#3 - Measuring Agency

[00:00:00] Allie: So, when we’re talking about choice and control, which can be a scary thing for people to think about. It can be as simple as where do they sleep at night?

Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:30] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:31] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be, and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Last week we heard from Nathan Andrews, and one of the topics we discussed was agency. And as a reminder, we’re defining agency as…

[00:00:52] Emily: …giving a learner choices and control over their outcomes.

[00:00:56] Allie: This week, we’re going to dive further into what that can look like in your home and how to make sure your pet has agency. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about three steps to making sure there’s agency in your enrichment plan, how to measure agency, and of course, some super cute stories about how agency has helped pets with maladaptive behaviors and our lives.

I am so excited that we get to talk about agency so early on in this podcast. I think this is one topic that we talk about so frequently with other professionals who are coming to us to learn about our enrichment framework, and it’s something that can be difficult to wrap your mind around. So, let’s just take a moment to talk about why this topic is so important. Emily, what are your feels? About agency.

[00:01:42] Emily: I feel like agency is at the crux of what enrichment even is, because if an animal is not choosing to engage in the, whatever enrichment strategy we’re employing, then by definition, it isn’t enrichment.

So, basically agency is how enrichment happens or whether or not it does happen. This need to control outcomes for physical behavioral and emotional health is at the core of what agency is. So, yeah, it’s a really big deal, and I’m with you on being super excited about this being really our first implementation session topic.

It’s just perfect. Right?

[00:02:26] Allie: Absolutely. And I think in addition to it can’t be enrichment, if there isn’t agency, agency is one of the criteria for if it is or is not enrichment, I, we also talk about it so much just in our consultations with our clients. There’s so many situations where just giving the animal choice and control in that particular situation, that the client is having problems with, eliminates the problems.

[00:02:56] Emily: Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients tell me, “As soon as we learned their body language, and started giving them agency, and asking them if they wanted to participate, they just became happier, and I feel like we have a better relationship, and we’re communicating better.” It’s just such a huge boost to the relationship between people and their pets. And its relatively small change that needs to be made, but it has a huge impact for sure.

[00:03:31] Allie: And I think one of the things that I love about this is that it is relevant for all species. Nathan told the cutest story about that Capuchin monkey, who was able to like go through what was like the vents or something?

[00:03:46] Emily: Right, right.

[00:03:47] Allie: So that she could access the caregivers, which is like the cutest solution I’ve ever heard. And, we can see like, okay, this is how it would work for monkeys, but that exact same concept works for every single species, and this is true of humans too. Humans also require quite a bit of agency in our lives. So, no matter who you have at home, this topic is for you. So, let’s take a moment and talk about how agency fits into the enrichment framework in the first place.

[00:04:18] Emily: This is something that a lot of people struggle with because they’re trying to figure out, “Am I supposed to assess if they have agency and in every single aspect of their life? Like, are they choosing to go outside? Are they choosing to come inside? Are they choosing to eat their food?” I mean, yes. I never think it’s a bad idea to ask yourself if an individual has choice and control over their outcomes. But really when we’re talking about the enrichment framework and using enrichment strategies to improve the welfare of an animal that we’re working with, it’s really focused specifically on our enrichment strategies. So, I think the first thing we need to ask ourselves is, does our pet have two or more desirable options when we’re giving them a strategy or something, some kind of an interaction or an object as a part of our enrichment plan, as opposed to just being, do it or else. Right?

Play or else is not actually a choice. It’s not actually agency. So that’s the first step is do they actually have two or more desirable options in whatever it is that we’re offering them.

[00:05:34] Allie: And I have to stop you for a second, because you th- this was years ago that, you had started using the Eddie Izzard cake or death scenario or skit.

[00:05:46] Emily: Yup! Yeah, long time ago.

[00:05:49] Allie: Yeah. You say it perfectly. So please, please tell our listeners about that because I love that example so much.

[00:05:57] Emily: I literally never need any kind of goading to talk about Eddie Izzard. So, my pleasure. So, there’s the skip that Eddie Izzard did way back in the nineties where he was talking about tea and cake or death, like that’s not actually a choice, right? Nobody would choose death if those were the two options, and the skit is hilarious. I highly recommend you look it up if you haven’t seen it yet, but he’s basically asking like “Tea and cake or death? Oh, cake? Okay. Tea and cake or death? I didn’t bring enough cake. I had no idea so many people would choose cake!”

Right. And it’s hilarious, but it’s also a really good analogy for, a lot of how we structure opportunities for pets, I mean, all species really, but I think this happens more so in the pet community, perhaps. Where we’re like, “Do you want to do this thing? If not, some really unpleasant thing is going to happen.”

