reinforcement, and having the patience to allow the dog to make choices (even if it chooses to not engage or make space) can vastly increase a dog’s trust and confidence in you and the world around them.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.


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