How a Dog’s History of Having Control (or Not) Impacts Today

A picture can speak a thousand words and I regret that I didn’t video playing this game with our dogs. You’ll need to imagine what happened here as I describe things.

One afternoon I put a small cardboard box in the middle of the living room with the goal of playing 101 Things to Do With a Box. It’s a game originally used by Karen Pryor who at the time was training novel behaviors with dolphins. The idea is for the dog to do “something” in relation to the box, for the behavior to get marked, and rewarded.

Boon saw the box and immediately approached it so I marked her approach and paid her for her engaged behavior. [Note: I’ve used marker training to teach new life skills with Boon and See Kao so they were familiar with our simple contract, a clicker or verbal ‘Yes’ tells the learner ‘this is the desired behavior’ that will result in a treat payment.] Boon continued to check out the box, used her nose to sniff the walls, put her head in, touched it with her paw and her head, and stepped inside the box. Since my training goal for that initial session was to simply have her engage with the box, Boon received treat payments for any and all of these behaviors in our short session. In hindsight, it would have been a very cute video that I wished I had captured.

See Kao saw the box and immediately turned away from it almost as if displaying a cut off signal; she proceeded to lay down many feet away facing the opposite direction of the box almost as if it didn’t exist in the room. These were the terms of engagement for See Kao so in compliance with our training contract, I acknowledged her behaviors with a big jackpot and boy do I wish I had videotaped the session. Two Southeast Asian village dogs with completely different reactions to this new thing in their environment.




Over time, See Kao would come to love boxes of any shape and size and with confidence dive her head in to forage for something smelly and enticing, as evidenced by this pic where she got overly zealous in her search and had to come ask the humans for help to remove her cardboard necklace.

Their reactions got me thinking about how a dog’s past history can influence their current learning and reactions. Humans and non-humans, including dogs, are constantly acting and observing and taking note of the consequences of their actions. In doing so, we each start to assess which situation we have an ability to influence and outcomes where we have no control. In other words, we draw upon our past experiences to guess whether we have opportunities for control in a new environment.

We talk a lot about agency, the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. Our perception of agency in a particular situation is based on our history of our past experiences and whether environmental events seem to be controllable or not. Moscarello and Hartley (2017) argue that learners make estimates on the amount of agency they have and behave in ways that range from being reactive (What can this environment do to me?) to more proactive (What can I do in this environment?). See Kao’s response might reflect a life history in which she had little opportunity for control. I don’t know much about her history, just that one day a villager brought her to the animal sanctuary saying she used to walk ok but now couldn’t and left her. For See Kao, being cautious with the new box may be very adaptive behavior: why investigate something new in the environment if in the past it meant something bad might happen or she might “get in trouble”, with resulting negative consequences?

A lot of shelter dogs I’ve worked with seem inhibited to forage. I’ve had foster parents or adopters say to me, “Fluffy must have a terrible nose; she can’t find any of the treats I hide.” There may be a lot of reasons for this, one of which may be their past experiences of having a lack of control. Foraging requires a certain degree of exploration, and if the dog has lived in an unpredictable environment, one where they’ve felt like they haven’t had control, then just like See Kao they may be hesitant to explore and check things out.

For See Kao, it’s been important to increase her sense of security and to think about ways to increase her experiences of control. When feasible, I try to offer See Kao a choice. For example, she usually walks on a long line and gets to pick the direction, what she wants to check out and sniff, and the pace. If we have a training session, I leave out a snuffle mat so working with me isn’t the only way for See Kao to contact reinforcement–in other words, she doesn’t earn treats solely by working with me; she can opt for a break and get some treats of her own choosing in the snuffle mat. For evening meals, she gets food delivered in a manner that offers her choice: she can choose which box she wants to forage through or opt for a Toppl. She gets to decide if today is a nail trimming day by opting in or not. Exploring feasible and safe options for choice helps to grow your dog’s sense of agency.

Predictability, particularly consistent if-then contingencies, can also enhance a dog’s sense of control. I think we’ve all witnessed dogs who get excited when you pick up a leash. It’s a predictable sequence: pet parent gets leash and then “oh boy a walk is going to happen”. I think some of you may know that our dog Boon has restricted motion in her rear legs so there are times when I need to pick her up and she doesn’t have a choice in the matter.  In these instances, rather than simply scooping her up, I use our cue “Ready” which lets Boon know what to expect as I proceed to pick her up. Predictability doesn’t necessarily mean a rigid blow by blow schedule, but having a consistent sequence of events like a morning or evening routine can help offer a sense of stability. I know I’m a lot less stressed out if I have a general idea of what I need to do or what is going to happen during my day rather than have things constantly coming out of left field at me.

Helping to provide choice and predictability to our pets can serve to increase their sense of control in the environment. Doing so can help your pet learner go from “what can this environment do to me” towards “what can I do in this environment”.  

Now What?

Happy Training!