Do We Sell Them Short? Supporting “Agency” in Animals

by | Jun 29, 2020 | Animal training, Animal Behavior, Human-animal bond, Animal preparation & training, Animal welfare

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This article is a finalist in the Dog Writers Association of America’s 2020 Competition in the category of Best Online Article or Blog Entry.

Please note:
 I am grateful to my friend and colleague Pat Tagg who gave me permission to include a remarkable story she shared on social media recently. I’ve saved the best for last–her contribution!

Well, readers, we’re going on a short field trip together – to Alaska! I took the photo above several years ago in Katmai National Park, a place I have visited many times since 1989 to observe, photograph, and learn from Alaskan Brown Bears in the wild. While this blog post is going to be about more domesticated species including our companion animals, it has its roots in naturally-occurring behavior. The bear above was in his natural habitat, fattening up near the end of the September salmon run in order to survive the harsh winter. He used one of several fishing styles common to these bears–quietly dunking beneath the surface, using his mouth to capture a salmon, and then calmly bringing it back up to the surface to eat it. (Not all bear fishing styles are quiet and calm, by the way!).

Next I’ll show you a sow (female) and her 2nd-year cub. He will be with her for another year before heading off on his own. He is learning by observation, one of the key ways that cubs learn to fish and survive. They usually adopt the same fishing styles as their mothers.

This 2nd-year cub is watching his mother fish and consume salmon.

Although what is depicted here does not always happen if the sow is still hungry, this one finished what she wanted of the salmon and then gave it to her cub to have some scraps. She allowed him to figure out his fish-handling techniques through his observations and trial-and-error. He learned quickly. Mother bears will teach some lessons more directly, but in most of my observations, they will see and respond to what the cub is doing on his or her own first.

His mother gives the cub the remains of her meal to learn to handle as well as to eat. It is easier for him at this early stage of his education because the fish is already dead.

In my journey as a child and family psychologist, as well as my parallel journey into animal behavior and ethology, I have learned to step back and observe. I also have learned it is okay to question the current fashions or methods being used to help children or our animals. This blog reflects one such bit of learning that happened gradually through the years. I first learned it in terms of working with children and their parents, and then re-learned it when working more fully with animals. This article is about the concept of “agency” and where it fits in with our work with animals.

Agency refers to the capability of humans and animals to act within their environment, usually by choosing (unconsciously or purposefully) a set of behaviors that help accomplish a goal. People are said to “have agency” when they take the environment into account and then decide on some goal-directed action over which they have some control. Animals have agency, too, but it can be limited by their socialization experiences, the environment at the moment, and the type of relationships they have with conspecifics and/or the humans who care for them.

I’ve been pleased to see a little more consideration of agency in animal training and behavior work, with growing emphasis on empowering animals, giving them greater choice and voice in their lives. I am positive in my approach to animal training, using animal-friendly methods to help them learn what I am interested in. The last five words of the previous sentence are critical ones, however: “what I am interested in.” All too often we select the behaviors we want our animals to learn, implement a training plan to help them succeed, and watch their reactions/body language throughout to ensure that they are not stressed by what or how we are teaching. This is all well and good, but there’s more to the picture than this.

I’m trained as a relationship psychologist. I can certainly work within a behavioral learning frame, but I tend to pull back a bit and look at what I am doing and why in the context of relationship. I can easily come up with dozens of things I’d like to teach my dogs, for example, but I also have a clear idea of the type of relationship I want to have with them. My desire is to have relationships that are reciprocal as much as possible, that bring mutual benefit, where both parties get to make some choices and have a say about things. Some things I teach are important for safety, and some are to help animals live within the confines of human life that are imposed on them. At the same time, I want them to have as much freedom as possible to be themselves, to make choices for themselves, and to spend much of their time doing things they prefer to pursue. I don’t want to set the entire agenda, as sometimes happens in the ways that behavioral training methods are used (not always). If I want to be part of those freely-given choices, I need to think about supporting their agency.

Do We Sell Them Short?

I often think so. I know I have done so in the past, and I try not to now. Even so, I still find myself doing more for them than perhaps they need or want. I love them and want life to be good for them, but sometimes I am thinking in terms of my ideas of what a good life is all about rather than letting them define it for themselves. People often use the metaphor of a “mama bear” referring to ferocious protectiveness, and believe me, mother bears can be a force to be reckoned with if they sense that their cubs are in danger. That is only one part of being a mother bear, though. They provide what their cubs need in terms of food, and then as the cubs are able, they teach them to do more for themselves. One way they do this is simply to allow the cubs to play and to learn in their own ways, often using trial-and-error. In the fishing example above, she did not show her cub specific things to do, other than by her own example. She flipped the fish toward his forelegs and let him fend for himself a bit. He manipulated the fish and figured out what worked best for himself. There are various terms used to describe this, but this is agency at work.

