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What is Agency and How does it Apply to Dogs?

In the dog world, we are increasingly hearing about this whole idea of agency. But when it comes to what it actually means, it can get a bit confusing. Agency, has been defined and redefined many ways across a variety of disciplines. As a result, there is no one clear definition for it, particularly when it comes to the dog world. That being said, generally, Agency or a sense of agency comes from a number of things, three of these that are most relevant for our dogs are;

  1. A sense of control, (or simply a perceived sense of control) over our lives and environment.

  2. Having a voice and feeling heard in relation to expressing our wants and needs.

  3. Having the ability to make decisions and have choices over our lives and what directly effects us. This links nicely with self-efficacy – essentially, a feeling that we have the ability to do something and do it well.

However, modern society and living, often means that for many dogs, opportunities for increasing their sense of agency is scarce. When you consider control, ultimately the vast majority of a dog’s life is controlled by us. From the moment they get up in the morning, to the time they go to bed, we make most decisions for them. We decide what food they eat, we usually work out what their schedule is going to look like, when they’ll be alone, when they’ll have their walks. We also decide where they will sleep, what rooms or furniture they’re allowed in or on, or who they interact with. Basically, we decide most things for them, sometimes, before we’ve even brought them home. As a result, this often results in dog’s having no control over their lives. When it comes to their voice, while often unintentional, there is a tendency to ignore our dog’s attempts at communicating their preferences. We might drag or encourage them along when they want to sniff something while on their walk. Many, have at some point, have attempted to encourage and force their dogs into an interaction with other dogs, because that’s what society tells us they need. Yet if we took a second to look and really listen to our dog, they might be offering plenty of signals suggesting they have no wish for that interaction. This can be the same with unfamiliar people, we live in a dog loving world and with that comes a sense of entitlement. Well-meaning people often wish to approach and pet unfamiliar dogs and, quite often, guardians will allow it without a thought to whether their dog wants it. And finally, when it comes to the skills they learn and the behaviours they offer, we often decide what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Time and time again, trainers or behaviour specialists are asked for advice on reducing or stopping perfectly normal dog behavours. Barking, digging, chewing, mouthing, herding and so on. On the flip side, the behaviours that are desired, are typically for the purpose of living in human society. Loose lead walking, sitting, staying in place. Behaviours that generally work in opposition to our dog’s natural tendencies.

Why is Agency Important?

Ok, we can agree that agency is pretty much non-existent in our dog’s lives, but why is that important? In short, while research relating to dogs is limited, generally we know that agency can have quite substantial negative implications for physical and psychological wellbeing. This is the case for us humans, with a lack of agency often resulting in mental health concerns, an inability to learn productively, as well as having an impact on resilient (our ability to adapt and respond well to adverse experiences). It seems, this might very well be the same for our dogs. More recently, there is increasing recognition that building a sense of agency can actually improve our dog’s overall health and well-being. If you think about it, having a sense of control over our actions can be extremely empowering. When we actively make the decision to do something, this often results in some sense of achievement. As well as this, a sense of control over our environment can promote positive emotions. Positive emotions as well as the sense of achievement gained from making a decision that results in those positive emotions, can feed directly into our sense of self-efficacy. This is very much the same for our dogs, they too can feel empowered by making good choices. When those good choices result in positive outcomes, that directly feeds into their confidence. As a result, they’re far more likely to make those good choices again in the future. Far too often, guardians try to intervene and help their dog when they’re in a ‘scary’ situation. As a result, the sense of control and ability to make choices is taken away from them. Take this example. On a walk with Bungle, we stumbled on an unusual bag that was new and flapping around in the wind. Bungle wasn’t too keen and started to show some anxiety. I could have helped him out here, attempted to encourage him closer to the bag, maybe with some treats or some praise, or even interacted with the bag to show him that it was nothing to be scared about. Yes, that might have helped him, but that approach immediately placed control of the situation into my hands. Rather, what we could do is simply act as their back up, and that’s what I did. I waited and watched, listening to his signals and supported him when he made the decision to start approaching the bag. Every step of the way, it was his choice and ultimately, when he saw the bag for what it was, he visibly became far more confident, prancing back to me happy with his decision to scout out the scary thing. He was in control of that situation, which resulted in a positive outcome and seemingly, a sense of achievement on his part (albeit that is my interpretation). At the end of the day, a sense of control and having choice is actually a primary reinforcer. It is inherently rewarding for them.

