Agency: What It Is & Why Your Pet Needs It

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A few weeks ago there was a discussion in our Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community Facebook group where I realized that I’ve never actually written a post about agency itself. Sure, I’ve included this topic in other posts but I’ve never devoted an entire post to this topic alone. It’s about time that changed! So this week is solely devoted to a topic that I don’t think gets near enough attention in the pet community: agency.

 

What is agency?

Agency is the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. One of the important factors here is that agency requires at least two desirable choices. A “cake or death” decision a la Eddie Izzard doesn’t fly. 

 

Doesn’t meet the 2+ desirable choices criterion

 

A pet example of a choice that fits the criteria would be the choice to sleep on comfy bed A or on comfy bed B. An example of a choice that doesn’t fit the criteria would be come when I call or get shocked. Make no mistake, though, it’s entirely possible to use food coercively as well. Such as, you can have delicious treats but only if you approach a person you find scary. Those examples don’t have at least two great choices to choose from. 

 

Why agency is important

There are so many reasons why agency is important that it would take me an entire book chapter to explain them all 😉 The short answer is it’s helpful in:

  • Combating learned helplessness
  • Creating resilience
  • Improving behavioral health
  • Improving quality of life (I don’t have research to back this bullet point up since “quality of life” is pretty subjective, but I think it’s safe to say that this is likely true from an anecdotal capacity and if we look at all the other things agency does for an individual.)

On a more practical note, having agency can be huge when it comes to how an individual reacts in certain situations. Here’s the example I use with my clients to illustrate this point:

Say that you’re at an educational wildlife event. The presenter is holding a snake. You hang out at the back of the room, fearful to move closer. The presenter continues talking about the snake they’re holding and offers for anyone to touch the snake who would like to do so. By the end of the presentation you’ve made your way to the front of the room and touch the snake. This was not a scary experience because you had full control over whether or not you put your hand on the snake. 

Now, let’s say you’re having a picnic. You’re sitting and chatting with your friends when you put your hand down– right on top of a snake. Chances are you’re not okay with this scenario, even though it’s the exact same behavior– hand on snake– as above. You may scream, run away, or perform some other fight or flight behavior. The difference between these scenarios is that you didn’t have the choice to touch the snake in the picnic but did in the presentation. 

We seem to see this with our pets, too. I often see reactive dogs who are far less reactive when they’re able to move away from the scary thing than when they’re made to sit there and watch it. Or dogs with separation anxiety who display fewer stress-related behaviors or less intense stress-related behaviors when they’re given more space to move about in the house (though, confinement anxiety is also a thing). While we can’t necessarily ask our pets in these situations if it’s agency that’s truly causing the change in behavior, we see it consistently enough that it’s a valid hypothesis. 

 

How can I provide more choices in my pet’s life?

There are so many ways to do this and we have a lot of examples in our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Here are some easy options:

  • Multiple sleeping areas to choose from
  • Being able to choose where they go and what they sniff on a walk
  • Food preference tests
  • Toy preference tests

Here are couple that are more involved but also allow for even more agency in situations where it really counts:

  • Cooperative care & start button behaviors for medical and grooming procedures
  • Being able to choose whether or not they move closer to a stressor– without luring with food

 

But… what if they make poor choices?

Agency doesn’t mean that your pet has full authority to do whatever they want. If you have a pet who bites people coming into the house they still need to be managed to ensure they don’t bite people coming into the house. We should not diminish safety to increase choice. 

Agency means providing choices that don’t compromise safety, physical health, mental or behavioral health, or enable them to practice unwanted behaviors. That sometimes means that our pets may not have multiple choices in a situation. When that happens we can acknowledge that and work on training a skill that allows our pet to have choices in future similar situations. For example, a dog who doesn’t have a rock solid recall (come when called) shouldn’t be off-leash even though being off-leash allows for more agency. Instead of resigning to that, we can work on training a rock solid recall for future use. 

 

Now what?

  • Assess the choices your pet currently has. Don’t be critical or hard on yourself; we’re simply assessing to see where we have room for improvement. 
  • In those areas where you find your pet doesn’t have agency, ask yourself why that is. Is it to mitigate safety concerns? Is it to mitigate unwanted behaviors? Or, are there situations where you’re not quite sure or because it’s what someone once recommended or you think it’s what you should be doing? Keep probing until you find those answers. 
  • If you’re newer to agency and thinking about your pet’s choices, choose one of those easier situations to increase your pet’s desirable choices. 
  • If this is something that you’ve been working on or thinking about for a while, you may want to consider one of the more involved options. Cooperative care is a great place to start for almost everyone. 
  • If you’re interested in learning more about agency and how to incorporate it into your pet’s life, check out our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World and be sure to join us in our Facebook group.

 

Happy training!

Allie

Behavior Modification vs. Weight Loss: a False Dichotomy

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I’ve mentioned before that issues seem to come in waves. In the spring we usually get a lot of new leash reactivity clients. With the pandemic we got a huge wave of intrahousehold aggression cases. This winter, though, it seems to be pets who need behavior modification who are also on a weight loss plan. 

Whenever I find that I’m having the same conversation multiple times per week, I add it onto the blog list. So this week is all about how to use food in training while sticking with your pet’s weight management strategy. Let’s dive in!

 

Why we use food in training

I’ve talked in a previous blog post about why we use food in training so frequently. Check it out here for a more in-depth explanation. The short answer is that it’s easier to dispense than other options and usually more effective than other options. Our pets need food to survive which means that it’s valuable; if it’s not valuable (even in a specific moment) it means that there’s something else going on that we need to troubleshoot. Again, there’s a much more in-depth exploration of this topic here

There are plenty of times where the behavior needs and the physical needs of an animal seem to be at odds with each other. A pet going through a behavior modification plan and a weight loss plan at the same time is one of those scenarios. The good news is that we don’t necessarily have to choose between the two!