And that’s not really a choice because nobody’s going to choose doing the really unpleasant thing over the thing that may be slightly less pleasant or, you know, downright fun. It’s really about, do they have multiple options that are at least okay? So, we know for sure that what they’re choosing they’re choosing because they want to not because it’s the least worst scenario.

[00:07:24] Allie: And I think it’s important to mention too, that this is in the eye of the beholder, you know, only they get to decide what is desirable or undesirable to them.

[00:07:35] Emily: Yeahhhhhhhhhhh.

[00:07:35] Allie: And so, if we were to say, I won’t use a tea and cake or death scenario, cause that has a morbid outcome, if I use that one. But if we were to say like chocolate cake or I don’t know, ice cream, and I am like, “Yes, I love chocolate cake and ice cream,” but I say that to somebody who’s lactose intolerant to they’re like, “This is a tea and cake or death scenario. D -death to my gut scenario, at least.”

[00:08:04] Emily: Yes!

[00:08:05] Allie: So, so, desirable is in the eye of the beholder, and that I think is something that is hard for the average pet parent to sometimes realize. I mean, I even do this with Oso sometimes where I’m like, “Surely you like these two things.” And he’s like, “No, I don’t.”

[00:08:25] Emily: Right.

[00:08:26] Allie: So, we need to keep that in mind when we’re talking about desirable options.

[00:08:30] Emily: Let’s make this a side point, another sort of takeaway that we have to add to our implementation session, because in order to know whether an individual find something appealing or unappealing, we have to be good readers of body language. Become proficient at reading the body language of the species that you work with so that you can accurately interpret what they’re communicating to you, and that’s how we determine whether or not they find something appealing or unappealing.

[00:09:07] Allie: I think becoming a proficient at reading body language is going to be a takeaway for every single implementation episode that we do. It’s so important to everything.

[00:09:17] Emily: I am not mad at that. If that’s just one of our takeaways, every episode, maybe it’ll drive the point home. Yep. Yep. I’m happy with that, as a scenario or outcome.

[00:09:28] Allie: Excellent. I’m glad I’m happy. You’re happy. Okay. So, we’re proficient at reading body language for the species that we are living with, working with, et cetera.

[00:09:39] Emily: We’re proficient reading their body language so we know whether or not they find something desirable or undesirable. And then we have verified that they do in fact have two or more desirable options. And then we need to ask ourselves, does my pet have the skills necessary to engage in the thing I’m offering?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had pet owners and even behavior professionals tell me, “Oh, my dog doesn’t like foraging toys” or, “Oh, my bird doesn’t enjoy playing.” And what it really boils down to is that that animal has not been taught the necessary skills in a way that they find appealing that makes them want to engage in the thing.

And so it isn’t that they’re not choosing it. It’s that they have no idea how to choose it because they have no idea how to do it. If somebody were to give me the opportunity to fly a plane and they were like, “Emily, you get to fly a plane to your destination of choice on the entire planet.”

I wouldn’t do it. And it’s not because I don’t want the ability to fly a plane literally anywhere on Earth. It’s because I have no idea how to fly a plane. I would have to first be taught how to fly a plane before I could choose that as a desirable option. So, we have to know whether or not our pet has the necessary skills to engage in the stuff that we’re giving them to do.

[00:11:13] Allie: Skills and also the ability in that moment in order to, make those choices. So, an example of this, I’ll use Oso as an example, which, Oso is my dog. He is the four-legged love of my life, and you will hear so much about Oso at all times because I talk about him constantly. He’s also just a really good example of a lot of this. So…

[00:11:38] Emily: he really is.

[00:11:39] Allie: …there’s a reason for it. In addition to, I just talk about him constantly. Oso is 10 years old this year and he is starting to feel his age, and he’s very gray now, and we’re starting to see gate changes, and some mobility things happening where we’re like, “Okay, it’s time to up the ante when it comes to our preventative joint care here.” And so, one of the things we did is we bought stairs for him to jump up on the bed. We have made it a rule in the past that he is not allowed up on the bed when we are going to sleep, but in the morning, he’s welcomed to come up and we enjoy cuddle time. One of my favorite parts of the day is just us being in bed with Oso and enjoying our dog and him snoring next to us.

Through the years, morning, that time changed. So, it used to be morning when we are awake and then it just kept creeping closer and closer until it’s about two in the morning, which is technically the morning. We were unconscious, so there was nothing we could do about that time creep up.

One of the things that has started happening, is he is whining at us at two in the morning to come up on the bed, and so we bought him stairs to help him get up on the bed. I’ve taught him the stairs. I did that, I would say maybe a couple of months ago, I taught him how to use the stairs, and he was able to do it, no problem.