So how do we go about offering our dog’s opportunities for a Sense of Agency?

It’s a lot less difficult that we think. Basically, we can offer outlets that feed directly into those three elements of agency discussed earlier:

  1. Wherever safe and possible, provide them with a sense of choice and control over their environment as well as their role in it.

  2. Learn to listen. Active listening is quite difficult when we are still entrenched in societal notions of us as authority and dog as student. This often results in us taking the perspective that dog’s must obey, closing down any opportunities for a two way conversation.

  3. Building their sense of ability through positive and ethical training approaches. Aim for them to be an active participant in their learning. Provide outlets for, and work with their species specific or breed specific tendencies.

How can we build our dog’s Self-Efficacy?

While, again, there is a lack of science behind this concept with dogs, there are still things we can do in helping to promote our dog’s sense of ability.

Firstly, dogs are all born with species specific behaviour patterns. We often attempt to work against these and that can result in our dog’s feeling frustrated and conflicted. Essentially, if you think of a dog who has all of these internal needs and drives, their genetic and biological make up is telling them to do something, and then us humans are telling them to stop. Sometimes, we might even punish them for these behaviours, something they find incredibly rewarding. You can understand why this might then reduce their confidence and create a lot of confusion.

Rather, we can work with these. By providing outlets for these behaviours, we’re not only funneling those behaviours in a way that fits our lives, but also meeting their needs. The behaviour itself gives them a great big chemical rewarding hit. And then if we also offer an external reward (e.g. a good juicy treat at the end of a hunt or a game of tug after retrieving an item) they have a double whammy of reinforcement. That can feed directly into building their confidence and sense of ability. If you watch a dog when they’re completing an enrichment activity that is particularly suited to their needs, you can see their confidence grow as you watch them. So get watching your dog, think about all those behaviours they just love to do, and try to work out how you can offer those in a suitable way. Your dog likes to dig the carpet, why got make them a digging box? Or maybe they like to steal shoes and simply carry them around? Get some retrieval games in. Or, our boy likes to herd the family, so we play lots of hide and seek where he has to find and bring everyone together. There are many ways we can meet those needs of theirs, we just need to take the time to work out what it is they like to do, and they find the equivalent in a more appropriate way!

A second way we can build their sense of ability is through ethical, reward-based training. Using positive reinforcement in teaching a dog what to do, massively Increases their sense of optimism and motivation for working with you. As mentioned earlier, a lot of the behaviours we ask from our dogs, are human centered, yes they make our lives easier, but we should let that be at the compromise of our dog’s needs and wellbeing. So teach them those skills and pay them heavily for offering them. We can do this through offering lots of goodies, but we can also use those desired behaviours we were talking about above. For example, heel is a behaviour that has been pushed by society and old-school training philosophies for many years. And yes, to a degree, we need those behaviours. If you’re in a tight spot or walking through a city center for example. But it isn’t needed for the entire duration of our dog’s walk. We love our cooperative walks. Basically, the idea is that you teach and ask your dog for a ‘heel’ position, reward and reinforce that behaviour while they’re offering it, but also follow it up with their own choice of walking. That way, they learn that offering the behaviour that we control = good things, plus, they get a choice to do what they would like when it’s their turn.

How can we provide choice and opportunities for control?

I tend to try and break up the ways I offer choices across three things

1. General everyday environment and interactions

  • Think choices on where to walk, offering plenty of areas for sleeping or rest (give them options to choose from), choices from a selection of treats or even meals. Choice over which harness to wear. Give them the option to remove themselves from a situation should they wish. Or even things like towel drying. For example, Bungle, being a St Bernard, leaves a lot of water following drinks, so we always towel dry him or give him to option to go outside to shake it off. We hold out the towel, he then either comes to it and gets a wipe, or he goes out and shakes it off. Simple but given him a good sense of choice and control.

2. In our training

  • A nice place we can really incorporate opportunities for choice is through grooming. Cooperative care is a really nice way to provide our dogs with opportunities to opt-in to training situations, as well as say no when they’re not feeling it, or wishing to end a session.

