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Giving Dogs Agency: Promoting Control and Choice in Their Lives



As dog guardians, it's essential that we provide our dogs with a sense of agency in their lives. Agency refers to the degree of control that a dog has over their environment and the events that affect them. Giving our dogs agency means promoting their ability to make choices and have control over their actions and experiences. In this post, we will explore the different ways to provide agency for dogs and why it's crucial for their well-being.


Domestic dogs face certain limits on their agency due to their dependency on humans for their basic needs, such as food, shelter, and medical care. Unlike their wild counterparts, domestic dogs have limited opportunities to exercise their natural behaviours and make choices independently.


Dogs are often confined to their living space and may have limited access to the outdoors or other environments where they can explore and interact with other animals. Additionally, dogs may have restrictions on their social interactions, as they may not be allowed to interact with other animals or people without supervision or permission.


Training can also limit a dog's agency if not done correctly or used to train a dog's behaviour to be performed against their wants and/or needs. Using coercive methods, especially those that involve fear, intimidation, or physical force can harm a dog's emotional well-being and reduce their sense of control over their environment and experiences.


Furthermore, dogs may face limitations on their agency due to breed-specific traits or physical limitations. For example, certain breeds may have specific exercise requirements or may not be able to engage in certain activities due to their physical build.


While domestic dogs face certain limits on their agency, it is crucial for dog guardians to recognise and respect their dogs' individual needs and preferences. By providing opportunities for physical, social, mental, nutritional, and environmental agency, dog guardians can promote their dogs' sense of control and well-being, and allow them to live fulfilling lives.



Providing Physical Agency


Walks are a crucial component in promoting physical agency for dogs as they allow dogs to engage in their natural behaviours such as running, sniffing, and interacting with other animals.


Regular walks not only provide dogs with physical exercise but also promote mental stimulation, reduce stress, and decrease anxiety levels. The act of sniffing is particularly important for dogs as it allows them to explore their environment, gather information, and make sense of the world around them.


Additionally, walking with a dog provides opportunities for social interaction and bonding between the dog and their guardian, which can improve the human-animal relationship and promote trust and affection. Ultimately, providing opportunities for walks allows dogs to exercise their natural desire to explore and promotes their sense of agency over their environment.


In addition to the benefits of sniffing, regular walks are also essential for providing dogs with the physical agency to move freely and exercise their bodies. It's important to ensure that dogs are appropriately attired for their walks, with comfortable and kind walking attire to ensure their safety and protection. Additionally, dogs should be protected from being touched by strangers, as not all dogs are comfortable with being approached by unfamiliar people.


As dog guardians, it is our responsibility to ensure that our dogs have the physical agency to move freely and exercise their bodies, while also protecting them from any potential harm. This allows our dogs to feel comfortable and in control during walks, promoting their overall well-being and agency.


Giving dogs agency over where they sleep and choose to sit is crucial for promoting their overall sense of control and well-being. Dogs are social animals that thrive on the company of their human and animal companions. As such, providing comfortable and appropriate sleeping areas and allowing them to choose where to rest is essential.


Dogs should have access to their living space, including comfortable beds or resting areas, and should be allowed to choose where they want to rest. Some dogs may prefer to sleep in a crate or a specific corner of a room, while others may prefer to sleep on a bed or sofa. Additionally, providing dogs with the agency to choose where to sit can also promote their sense of control. Some dogs may prefer to sit close to their guardians or in a specific location, while others may prefer to sit away from people or in a quiet corner.



Providing Social Agency


Dogs are social animals and need to interact with people and other dogs. However, it's important to allow dogs to choose when and where to engage in social interactions. Avoid forcing dogs to interact with people or animals that they are uncomfortable with, and instead, provide opportunities for socialisation and play that they can engage in on their own terms.


Different dogs have different social needs due to their breed, individual temperament, age and life experiences. Some dogs are naturally more social and outgoing, while others may be more reserved or even fearful of new people or situations.


