One of Pet Harmony’s favorite topics is the subject of agency and why it is so important for our learners. In fact, we’ve had multiple blog posts (see here for a blog about agency in training, or here for a blog on predictability, choice, and control) dedicated to the topic of agency. Our Pet Harmony team recognizes the absolutely vital role agency plays in any living being’s mental and emotional well-being and we strive to help pet parents and their pets encounter as much agency in their daily lives as is safely possible.
Before I go any further, I want to define what the term agency means. In Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong define agency as “the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome.” I would capitalize on this definition by pointing out a few key components that are in bold text. Essentially, having control and choices that will result in something we desire gives us a sense of well-being. Of course, we live in the real world and sometimes life has other ideas. Oftentimes we are faced with situations where we don’t always have control or choice. I mean, it’s not really a choice to go to work if you have bills to pay and multiple responsibilities that require money to maintain. But…..having choice and control while you work is super helpful in maintaining your well-being once you arrive and begin to work, right?
Things get really interesting when the thing we usually desire is forced upon us and we have no choice or control in the matter. Something we normally find extremely appetitive can become something we view with disdain if we take out the ability to choose it when we want it. I know this intuitively and from reading research but not that long ago I had an experience that illuminated it so spectacularly that I just have to share it with you.
First Things First
First I need to clue you into something about myself. If I were a dog I would be what you might call noise sensitive. I wouldn’t necessarily classify myself as noise-phobic but I don’t like noise and I avoid loud, crowded spaces if I can. I mean, I can tolerate noise ok when I have to, and being able to escape it for short periods of time certainly helps me endure it better. If I know that I will be entering a noisy environment, I handle it much better if I can mentally prepare in advance. In other words, if I can mentally consent to the noise exposure, I handle it fairly well. Because I know ahead of time that noise will be a part of the environment, I feel some measure of control. Examples of this would be entering the shelter where I work or entering a bar to watch my son’s band play. I tolerate these loud environments because I care about the things contained therein. I want to help the shelter dogs and I want to be entertained by my son’s band. In both of these situations, I also understand that my noise exposure is finite-it has a beginning and an end. When the exposure is over, I can then retreat to the peace and solitude I prefer.
To further complicate things, there are some noises that I find delightful all of the time. Or so I thought. I always delight at the sound of crunching leaves in the fall probably because I am the one controlling the crunching. I also adore the sound of a good old-fashioned thunderstorm. I’m going to attribute this to my early learning history of hanging out with my dad in our garage with the door wide open, rain furiously unleashed from the sky, thunder crashing in booming waves, watching for lightning, and predicting when the next thunderclap would occur. I guess unfettered quality time with my dad cultivated a love of storms in me that I carry with me to this day. I also have a carefully curated playlist of music that I have hand-picked over the course of many years that I truly delight in. It is eclectic, it is soul-satisfying and it is all mine. It is one of the few things I like to put on full blast. I listen to it loud and proud, furiously singing along to the songs as if I were auditioning for a new season of American Idol. I love it that much. Unfortunately, I recently became acutely aware of how something we truly love and desire can become something we find intolerable and insufferable if we lose control of how and when we interact with it.
The Quiet Place
One of the places where I sometimes chose to blast my playlist is in my car but only on rare occasions. Truth be told, most of the time, one of the quiet places that I feel like I can escape to is my car. I don’t typically listen to music or the radio in my car. I may, on rare occasions, listen to a podcast at a very low volume. I mean, who can resist a new episode of Enrichment for the Real World podcast when it airs? But mostly I enjoy the solitude and lack of auditory stimuli that my car provides.
Sometimes, especially if I’ve had a particularly stressful, noisy day, it actually feels a bit like a sanctuary to enter the quiet embrace of my vehicle. Shelter from the storm as it were. The absence of sound equals bliss to my ears and soul. I will drive wherever I am going and not listen to anything other than the sound of my own breath and the sound of the road beneath the wheels. I find it comforting and inviting and a respite from a noisy, busy world. It also functions as a sort of reset. If I can have peace and solitude for just a little bit, then I feel prepared to enter into another clamorous environment should I need to.
