Monday, October 30, 2023

Canine Choice


Choice, Agency, & Boundaries all rolled into one!

What is Choice, Agency and Boundaries & How Does it Apply to Dog Training?

Basic Definitions

Choice: The freedom to do different behaviors in the environment the animal is in. 

Agency: The perception of how much freedom you (or an animal) has to make choices.

Boundaries: The rules, guidelines, or laws we all (humans, dogs, and all living beings) must live by.

Let's work backwards starting with boundaries!

As humans we understand that laws exist to keep humans (and animals) safe and that breaking those laws can result in a punishment. Animals on the other hand, don't have LAWS that are enforced on them by governing bodies. Instead, animals that live in people homes will have rules to abide by, but they primarily think in terms of what behaviors will earn them reinforcement of something they want. Animals can learn through punishment to avoid behaviors, but that can have harsh consequences to the emotional well being of the animal. 

Imagine, you drive without your seatbelt every day and don't get caught. So you continue to drive without using that safety device. Eventually something is going to happen to give you a negative consequence for that action. Hopefully it's something minor like a ticket from law enforcement, but occasionally the punishment is more severe such as injury (or worse) from an accident. Those seatbelt laws are designed to keep us safe!

Switching back to dogs, every dog owner has to decide what it's going to take to keep their dog safe. We love our dogs and most of us have a basic desire to keep them safe. 

If you have a little dog, you might worry that people will step on them, therefore you might not allow them to run around in a crowded place. This means you might take away their freedom to move around an environment by picking them up and carrying them. 

Most responsible owners use a leash to help keep their dogs safe by preventing them from running in the road, approaching an unknown dog, etc. Some owners may choose to train their dog to a level of obedience where they feel their dog is relatively safe without a leash. While other owners, especially husky owners, will never fully trust their dog off leash in uncontrolled environments because they know their dog loves to run too much.

That's the thing with boundaries when it comes to family pets. Each family has to set their own rules or boundaries based on their situation and the pet they own. My boundaries are pretty simple:
  • I don't want my dogs to get injured in the road so we use longlines for sniffing in any area that is not fenced in or otherwise secured. Rule: My dogs do not run free!
  • I don't want my dogs to hurt any humans! This means I have rules in place for mouthing/biting, jumping, or any other behavior that is going to lead to potentially hurting a human.
That's pretty much it!  Those are my rules!

There is a popular rule that comes from other dog trainers and that is one of forced obedience. If human says "sit" that dog better sit! While I do teach my dogs to sit, I never want to force them to sit because it might be uncomfortable them due to an injury, fear, or other distraction in the environment that I have not noticed yet. The only time I ever want to force a behavior on my dogs is if it's absolutely necessary to protect the other humans and animals in that environment. This could be as simple as placing a leash back on your dog when you see another dog coming or using distance away from a friendly stranger to prevent your dog from jumping on them.

My rules are not your rules and as a dog owner, you must decide what boundaries you need to set for your family including the pets you own.

Agency and Choice go together: We can't have agency if we are never given choices and we can't give choices without giving agency.

Remember, agency is the perception of how much freedom you have to make choices!

If your dog always eats their meals in a bowl, it's always the same kibble, at the same time, etc. There is no choices offered to them when it comes to meal time therefore they have no control over what they eat unless they are sneaky at stealing things they find. The need to eat is a basic need which makes it a great place to build in some choices.

The Pick One Game is a great way to build in choice of food!
(This is also a game we do in the Building a Better Bond Workshop!)

Some dogs may have very little choice in their day to day lives. Humans tell them what to eat, where to sleep, when they go potty, etc. These dogs would have very little agency! While other dogs are given choices on a daily basis. They might be trained to give a cue such as ring bells to go outside to potty which allows them the freedom to control the environment in a way to take care of this basic need. This can help a dog have more agency, or belief that their behaviors can impact their day to day life. 

Then there are some dogs like Azul who are given choices all day long and it can seem like these dogs take over the house! I go outside when Azul asks to go outside! I get his food when he asks! I give belly rubs on demand! 

Is he spoiled? Perhaps! But at least I'm sure that he realizes his behaviors can have an impact on his day to day life. Azul has lots of agency. But he still has rules and boundaries such as we use longlines a lot because he is a husky that's prone to wandering away.

Finding a middle ground between offering choices and being controlled by our dogs!

(Side note: This sub-heading is meant to be a joke of sorts! In no way are our dogs trying to take over the world and rule over us or try to be alpha over us humans!)

The key to helping your dog have agency without giving up your household safety rules is simple!

Always give choices where both answers are acceptable options. In the Pick One game above, I might offer one type of treat in my right hand and a different type of treat in my left. Both would be acceptable so Azul is free to choose which one he wants more in that moment. Azul would always choose to be off leash running as his normal speed is way faster than my normal speed. However that isn't safe. So I can provide Azul a choice of go inside the backyard fenced area and run free or wear his harness and longline and sniff in other areas of our property. Now some days, my health doesn't allow me to wander the property and Azul doesn't get a choice, but other days both are possible options. 

There are lots of different ways you can give your dog choices in life without compromising your boundaries! I'm happy to write another blog on this topic if you'd like more information about building choices into your dog's life. 

You can also sign up for the Building a Better Bond Workshop or the Confident Canines Class where you can learn more about the topic of Canine Choice!

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