However, I did not teach that skill when I was not standing next to him and the stairs and encouraging him to go up. So, he has the skill to use the stairs, but not in the context in which I actually wanted it used, which is when I’m asleep. What we’re realizing now is that he’s been having some funky gate stuff the past couple of weeks, and so there’s probably a little bit of pain in there, and we’re guessing that whatever is currently painful, also inhibits his ability to use the stairs. He goes down them fine. He goes down them every time, if I had to make a decision of up or down, I would rather it be down because that’s better for his joints.

But that means that he’s not able to go up the stairs, even though he has the skills technically to use the stairs, but he was never taught how to, in the context that we wanted. And right now, it doesn’t have the physical ability, even if I had taught it in the context that we wanted.

When we’re talking about, does your pet have the necessary skills to engage? There are a whole lot of factors that go into that. Did we actually teach the scale in the context in which we want it used with all of those different pictures of what that can look like? And are they physically or mentally able to do that in the moment in the context?

[00:14:40] Emily: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point.

And another kind of example of that is when we have dogs who are really afraid of a specific stimulus in their environment, and we, yes, obviously we want to get to a point where they’re not afraid of that thing in the future, but in this moment, if I’m asking them to engage with some kind of enrichment strategy, in the presence of the thing they’re afraid of, even if they have the skills to do it in other contexts and they enjoy doing it, when there’s something in the environment, that’s setting off alarm bells in their head, they’re not able to do it in that moment, in that context. So, that’s another good example of necessary skills and the ability in the context, which is such an important point to bring up. I’m glad you mentioned that.

[00:15:38] Allie: That’s what I’m here for. Let’s do our third takeaway for today’s implementation episode. Reminder, the first one a and one b, is become proficient at reading body language, and then you can assess, does my pet have two or more desirable options instead of a do it or else scenario?

The next is, does my pet have the necessary skills to engage and the ability to use those skills in the moment?

And then our third is, is my pet choosing to engage?

[00:16:11] Emily: Yeah. So, this is the grand finale, right? The big question at the end of this is are they choosing to engage? If we know for sure that they have two or more desirable options, because we are skilled at reading and accurately interpreting their body language, and they have both the skill and the ability to perform that behavior or engage with that object or activity in the context in which we’re asking them to do it. Then the big, big question is, are they choosing to engage with it? Because at the end of the day, if they’re not choosing to engage with it, it ain’t enrichment. Right? So, that’s the big question. Agency in the context of the enrichment framework, is, are they choosing to engage in the enrichment strategies or the environmental changes that we’ve made, or the interactive opportunities we’re providing with them?

And if they’re not choosing to engage with it, it’s not enrichment. So, that’s the final point of agency is, when we’ve set up everything correctly, are they choosing to engage with it? And if the answer is no, we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we need to change to make it a more successful strategy.

[00:17:31] Allie: Awesome. I like calling it a grand finale.

Let’s take a look at what that can look like in real life. So, I had a client who, their dog had several maladaptive behaviors, but one of them was that, she was having the trouble getting the dog to come into her room in the evening, she had two kids and the dog would hang out in one of the kids’ rooms, and when she went to go collect the dog to go to bed, the dog was growling and air snapping at her.

My question to her was, “Is there a reason that the dog has to stay in your room in the evening? Can the dog just chill and choose where he wants to sleep?” And she thought about it and was like, “No, I guess there’s not really a reason for us to have to do that. Normally everybody closes their bedroom doors, but I guess we don’t have to do that.”

And so, I tasked her with the experiment. I said, “Just try it for a few nights, leave the doors open, let the dog choose where he wants to sleep.” She came back for our next session and she said, “Oh, my gosh, that one recommendation just completely changed our evenings with our dog!” Because not only did the growling and air stopping stop with the bedtime routine, because she wasn’t trying to get him out of the kids’ room and go into her room, but she said that her kids were so much happier too, because the dog was choosing to spend pretty equal time with them in the evenings. He would fall asleep in one of the kids’ rooms, and then in the middle of the night would go into the next kid’s room. Which is the cutest thing.

[00:19:09] Emily: That is so sweet. Oh, my gosh.

[00:19:12] Allie: Right? She said, “Not only did just providing that bit of agency with where he sleeps at night help the maladaptive behaviors that they were seeing, but also it helped bolster the relationship that the dog has with the kids.” So, that is a really simple way that they provided agency that had huge results.

So, one we’re talking about choice and control, which can be a scary thing for people to think about. They’re like, “oh gosh, my pet doesn’t always make great decisions. And now you’re telling me I should let them make more decisions.” That’s not what we’re saying, but, it’s a really easy thing. It doesn’t have to be like these life-or-death situations that were letting them make their own choices, that they may or may not make a, a great choice in. It can be as simple as where do they sleep at night?