I wonder if we do too much for our animals and not enough with our animals. Are we intervening quite a lot to help them accomplish a goal or are we allowing them the opportunity to sort some of it out on their own? There certainly are times when it makes sense to show them specifically what we need from them, but that process can become one-sided if it represents the bulk of our daily interactions with them. If we are frequently deciding the behaviors we want them to learn and then teaching them, where are their voices in the process? Do they get to choose the behavior or simply react to our training process? Do we stop and listen to what they want, even if it’s not quite what we had in mind, at least some of the time? Do they always need the step-by-step processes used in counter-conditioning and desensitization to frightening things in order to overcome them, or are they sometimes capable of figuring it out for themselves if we set up the right conditions for that to happen?

In a recent blog about animals and their response to pandemic face masks on people, Animals and Face Masks: Creating Safety, Fun, and Familiarity, I included photos of a horse cautiously approaching a novel object in her field. She watched it, approached but kept a distance, circled away, came a bit closer, circled away, and so on until she walked up to it and began interacting with it. It took not more than 5 minutes for her to gather enough information to check it out for herself. She didn’t need human intervention for that particular task.

Frans de Waal wrote a book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, that looks at the capabilities of animals long underestimated by humans. The many researchers looking at cognition in dogs are finding the same. I’ve always appreciated the work on human intelligence by Howard Gardner who posited that there are eight different types of intelligences that form unique profiles for each individual. (His book is Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences). I think this conceptualization should be applied to dogs, horses, cats, and other animals as well. With dogs, much has been written about intelligence, even listing breeds by how smart they are based on how quickly they learn. But learning speed is just one form of intelligence. What about the dogs who can sort out 2-week-old scent trails in the woods and determine the direction in which the deer or rabbit was heading? Aren’t different cognitive and sensory processes involved in learning tasks vs. concepts?

Must We Teach, Train, or Orchestrate Everything for Them?

I know there is great variation in how people work with their animals, even if they have mastered how to apply animal-friendly methods instead of the more traditional methods that are rather controlling and often aversive for the animals. (I still frequently hear how “pressure-and-release” is the only way that horses learn. It simply isn’t true, and there are friendlier methods that use positive reinforcement to teach horses rather than using punishment or the pressure-based negative reinforcement approaches.) Assuming that you are an animal-friendly (positive) trainer, however, there is still more to the conversation. The questions shouldn’t stop with “What methods do you use to train?”. The questions need to start earlier than that: “Who decides what the animal needs to learn, and to what extent is the animal’s point of view considered when determining it is important?” “How well do we consider the animal’s preferences at any given moment as well as their existing abilities?” “Might they have a different way of solving a problem than the way we have in mind?” “Do we stop and ask, ‘I want to teach my dog Trick A. I wonder if my dog really wants or needs to learn Trick A. What’s on my dog’s agenda and how would Trick A fit in with that?'”?

In the photo, Kirrie is scanning the environment while I waited. I was allowing her to choose our direction on a hike in Shenandoah National Park (hence the leash, and I do prefer harnesses to collars nowadays if animals must be on leash at all).

Animals learn, whether we direct it or not. Do we really need to direct all of it? How do we decide how much is too much–when our emphasis on selecting behaviors to train crosses the line into compulsion (even if we are using positive methods)? These questions do not have a single answer. They depend on the person, the animal, the situation, and the type of relationship one wishes to cultivate.

So How Do We Support Agency in Animals?

Recently I’ve read blogs and websites that claim that “the more we use positive reinforcement, the better animals will be at solving problems.” I have mixed feelings about this claim. I can see the truth in it. If animals are taught using positive reinforcement with high value reinforcers, they usually offer more behaviors, and they learn that they are not subject to corrections such as scolding, leash jerks, whips, being isolated from everyone, and so on. They learn that they can offer behaviors and the worst that will happen will be nothing. They then offer more behaviors because they have been reinforced for doing so. When faced with new situations, because they have learned there is no “hell to pay,” so to speak, they often continue to offer behaviors, providing the trainer with an array of behaviors to reinforce.

On the other hand, I would probably revise that statement to read, “the more we allow animals to have free choices and problems to solve on their own, the better they will be at solving problems.” Research has long indicated that children are better at solving problems when they have had experience with choosing among multiple options, generating several possible solutions. I suggest that the same is likely true of animals. If we give them regular opportunities to solve problems of different types, they could well become better at solving problems in general. It should be noted that one of the best environments in which children and animals learn to solve problems is during play. There will be future blogs on that topic.