Breed plays a significant role in a dog's social needs, as certain breeds are known for their sociability and love of people and other dogs. For example, Labrador Retrievers are known for their friendly and outgoing personalities, while some breeds like Shar Peis may be more reserved and independent.


Individual temperament also plays a role in a dog's social needs. Some dogs may be naturally shy or anxious, while others may be more confident and outgoing. A dog's life experiences also play a significant role in their social needs. Dogs that have not been socialized properly as puppies or have had negative experiences with people or other dogs may be fearful or aggressive in social situations.


It's important to understand that different dogs have different social needs and to respect those needs. Some dogs may thrive on social interaction and need regular opportunities to play and socialise with other dogs, while others may prefer more solitary activities and limited social interactions.


Age is another factor that can affect a dog's social desires. Just like humans, dogs' social needs can change as they age. Young puppies and adolescent dogs tend to be more social and playful, while older dogs may prefer more solitary activities and less social interaction.


Senior dogs, in particular, may experience changes in their social desires due to physical limitations, health issues, and changes in mobility. They may become less interested in playing and socialising with other dogs and may prefer quiet activities and spending more time with their human companions.


As dogs age, they may also become more selective in their social interactions, preferring to spend time with familiar dogs and people rather than meeting new ones. This is a natural part of the ageing process, and as dog guardians, we need to respect our dogs' changing social desires and provide them with appropriate opportunities for social interaction that fit their individual needs.


Providing Mental Agency


Dogs need mental stimulation to stay mentally healthy and engaged. Providing toys, puzzles, and games that allow dogs to make choices and engage in problem-solving activities is a great way to promote mental agency. Allowing dogs to choose what they want to play with and providing choices during training sessions can also promote mental agency.


Dogs, like humans, need mental stimulation to stay healthy and engaged. Without enough mental activity, dogs can become bored, restless, and even destructive. Mental stimulation helps to keep dogs' minds active and engaged, and can improve their overall wellbeing.


Providing toys, puzzles, and games that allow dogs to make choices and engage in problem-solving activities is a great way to promote mental agency. These types of activities can help to develop a dog's cognitive skills and improve their ability to learn and adapt. There are a wide variety of toys and puzzles available that can challenge dogs mentally, such as interactive feeders, puzzle toys, and treat-dispensing balls.


Encouraging dogs to choose what they want to play with and providing choices for play can also promote mental agency. This means letting them decide which toys they want to play with, and giving them options during training sessions and life in general.


Providing Environmental Agency


Dogs have a natural instinct to explore and investigate their surroundings. Providing opportunities for your dog to explore their environment is essential for their overall mental and physical health. Allowing them to make choices around where they go and what they do can promote a sense of control and independence.


One way to promote environmental agency is by allowing your dog to choose where they want to go in the house or yard. For example, you could let them decide which room they want to spend time in, or give them the option to go outside and play in the backyard. This can help your dog feel more in control of their environment and reduce feelings of frustration or boredom.


Another way to provide choices for your dog is by offering different types of beds or resting areas. Dogs may prefer different types of beds, such as a soft cushion, a raised bed, or a cozy cave. Providing options for different types of beds or resting areas can help your dog feel more comfortable and relaxed, and can promote a sense of autonomy.


Additionally, allowing dogs to choose when and where to go outside can also promote environmental agency. Dogs need to go outside to relieve themselves, but they may also want to explore and sniff around. Allowing your dog to choose when and where to go outside can help them feel more in control of their environment and promote a sense of independence.


Overall, providing choices for your dog around where they go and what they do can promote a sense of control and autonomy, and can improve their overall wellbeing. By allowing your dog to explore their environment and make choices, you can help them feel more engaged and fulfilled, both mentally and physically.


Conclusion


Giving dogs agency is crucial for their emotional well-being and overall health. When dogs have some control over their environment and experiences, they are more likely to feel fulfilled and happy. As dog guardians, it's our responsibility to promote agency and create a positive and enriching environment for the dogs in our homes and lives.


If you would like to learn more about giving your dog the best life possible, consider the ISCP iPet Network accredited award in dog behaviour welfare and ethical training.



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