[00:20:04] Emily: Sure. I have another story that illustrates that more is not always better when it comes to enrichment, and sometimes a simpler thing is actually more enriching. So, when I lived in Austin, I co-ran the Austin Parrots Society with a couple of friends of mine.

Because of that, I had a ton of foster birds in addition to my own birds. So, I had converted my garage into this big bird room that had all of these climbing nets and perches and a ton of different toys, all different kinds of textures, lots of different foraging opportunities. It was a birdie paradise.

Most of the birds in that bird room took ample advantage of their environment. But I had one bird come in, who had been in a neglectful situation where he had lived in a basement for his entire life in the dark and had never had any toys or anything like that. And when I brought him into the bird room, he never engaged with anything in the bird room, nothing. He stayed in a perch in the back of his cage, and even though I opened the door and let him choose to come out, he never did choose to come out.

And after a few days of observing his behavior and realizing that he wasn’t adjusting within the normal adjustment periods that most birds have, it became clear to me that the bird room as beautiful and fancy as it looked was not actually enriching for this bird. So, I moved him to a temporary cage in my bedroom with much fewer objects and much fewer perches, and I just gave him one toy to start off with that was really easy, kind of low-hanging fruit, doesn’t take a lot of skill or knowledge to interact with this toy.

Over time I gradually introduced him to more things and built his competence at different objects and different activities, and also built his confidence in his ability to move around and trust the space. We did some kind of controlled interactions with other birds, one or two at a time in the living room.

And then eventually he was able to go back into the bird room, but there were months where he lived. In what would look like to other people, a very sparse and under enriching environment in my bedroom. And I have people who would come over to the house to visit, ask me why I was neglecting this one bird in my house when all the other birds had all of these opportunities.

My response was always, “He’s not neglected at all. I’m giving him what he needs, what he finds enriching, as I’m working on building his skills and his confidence.” So, that is another example of how it looks in real life. It’s not always about giving them more stuff. It’s about figuring out exactly what they need and meeting their needs in that moment.

[00:23:08] Allie: As Dr. Friedman would say, “Behavior is a study of one.”

[00:23:11] Emily: Well said, absolutely.

[00:23:13] Allie: It’s easy to be well said when I’m quoting her.

[00:23:16] Emily: Yes. True.

[00:23:17] Allie: Last thing to talk about. One of the things we talked about with Nathan is measuring agency or what agency looks like at a measurable level. So, in addition to what we talked about, becoming proficient, making sure they have two or more desirable options. Do they have necessary skills to engage? Is the pet choosing to engage? Are there any other ways that you measure those outcomes?

[00:23:43] Emily: That is a great question, and it can be a little more complicated. If you’re listening and you’re like, “Oh gosh, I have no idea how to do this for my own pet.” Don’t worry. That’s what behavior professionals are for.

The answer to that is really knowing what is typical for the species that you’re working with and comparing the animal in front of you to other animals within their species. Now, I want to be very, very clear. There’s a difference between saying we’re looking at an individual in the context of their species versus saying every animal within the species should do the exact same thing.

That’s definitely not it. That’s not what we’re saying. But we know within a species, what are species-typical behaviors that we would expect, and in general, what is an, a range, a normal range of how much activity they would perform? What types of activities they would perform? How much rest they would have each day? What are the times of days that they would typically rest? All of those things, we can use our understanding of the species as kind of a template to compare the individual to. So, if I see a bird who is spending his entire day sitting in on a perch in the corner of his cage, that is not typical for the species.

This particular bird was a species called Timneh African Grey and these birds are really active. They do a lot throughout the day. They’re really observant. They like to mimic sounds in their environment. So, I would expect to see some of those behaviors throughout the day. Now exactly how much activity and how much vocalization, of course there’s a wide variation, but the fact that I’m not really seeing any of it tells me that this bird does not have nearly enough agency in his life.

So, what I’m looking for is measuring how much this bird is choosing to engage with the things in their environment as compared to the typical range of the species that they belong to. So, that’s kind of what we’re looking at, but I get it, if you don’t know that stuff at home, that’s what behavior professionals are for, and we’re always happy to help you out with that.

[00:26:14] Allie: Excellent. Thank you. So, to recap today’s episode, we talked about agency and three steps to help make sure that there’s agency in your enrichment plan includes three and a half steps, honestly.

The half step is become proficient at reading body language. We’re going to say that all of the time. The first step is, does my pet have two or more desirable options instead of do it or else? The second step is, does my pet have the necessary skills to engage? And the third step is, is my pet choosing to engage? And of course, if you have trouble measuring agency with your pet, that’s what behavior professionals are for.

Next week, we will be talking with Dr. Chris Pachel about moving beyond diagnose and prescribe, and also why relaxation is so important.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram, for those of you who are behavior professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixebay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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