Much of the enrichment we provide to animals, including family companion animals and animals in captivity, is related to this. Below I have listed a few things that one might do to empower the animals in our care–to support their agency.

Provide options for them to solve problems

I’m sure many readers do this already. There is much discussion of enrichment in the animal community. Enrichment can refer to puzzles, novel items, new experiences, play, and items that make use of all their senses and abilities. It can be provided to companion animals as well as captive animals (in sanctuaries), and livestock. It helps relieve boredom, makes fuller use of their abilities, and allows us to learn more about the animals before us so we can make better decisions for them. Most puzzles provide opportunities for problem-solving, too. If we regularly present animals with novel items in playful ways, they seem to be interested in interacting with future novel items, too. This is part of our process in preparing animals for work in Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT). We learn what items are of interest to them and which are not, and we can then make our selection of the items we will include in each individual animal’s therapy sessions. Problem-solving in the natural environment is ideal. At one AAPT workshop we worked with goats. Since goats are browsers, we added some things to their usual environment that held surprises for them (apricots) that made use of their browsing abilities to find, reach, and consume. Later we used that natural ability to turn the Apricot Adventure into a family AAPT intervention.

Give them multiple choices

In many cases, we talk about choices during the training process – the animal chooses which offered reinforcer (different treats, scratches, play) is actually reinforcing (they then repeat the behavior it follows). Sometimes we offer animals a choice between two options–which of two toys they wish to play with. To develop greater agency, we need to take it a step farther by offering choices among multiple options, e.g., allowing a dog to choose among many choices where to take a sniffy walk. Offering the dog multiple choice options might take us away from the convenient trail made for human walking purposes into a grove of trees, up and down hills, along a stream, and then to stop and sniff a blade of grass for 5 minutes. When we look for these opportunities to offer our animals multiple choices, they gain agency. As they make their choices, if we are attentive, we can learn much about them. Their actions make a difference and they are empowered to make those decisions. A valuable effect is growing confidence for the animal, and a more reciprocal relationship for us.

Be quick to give them a voice

I imagine most readers already do this, at least to some extent. Here I refer to the ability to read animal body language fluently, and to watch it at all times. My retired play therapy dog, Kirrie, has a small amount of cognitive decline at age 16, and she sometimes stands in the middle of the room and barks. She was not much of a barker in the past, and we had a relationship where I understood her body language well. Recently, when I headed to the door to let her out (since the type of bark used to mean “I need to go out now!”), she showed no interest in going out. She was barking for some reason, though. I stood beside her, looked to see what she was looking at, and used one of my usual phrases that means “show me what you want.” After 10 seconds, she glanced up to where I keep the very special treats. I inched toward it, and she bounced up and down on her front paws and continued looking at the container and then at me. I had my answer, and I gave her a treat. The meaning of that particular bark had changed, at least under those circumstances. While I don’t give treats on demand, older dogs earn extra consideration at our house, especially when they have cancer and are not expected to live much longer. Giving them a voice means listening to them, and sticking with it until we figure out what they are saying to us. This is not unlike a conversation in a healthy human relationship–we stick with the conversation and listen to the other until we understand more clearly.

Give them a chance to do it themselves

While I have made a concerted effort to extend agency to the animals in my life, this aspect was brought home to me last fall when Kirrie’s left hind leg began to fail. It was significant, and I thought then that her end was near. I learned that one of my social media contacts had written a relevant book: Sit. Stand. Go! by Kate Titus. It’s about overcoming and helping mobility issues in dogs, and it’s excellent. One point she makes is very relevant to helping mobility-challenged dogs retain agency. She describes how dogs with weakening rear ends might need help getting up from a lying position. She says (page 27): “Helping him transition between these positions and into a stand may be necessary, but perhaps you don’t need to do all the work. Allowing him to use his muscles and push into the final position gives him the sense of having some control.” She then goes on to discuss “Overly Helpful Disease” and the need to give only as much help as needed and to allow the dog to do the rest.

This matches the way I’ve worked with children with medical and psychological challenges throughout my career – to help and guide, but only as much as is needed to restore and retain their agency. This means developing a clear understanding of the problem and the child’s strengths and needs, and so it is with animals, too. At my veterinarian’s recommendation, we got a custom-fit brace for Kirrie’s weakest leg. It has allowed her to remain quite mobile and functional in daily life. She has adapted to many challenges, but sometimes has difficulties such as tripping over a branch or getting “stuck” when jumping up on an ottoman. We intervene only to the point where she can take over on her own. With the ottoman, I usually help her get back on her feet on the floor so she can try again. I am reluctant to lift her from her abdomen as she has three types of cancer in that region and I don’t want to risk injuring her there. She has plenty of beds on the floor to choose from, but as long as she is willing to try to get up on her favorite “perch” I will assist but not do it for her. Besides, she is 60 pounds!