How’s This For a Paradox?
But, there are times when I am just feeling it, ya know? I just want to, have to, listen to my music and the louder it pours out of the speakers, the better. We humans are just so paradoxically weird sometimes, aren’t we? I guess the heart wants what the heart wants and the soul needs what the soul needs and sometimes there is nothing more soul-satisfying than listening to the music we love at a high volume. On the rare occasions that I want to listen to music in the car, I will happily do so. As sound sensitive as I am, sometimes I’m not, but only at my choosing. And that’s where agency comes in. I have the ability to control the environment inside my vehicle (turn on my music or leave it off) and make choices (turn the volume way up or all the way down) that will result in a desirable outcome (listen to some of my favorite tunes or envelop myself in complete silence.) But what happens when the control and choice part of the equation is no longer in play? Well, if I’m using my experience, frustration, anger, and anxiety soon follow.
Next Stop, Illumination Station
For reasons unbeknownst to me, my beloved music playlist, the one that I would choose to play loudly and with reckless abandon sometimes, started to come on within one minute of me starting my car. Every. Single. Time. To be clear, I was not the one turning the music on. And if that weren’t bad enough, if I turned the connection off, within minutes and for reasons that I can not explain, my phone would reconnect to the car and the music would begin again. This would happen several times on a car ride. I would turn the music off, it would turn back on. Off. On. Off. On. Sometimes it would stay off for several minutes, sometimes for several seconds, but inevitably, and without warning, it would start playing at some point, usually just as I was once again letting my guard down enough to enjoy the peace.
Now, I don’t think my vehicle was possessed like a demonic version of Stephen King’s Christine but I did feel like I was living in some weird alternate version of Groundhog Day. Surely, there was a technological explanation for the phenomenon of my smartphone and car choosing to play music without my permission but I wasn’t able to figure it out. All I knew was that my once peaceful sanctuary was no longer that. It made me irrationally irate on days when I was already feeling stressed and tired, especially on days when silence was a really desired and valuable resource. Angry enough to swear at inanimate objects and tell them to “just shut the *^@%#^ already!” I’m not proud. Even my very favorite songs that I once found completely irresistible became insufferable. The very thing that used to bring me so much joy when I had control over my engagement with it now filled me with a sense of anger and dread. Truly, I started to feel some anxiety in my car because I couldn’t control the environmental events that occurred inside of it. The simple concept of not having agency made me bitter and resentful towards a thing that I used to love. It was fascinating from a behavior science standpoint but incredibly maddening from a lived experience standpoint. I felt out of control and out of sorts when I was in my car instead feeling the comfort of a place I had previously found to be a peaceful retreat. Not only was the music poisoned but the car was too. How was this finally resolved, you may wonder? I purchased a new phone. It was time for a trade-in anyway.
How Does This Apply to Our Pets?
All living things need agency to maintain a sense of well-being including our pets. I think my example illustrates that agency is so important that without it, even something we love or desire can become tainted. The next time your pet balks at something they usually really enjoy, it might be a good idea to ask yourself if a lack of agency is informing your pet’s decision-making instead of concluding that they are being stubborn, difficult, or picky. For example, even if they find boiled chicken the most delicious thing in the world, they may find it intolerable if you are using it to lure them to the bath or into their crate. This isn’t to say that we have to provide our pets with agency all of the time. That is not practical or sustainable. But the more opportunities we can give them to have the ability to have some level of control and choices in their environment that leads to a desired outcome for them, the happier and more well-adjusted they will be.
- Try to examine ways in which you are or are not providing your pet with the ability to have some level of control and choices that lead to desired outcomes for them during their day. Are there things that you can change to help provide them with more agency?
- Think of things your pet normally loves to engage with whether it is an activity or food or toy. Can you think of times when your pet is engaging less enthusiastically with those loved things? Is lack of control or choices leading to a desired outcome to blame?
- Make a list of not only the things your pet loves but also when they love to engage with it and try to provide more access to those things at those times. Notate any changes you see in your pet’s behavior.
- Not sure how to help provide your pet with more agency? Pet Harmony is here to help!