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!


October 2020 Training Challenge


Part of me can’t believe it’s already October and part of me reminds the first part that this has been the longest year ever. Regardless, it’s time for our October training challenge!

List enrichment strategies you employ while you’re gone and objectively go through the list to determine if those strategies are effective. 

Not only is this training challenge dedicated to the “Independence” chapter of our book, it’s also a great exercise in taking a descriptive vs. prescriptive approach to your enrichment plan. (Note: we decided what the training challenges were going to be well before Covid hit. While you may not be gone at work all day at the moment, this exercise still applies for shorter outings!)


Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

For those of you who’ve heard us speak this year, you’ve heard us talk about taking a descriptive approach to your enrichment plan.

Descriptive: “I see a change in my animal’s behavior because of the activities we’ve done or provided.”

Prescriptive: “I provided an activity for my pet therefore he’s enriched.”

With the descriptive approach, we observe behavior to determine if the activity was effective instead of assuming that it was. Did it actually meet the animal’s needs as we intended? If it did, great! We can keep doing it. If it didn’t, well, then it’s back to the drawing board. Emily wrote a great blog post about this here. It’s not enough for us to just assume that our pet’s needs are being met while we’re gone, we need to actually observe that that’s true. 


How can I tell if those activities are effective?

There are a few ways we can tell if these activities are effective:

  • They’re being used. If you leave a stuffed Kong for your pet and it’s untouched when you return, that’s not an effective strategy. 
  • Watch your pet on video. Want to know if the window film you put up for your pet’s reactivity is actually decreasing reactivity throughout the day? It’s time to break out a recording option and see what your pet is up to during the day. 
    • Recording options can be high-tech, like Furbo and Nest (these are affiliate links), or low-tech, like Skyping or Zooming yourself or setting up a laptop to record shorter absences.
  • Observe your pet’s behavior when you come home. Providing activities while you’re gone can be the determining factor between having an adolescent dog who’s bouncing off the walls when you come home vs. one who’s excited but not uncontrollable. 


Now what?

  • Make a list of the enrichment activities you utilize while your pet is home alone. 
  • Make a list of desirable and undesirable behaviors that you’re hoping these enrichment activities address.
  • Observe your pet’s behavior. Are those activities effective in increasing desirable behaviors and decreasing undesirable behaviors?
  • Adjust your enrichment plan accordingly. 
  • Share your findings with us on social media! @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram


Happy training!


September 2020 Training Challenge

This month’s training challenge was also the September challenge from last year. Apparently September just reminds me of food puzzles! This month’s challenge is:

Teach your pet how to use a new food puzzle

As I mentioned in the beginning of the year (and throughout the other challenges), this year’s training challenges are dedicated to our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Each month focuses on a different category of enrichment. This month’s focus is “Mental Exercise”. 

To effectively meet the mental exercise component, make sure that your new puzzle is challenging enough for your pet to employ their problem solving skills but not so challenging that they get frustrated and give up. There’s often a fine line between the two and that’s often why we need to teach our pets how to use their new toy.

From “They Won’t Do It” to “They Love It”

While foraging (searching for food) is a natural behavior for all species, food puzzles aren’t natural. There are no food puzzles growing in the wild so that the ancient dog or cat ancestor learned how to use them and pass that knowledge down to future generations. This is why we frequently need to teach our pets how to use a particular puzzle, especially if they haven’t used one before. 

Check out our video below on how to teach your pet to use a food puzzle:

And here are some tips that I shared in last year’s blog post:

Here are some tips for teaching your pet a new food puzzle:

  • Choose a puzzle with your pet’s preferences in mind. Our pets have preferences just like we do. For instance, Oso is a rough-and-tumble kind of dude. He’s great at the puzzles that he can knock over and roll around with his nose. He doesn’t mind the noise those make though he does prefer to use them on carpeted areas. I know that if I give him a new puzzle he can roll around I don’t need to show him how to to it. However, he’s not as adept at the intricate food puzzles that require a lot of small motions and steps. His way of solving those is dropping them on the floor so they break open (which, while a valid way to solve the puzzle is also expensive to buy replacements.) If I give him a more complicated puzzle I’ll have to teach him first before he can use it without breaking it. 
  • Choose a puzzle with your pet’s experience in mind. Giving a challenging food puzzle to a novice dog is likely to lead to frustration. On the other hand, giving a simple food puzzle to an experienced dog is not going to provide much of a challenge. Think about how much experience your dog has with food puzzles and choose a new one accordingly. 
  • Work up to the most challenging setting. Many puzzles have ways to make them more or less difficult. Instead of starting with the most difficult setting we should work our way up to it by first starting on the easiest, then easy-medium, medium, medium-hard, and finally the hardest setting. This allows our pet to master each setting and build a history of getting food from the puzzle. That history will help them keep at it for longer when it becomes more challenging. 
  • Show them how but try not to do it for them. It was once thought that only primates could learn through watching others but we now know that our pets can do this too! We can encourage them to use their new puzzle by showing them how to get the treats out a few times. Be careful though not to do it every time for them. Some learn that the best way to get the food out is to let the human do it! While that’s a clever solution in using their resources it doesn’t necessarily meet the goal we’re hoping to achieve by introducing a new puzzle. Show them how a few times then let them at it. 
  • Use a higher-value food. Higher-value food helps build more motivation in almost all training scenarios: this is no different! Up the ante when they’re first learning and save the kibble for when they’ve got the hang of it. 

What food puzzle should I try?

Here are some of our favorite store bought options for dogs (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!):

Here are some of our favorite store bought options for cats (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!): 

Small dogs and cats can often choose between these lists, too!

Don’t forget DIY!

Food puzzles don’t need to break the bank. There are a lot of simple, cheap, DIY options like these:

Now what?

  • Buy and/or make your new puzzle!
  • Teach your pet how to use their new toy, if needed. 
  • Share videos of your pets having fun and using their brains with us on Facebook or Instagram: @petharmonytraining

Happy training!