At its deepest level, agency is a pretty complex concept. It is underpinned by numerous theories and perspectives across a variety of disciplines. Thankfully, though, there is a general consensus that agency, and what we call a 'sense of agency', is a general feeling of control over one’s life, choices and consequences. Basically, it’s a feeling that we’re able to make choices and can influence external events based on those choices and actions. So why is this idea of Agency important and how can it add to our lives? That’s a big question but in short, having a sense of agency is hugely empowering. It builds confidence, resilience, motivation, self-efficacy and self-control. On the other hand, having a low sense of agency can be associated with negative implications including heightened anxiety.
But why is this important for our dogs?
I think we can agree that our dogs have very little control over their lives. They were bred with human manipulation, to perform specific behaviours as determined by human needs. As soon as they enter our homes, they are placed into a pre-determined routine around our schedules. We choose their food, their beds, when to walk them, when they need a groom and even when they should undergo certain medical procedures. To make matters worse, for many dogs, a lot of the behaviours that were bred into them are no longer relevant today. Meaning not only do they lack any form of control over their lives, they’re also restricted on what natural behaviours they’re able to engage in. Discouraged or told off for ripping apart teddies, for digging up the flower bed or maybe for alert barking at environmental changes. It’s unsurprising then, that behavioural problems and/or concerns are on the rise.
And here is where a sense of agency can be so beneficial to our dogs. Not only can it support your dog’s overall wellbeing through aiding confidence and resilience, it can also help in preventing and/or modifying behavioural concerns. Let’s look at an example:
We’re out walking our nervous dog and it seems the farmer has been around and cut the grass, leaving some bales of hay behind. Our dog has never seen one of these before and starts displaying nervous body language. Now we could:
Move in front of them slowly, trying to show how the hay is no threat and entice them closer to it, tossing treats and offering encouragement. Or we could;
Let them observe the hay bale. Wait and see what they do, if they take a step forward, give them a juicy treat but remain behind, if they turn around, follow them still, supporting them in making the choices themselves.
In both scenarios, we’re supporting our dog in navigating through this strange encounter. However, in the first scenario, our dog is experiencing external pressure from us in making a choice. The decision to approach is not coming from them. Whereas in the second scenario, we support their sense of agency. We offer reinforcement for the choices we deem appropriate, but we let them come to actioning those choices, themselves. That moment of making a choice and experiencing positive consequences can be so empowering for our dogs, providing a great big surge of self-confidence, as well as trust in us for not pressuring them. Dogs begin to learn that by making certain choices and offering certain behaviours, they can predict good consequences. So, in theory, the more good choices they make that result in positive consequences, the bigger their sense of agency. However, this is where cooperative relationships between us and our dogs are so important. At the end of the day, we have bred certain characteristics into our dogs that are not particularly consistent with our way of life. What they might see as good choices, might not necessarily align with what we see as good choices, and that is why we need to ensure we set up and manage environments appropriately.
So How Can I Support My Dog’s Sense of Agency?
There are a number of ways we can support our dogs in developing a sense of agency. This can form parts of their enrichment, exercise and even their training activities. Here are a few tips to get started:
Give your dog daily choices around what treats they may like, offer them varied sleeping spaces as well as freedom of movement in lived spaces (where safe to do so).
Don’t force your dog to do something because it aligns with your schedule or what society tells you they should be doing. I remember when our boy, Bungle, arrived, I would get up first thing and take him for what I thought was a lovely long walk. It worked out perfectly because I’d walk him and then he’d be all settled while I worked. After a short time, I started to notice that in the mornings he was pretty reluctant to get up. Actually, he much preferred to have breakfast and then pop himself back up to bed until around 11am. He wasn’t a morning dog. I decided to switch up our schedule so that he could be out at a later time and wham…. A happy, energetic, far less anxious dog appeared in front of my eyes.
Following from the above, give them choices on their walks. I know it’s easy to fall into a safe routine stroll around the block but remember, their world is small. Offering them the same location, at the same time, with the same scents, every day… pretty boring right.
If working on training skills, aim for them to be a participating party. Training should be fun. It should be something you work on cooperatively (blog post on cooperative relationships coming soon). If they look stressed or seem reluctant to get up and work on some "Middles", leave them be. I have a general rule for myself with our pups; if they’re not having fun or seemingly enjoying a new skill we’re learning, I get rid. Unless it’s essential for them to exist in our society, I don’t see the need in forcing them to learn something they dislike.
Adopt cooperative techniques in care. Again, to use an example with Bungle. When he first arrived, he wouldn’t let me near him for a wash. Eventually, I found that if I soaked a towel, he’d tolerate being rubbed down. But then I started sitting on the ground and merely waiting for him to come to me. When he did, I scrubbed, praised him and offered lots of chicken. Soon enough, he was offering me different body parts without me even having to ask.
Agency is a small word backed up with huge power in transforming our dog’s lives. The more we can enable their sense of it, the better!
Here are some sources informing this blog post:
Braun, N., Debener, S., Spychala, N., Bongartz, E., Sörös, P., Müller, H. H., & Philipsen, A. (2018). The senses of agency and ownership: a review. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 535.
Christley, R. M., Murray, J. K., Anderson, K. L., Buckland, E. L., Casey, R. A., Harvey, N. D., ... & Upjohn, M. M. (2021). Impact of the First COVID-19 Lockdown on Management of Pet Dogs in the UK. Animals, 11(1), 5.
Diesel, G., Pfeiffer, D. U., & Brodbelt, D. (2008). Factors affecting the success of rehoming dogs in the UK during 2005. Preventive veterinary medicine, 84(3-4), 228-241.
Friend, J. R., & Bench, C. J. (2020). Evaluating factors influencing dog post-adoptive return in a Canadian animal shelter. Animal Welfare, 29(4), 399-410.
Hargrave, C. (2020). COVID-19: implications of self-isolation and social distancing for the emotional and behavioural health of dogs. Companion Animal, 25(4), 1-8.
Holland, K. E., Owczarczak-Garstecka, S. C., Anderson, K. L., Casey, R. A., Christley, R. M., Harris, L., ... & Upjohn, M. M. (2021). “More Attention than Usual”: A Thematic Analysis of Dog Ownership Experiences in the UK during the First COVID-19 Lockdown. Animals, 11(1), 240. Chambon, V.,
Sidarus, N., & Haggard, P. (2014). From action intentions to action effects: how does the sense of agency come about?. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 320.
Moore, J. W. (2016). What is the sense of agency and why does it matter?. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1272.
Yoshie, M., & Haggard, P. (2013). Negative emotional outcomes attenuate sense of agency over voluntary actions. Current Biology, 23(20), 2028-2032.