There are other ways in which we sometimes do too much for our animals. Sometimes they lack confidence and hesitate before trying a new behavior that is possible for them. Sometimes without thinking we just do it for them. We pick them up when they could walk. We give them a new puzzle, and when they don’t try, we begin doing it for them. Invariably we mean well–we want to rescue them from the struggle and help them succeed. While we certainly need to help when they cannot perform some behavior or are becoming stressed or agitated, when there are only minor signs of discomfort or hesitation, sometimes the best thing we can do is wait a bit, and if they still don’t engage, to change the environmental conditions so that they are able to overcome the obstacle on their own. Having agency builds confidence.

One of my best teachers about giving animals space and time to try for themselves has been my formerly feral, unsocialized, and highly fearful dog, Katie. She was gradually able to overcome her fears almost entirely by my observing her carefully, having a great deal of patience (measured in months and years), listening to her when she said, “Nope, not ready for that yet,” and creating the right conditions likely to help her succeed. Now she actively gathers the information she needs and can handle almost everything that comes up. When I had a knee replaced several years ago, she had a strong negative reaction (ears back, whale eye, panting, and quickly moving away) when I began using a cane. Oddly, she had no negative reaction to the walker that preceded it. Rather than immediately using an intervention such as counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC/DS), I assessed what she was able to do. I placed the cane on the floor on the far side of a large room. I didn’t put any treats by it because I did not want to lure her closer to something she feared, which could exacerbate her response. I just left it there, returned to the other side of the room where I typically sat with the dogs. She watched it for a long time, but without signs of untoward stress. She got up and walked part way across the room, lay down and watched some more. She was able to come back to me and accept treats, but I used them noncontingently. To make them contingent on certain behaviors might also push her farther than she was ready to go. She paid intermittent attention to it for about 30 minutes. Just as I was thinking I would remove it, she walked over to it and sniffed. On the next trial several hours later, I placed it on the floor just a bit closer to where we were. She walked right to it and sniffed some more. After it was clear that she could handle that much on her own without signs of fear, I sprinkled treats around it as a simple form of counterconditioning. She consumed them readily and freely moved around the room. She was able to overcome her initial concerns in just a few trials. When I began walking with it, I again observed her reactions. There were no signs of stress at all. I did not need to do any more CC/DS – she was completely fine with it thereafter. She had taught me earlier that if I gave her a chance to do things on her own terms and in her own time, she often could resolve her concerns rather quickly, and in fact, more quickly than CC/DS typically takes. (I am in no way suggesting that CC/DS be avoided – quite the opposite. I just think it can be useful to first see where the animal is coming from, what behaviors are or are not possible at any given moment, and then to help only as much as is needed.)

Remarkable Interactions in a Flock of Sheep

So far we have discussed some of the ways to support agency in our animals, but we have discussed it only on the individual level. It is also possible to allow and support agency with more than one animal, and especially with animals who live in herds or flocks. The process of careful observation remains critical, along with giving the animals an opportunity to do what they do–without human intervention unless a situation truly requires it.

I have been eagerly following the unfolding story of Ida, a lamb in Pat Tagg’s flock of sheep in the UK. I was fortunate to meet and hear Pat speak on the intricacies and traditions of herding with German Shepherds several years ago at a behavior conference in the UK where we both were speaking, and I have valued her work, wisdom, and insight ever since. She has generously given me permission to share one of the updates on this lamb in its entirety. It illustrates the concept of agency and much more.

From Pat Tagg (

Ida                                                                                                                                                                          Photo © 2020, Pat Tagg

Loving Adele this evening and thinking about a tiny lamb who has been a light in my day today.

Today was a big day in the life of Ida. If you are joining Ida’s story here, she was born after her big sister. Actually mum and I bought her sis into the world between us. When I returned to check on them, there she was a little cutie all curled up with her mum and sister. It was only in the following 24 hours that I realised something wasn’t quite as it should be. Little Ida is unsighted.

So, we all had an adventure for a few days and the result so far is that Ida and her family are doing astonishingly well. But. the day was looming, grass in the nursery is nearly gone, so the big move was on for today. I’ve been watching to see how she was doing and would she be disorientated? Would I need to pick her up? In a word, “no”.