 

Cutting calories

There are a few different ways to cut calories for pets who need to lose some weight while continuing to use food in training:

  • Use smaller treats. Below is an example of how small of a treat I use for 83-lb Oso. He works better for larger treats, but these suffice for things he knows how to do really well and for playing “find it”. 
  • Experiment with fruits and veggies. If your pet loves low-calorie foods, use them! I trained Oso’s “out” behavior (hanging out outside of the kitchen) exclusively with veggie scraps. Check out the blog about that here
  • Lickety Stiks (below) or broth cubes. Great taste and fewer calories with these flavored liquid options! (Also, shout-out to Duncan’s parents for calling the Lickety Stik “bacon goo” in a recent session. I’m totally stealing the phrase and still giggling about it.) 
  • Use their meals for training. Set aside some of their breakfast to use for training throughout the day. 
  • Feed less at mealtime if it’s a treat-heavy day. If you know you’ve dispensed a lot of treat calories one day, take out the equivalent from that evening’s meal. Talk with your vet before resorting to this a lot to make sure your pet is getting the nutrients they need. 

 

small treat next to a penny for comparison
One thing to keep in mind is that treat value matters (more info here). It’s not necessarily as easy as switching out treats or using kibble in training. There are times where you will need to use the higher-value– and usually higher-calorie– treats to get effective results with your training. Talk with your behavior consultant about where you can cut calories and where it’s imperative to use the better stuff. 

 

Using other reinforcers

Although using food in training is effective and often easier, it’s not the only thing that works. You can absolutely experiment with using other things that your pet enjoys: toys, play time, petting, praise. And don’t forget those “real-life reinforcers”: going through the door, putting the leash on, coming up on the couch. Here’s a post I recently wrote about teaching Oso to stay out of our basement without using any food. 

Now, if you’ve been with us for a little while you probably know what I’m going to say next. Remember: only the learner decides what’s reinforcing. If you decide to switch from giving treats for a sit to only petting them on the head and they stop sitting, then petting on the head isn’t actually reinforcing that behavior. 

To label something as reinforcing we need to observe how behavior changes over the course of our training. If the behavior continues happening or happens more, then what we’re doing is reinforcing. If the behavior happens less frequently or stops happening all together, then it’s not reinforcing. 

Long story short: we should only use something other than food if it’s actually effective. 

 

Phasing out food

I often hear the term, “phasing out food” when poking around the dog training internet (and used to say it myself!) What this should mean (not what it always means when used, though) is that we switch from using food to using some other type of reinforcer for a specific behavior. It doesn’t mean we stop using food altogether or that we stop providing any type of reward for performing a behavior. Really this is another way of saying “using other reinforcers” like the above category.

One way to combat weight gain while on a behavior modification program is to phase out food for behaviors that your pet knows how to do really well in the situations in which they know how to perform them. Oso is great at sitting in the house. Every now and then he gets a treat for sitting, but more often than not he doesn’t. We’ve phased out food for that behavior in that context. Now, he doesn’t have as strong of a reinforcement history for sitting at the vet clinic. That’s harder for him to do and so he still gets treats each time he sits in that context. 

So if we’re concerned about weight gain while working through a behavior modification program, we can phase out food for some behaviors while using treats for others. 

 

Increasing exercise in other ways

One of the challenges for especially dogs going through a weight loss program and a behavior modification program at the same time is that often many of the typical exercise activities are out. Leash reactive dogs often need to limit walks in order to limit triggers. Doggy daycare is out for pups displaying dog-dog aggression. Finding a dog walker is challenging for those stranger danger kiddos. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t exercise our pets in other ways, though. We just need to get a little creative with it. Last year’s February training challenge went through several different ways to provide more physical exercise inside the house for dogs cooped up in the winter. Check it out here

Oso gets most of his physical exercise inside the house in the winter (and we certainly don’t have a big house!) It’s very possible to keep up with the physical exercise part of your pet’s weight loss program while following management strategies for their behavior modification program. Make sure to speak with your vet about incorporating different exercises into your pet’s routine to ensure that it’s safe to do so with them. 

 

Shelving parts of a behavior modification program while working on a weight loss program

There are several stages to a behavior modification program. The first stages are much more about human learning and behavior than it is about training your pet. That means that the first stages don’t necessarily require a lot of extra, high-value treats! If your pet is at a seriously unhealthy weight, let’s work on managing their behavior issues (the first stages) instead of modifying their behavior so we can progress quicker through a weight loss program. As long as we’re managing the behavior so that it’s not getting worse over time we can safely come back to it later. 

 

Now what?

  • If you know your pet needs to lose some weight, your vet should be the first person you talk to. They can help you put together a plan to help your pet safely lose weight. 
  • Do a food preference test to determine what your pet’s favorite foods are and also what lower-calorie foods we can use in training. 
  • If there are behaviors that your pet knows how to do really well, start phasing out treats by decreasing how frequently you treat and increasing other types of reinforcers. Remember: if the behavior starts deteriorating you’re not actually reinforcing. 
  • Explore different types of exercise. Again, talk to your vet first to make sure the exercise is appropriate for your pet. But after that, have at it!
  • Speak with your behavior consultant about how to mitigate calorie intake while working through your pet’s behavior modification plan. We’re here to think outside the box for you!

 

Happy training!

Allie