THE HAPPY DOG: AGENCY, CONSENT, AND CONTEXT ARE IMPORTANT
Source: Psychology Today (Extract)
Posted: June 14, 2023
As I continue my research on dogs, a number of different themes keep popping up in many of the topics about which I write. They emerged from scientific studies, citizen science, and stories I’ve heard from numerous people who carefully watch their own and other dogs. Three of these themes center on the importance of agency, consent, and context in giving a dog the best life possible and recognizing that all dogs are unique individuals and there is no universal dog. Let’s consider each in turn, fully recognizing that they are closely linked with one another as we learn who a dog is and what they want and need from us and, in fact, from other dogs.
Agency. Allowing a dog the freedom to make their own choices. Jessica Pierce notes, “If I could identify the single most significant problem facing homed dogs right now, it would be lack of adequate agency. Dogs have very little control over their sensory environment, their social interactions, and the basic elements of daily survival, all of which are orchestrated by human guardians. This lack of control—a near-total loss of agency—has significant fallout for their physical and especially their psychological well-being.”
Fortunately, there are many ways to allow dogs (and other animals) to have more control over their lives and to empower them. The best and mutually beneficial way to do this is to become fluent in dog, understand what your dog is asking of you, and give them as many freedoms as possible and “unleash” them whenever you can. Dogs need to feel empowered and have a sense of control. When they do, it’s good for them and for you and will enhance the social bond you have developed, and one you both want to maintain for a long time.
For example, let them lead the way on their walk, don’t yank them here and there and say: “There’s nothing there. Why are you sniffing or looking around?” (There’s a lot there for them to take in.) Don’t touch or pet them unless they want you to do so, and accept their needs when they indicate: “No, I don’t want to do that.” Unfortunately, many dogs experience “helicopter parenting” and are constantly being told, “No!” or “Stop doing that!” Scolding far outweighs praising.
Consent. Consent simply means a dog agrees with what you ask of them. Clearly, consent and agency are strongly connected—allowing a dog to indicate yes or no means you’ve given them the freedom to let you know what they want or need and that you honor their choices—where and how they want to be walked, if they want to be touched or hugged, go to a dog park, or go to a groomer or veterinarian. Consent also arises when you force your dog to play with their canine friends when they don’t want to for whatever reason.
Dogs who feel that their wishes are honored are happier dogs; cats are no different. They want to feel they are being heard and respected; they have their own canine or feline views about what they want and need.
Context. Dog behaviors don’t occur in a vacuum, and it’s critical to consider the context when studying dogs. Context provides critical information about who’s involved – dogs and humans, where they are, and what caused a dog to do whatever they’re doing. For example, certain actions or behaviors such as bared teeth and growling can mean different things in different contexts. These behaviors are not necessarily aggressive. The same can be said for mounting and humping because they’re not necessarily sexual overtures.
To understand your dog’s behavior, you always have to consider the context for your dog. This means paying close attention to who the dog is, who you are, and the nature of your unique relationship. That’s why there are so many mysteries and so many myths floating around. Each dog and every dog-human relationship is unique.
It’s also important to understand what is happening for a dog, especially when you are inclined to label some behavior as abnormal. We need to be very careful in labeling something as abnormal – or normalizing certain behaviors – because we know that dogs and many other animals show great variability in behavior depending on the context, including what’s happening around them, who’s there, and where they are.
Abnormal could refer to unusual or excessive behavior such as behaving aggressively, baring teeth, biting, or barking, but often when a dog is doing something we call abnormal or excessive it might be just what one would expect when different aspects of context are considered. Their behavior might be entirely dog appropriate, and we must understand that there is nothing abnormal at all because they are feeling something and expressing how they feel about a certain situation or the context in which they find themselves.
What makes dogs tick?
We can’t assume there are quick, simple, cut-and-dried answers to all of our questions about what makes dogs tick. Dogs can have good and bad days and what they want on Monday may differ from what they want on Tuesday. They may simply be expressing what they feel at a given moment or, on occasion, simply need some downtime or alone time. Don’t take this personally, it’s not all about you.
The importance of agency, consent, and context appears all over the place in the daily life of a dog and in their ongoing relationships with humans and other dogs. Giving them room to tell you what they want and need will make it easier for you to coexist with your dog in mutually respectful ways.
Dog-human relationships require give-and-take and constant negotiations that might favor a dog or favor a human, depending on what is happening at a given moment. We must strive for ongoing balanced relationships that are as symmetrical as possible. Isn’t that what living with a dog should be all about?
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