  • Listen to them during training. If you see refusals – think why that might be the case. Quite often we will jump to the idea that our dog is being disobedient, but maybe they’re just not feeling it today. Or maybe, they’re uncomfortable with the trick or behaviour your requesting.

  • Incorporate options when learning new behaviours. This is a great way to add choices to ‘cues’ that we can teach our dogs. I particularly like our version of ‘Go say hello’. Traditionally, this is taught as one behaviour where they cue equals the dog doing a hand target with a person (it can also be used with dogs). However, when working with Bungle, I quickly realized this put pressure on him during situations he found uncomfortable, resulting in conflict. So, we incorporated another behaviour. Now, if we say ‘Go say Hello’, he has the choice to either hand target or sit by my side and look at me. This gives him both a choice and a sense of control over the interaction.

3. When working on behaviour modification work like counter-conditioning

  • Choice is extremely reinforcing for a dog. As well as that, a sense of control can actually promote positive emotion and lower stress. So we can use this to our advantage when working on changing our dogs emotions. With training we often ask for a specific behaviours and then mark and reinforce that behaviour. However, when it comes to choice and counter-conditioning, where safe to do so, we can offer our dog the space to make a choice themselves, and then reward all those good choices. So not only does our dog get all the positive outcomes from making the choices themselves, they then have further reinforcement from us. This, in turn, can increase their likelihood of making good choices. Here’s an example; the other week I decided to follow a dog walker who appeared with a number of dogs. Thinking it was a perfect opportunity to work on counter-conditioning, I decided to orient towards them. However, I gave Bungle the option to choose whether he wanted to engage in the session. He said no, turning around and deciding to create distance. While this wasn’t what I’d hoped for, I reinforced his choice to remove himself rather than react. He made a good choice. Seconds later, he seemed to change his mind and then turned back towards the dogs, and decided to slowly start walking toward them while offering me engagement along the way.

However, there are such things as ‘no-choice’ moments. At the end of the day, we are the guardians for our dogs, and while we need to offer them as much choice and control as possible, it is our duty to keep them safe and only do so if they are safe. If it is highly likely, for example, that your dog would react on seeing another dog, you need to make the decision to remove them through an emergency U-Turn etc. While choice is important, we have to make the decision on whether they’re equipped with the ability to make those good choices at that moment in time. Obviously, on occasion, we do have to do things for our dogs, that they won’t like and do not have a choice over. This can then negatively impact our relationship if they’re used to us offering them those options for making choices. So try to keep up as many choice moments, so that when those ‘no-choice’ moments come up, you’ve already got a good amount of trust under your belt.

How can we offer them a voice?

Society is entrenched in a ‘do as they’re told’ mentality when it comes to dogs. We often tell them to sit and expect them to sit. We might give them cuddles and expect them to enjoy them. Unfortunately though, this constant telling- and - expecting can actually damage our bond with them, as well as dampen their confidence. Thankfully, there are a couple of things we can do to provide our dogs with the sense that they are involved in a two way conversation:

Firstly, we need to learn their body language and act on that learning. This is more than just learning stress signals, it’s actually challenging our own ‘egos’ and frustrations as well. As mentioned, society is entrenched in outdated information around dominance and human-dog relationships, and this can be difficult to remove ourselves from sometimes. We can have a tendency to take a human perspective, thinking that our dog is being disobedient or stubborn. One way around this, is to think of something from the dog’s perspective. For example, I was attempting to record a video of Bungle offering a ‘Bow’ behaviour. This is a trick he knows well so I was very surprised when he refused to offer it. Why was he being so stubborn? Actually, when I looked at it from his perspective and what it was that he was offering (he kept lifting a paw up towards his ears), I soon realized that at that point in time, he was attempting to tell me that he had itchy ears. Nothing to do with stubbornness. He was attempting to communicate.

Secondly, consent checks are a must. A simple way to check that our dogs are happy with an interaction. Pet them for a few moments, then pause. Do they come back? Yes. Brilliant, carry on. Do they stay still or move away? Then leave them be. But better still, learn to offer your dog the choice for fuss. Rather than offering it and checking, invite them in. Give them the opportunity to go, oh yeah, I’m up for those cuddles.

And finally, our dogs don’t have ‘voices’ and so it is up to us to ensure they are heard by us, as well as by others. We need to learn to advocate for them. To listen to their needs and support them when others are not listening.

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