A few days ago I thought I’d seen something amazing. Now I know I’ve seen it. Ida’s sister ran over to her and laid her nose on top of Ida’s rump, using her nose as a pointer, two seconds later and the pair of them ran off Sis in front, Ida behind in the direction of the nose point. Don’t be so daft!! Seriously? I surely didn’t see that? Wait. They hung out under tree with some other lambs, chewing stuff and generally doing lamb stuff, then, oh my! Sister and Ida do this gorgeous neck cuddling thing and Sis lays her nose along Ida’s flank….. whoosh, Ida runs ahead in the direction of the nose point. Cue for a bunch of lambs to join them running like loons.

Ida lost them. They zoomed off and she bumped into a tree. Damn it. Nope, she was fine, the gang circled round and picked her up. I watched this for days. She bumps into things occasionally, but mostly her sister points and she either runs ahead or follows. Sis is now twice the size of little Ida. Those first few days have taken their toll. But, her mum is as attentive as ever and she is being fed well.

So, back to today. I built a sheep road years ago to guide the flock. My plan was for the ewes to move their lambs between the fields at each end of the road. I called the ewes, greedy lumps, they all come running and I fed them outside the field gate. Where is Ida? Can’t see her. That’s sort of a good thing, she’s in the thick of this tiny flock, which means a lot of sheep are looking out for her (even if the other ewes clonk her one for tying to pinch illicit feeds). Anna and I went into the field to try and coax the tail enders out. By the time we came back to the road, ummm, no one there! they’d gone. Vamoosed.

Five very young lambs were left in the field, so, we left the gates open. Their mums would come and collect them later and take them more quietly on their own. So, it wasn’t until later in the day that I closed all the gates and went to find our girl. I’m fairly sure that she made that big trip, in new territory in the first wave of ewes and lambs shifting fields. Well. She doesn’t lack confidence anymore.

There she was. on top of the new field and sure enough, her sister, tapped her on the bum and off they went like the wind in the direction of the pointy nose. I had a slight wobble when I watched her run into another tree, but, truly, she bumps into these obstacles gently. She isn’t clattering herself. She seems very ‘matter of fact’ about it and is roaring around…. that lamb that “boldly goes”… gone!

She will need some medicines to protect her tomorrow and then I will introduce the main flock. I am still thinking about the best way to do that. I expect it will involve Josie and PJ. Will let you know how it goes. (Pat Tagg, 27 June 2020)

Pat has reported today that Ida has made it successfully into the large flock!

I liked this story so much for several reasons. First, in our AAPT work, we focus heavily on observing animals carefully without jumping to interpretations. This is an excellent example of that. Second, we also study and value natural behavior in the animals with whom we work in AAPT. This provides wonderful descriptions of natural behaviors–of Ida, Sis, Mom, and the whole flock. Third, this is a superb illustration of supporting agency in animals. It might have been easy or tempting for some of us to quickly run to the aid of Ida as she got her footing and then banged into things. Pat continued her observations with her keen ability to read body language. Safety was a concern, of course, but not an issue in these sequences so she did not intervene. She waited to see what little Ida, Sis, and all the others were able to do on their own. We don’t need to teach animals things that they already know! Fourth and finally, this is a story about resilience. I have been humbled many times by animals who take their “handicaps” in stride and show us that they are not handicapped at all!

When we work with human clients in psychotherapy, the first step is an assessment. If we are doing them properly, we look for strengths just as much as we identify needs before we establish goals and the methods to accomplish them. The same is true of behavioral work with animals. Sometimes we are so eager to solve problems that we forget to do the assessment and the observations properly, i.e., we focus on the problems and jump into action rather than doing a thorough observation of strengths as well as difficulties. This provides a good reminder that we must constantly hone our observation skills and awareness so that we see the strengths and capabilities just as clearly as we see the problem areas! And this is precisely where we need to hold our eagerness in check as we determine what the animals can do for themselves and how our interventions, when needed, harness the existing strengths to assist with the problems. When we maintain this attitude and thought process throughout our interactions with animals, whether they are our own family members or ones we train or help with behavioral issues, we are likely to enhance the animals’ agency and our own effectiveness, not to mention newfound wonder at the abilities of animals to make good choices for themselves and to adapt to changing conditions.


*Animal Assisted Play Therapy is a trademark of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc. (and its International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®).


The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® offers online and live training courses for those interested in the many aspects of involving animals in a voluntary and reciprocal way in their mental health, allied health, and education services.

Author Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, co-creator of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy with Tracie Faa-Thompson, is shown here with Josie Patches, Murrie, and Kirrie.

Article and photos © 2020, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, All rights reserved. “Ida” contribution and lamb photograph © 2020, Pat Tagg. Used here with her generous permission.