Do you have agency in your dog behavior modification plan?

I recently conducted a survey asking guardians about their experience with their reactive dogs.  I asked things like where they were now vs. where they wanted to be, what their goals were, and how their dogs’ behavior impacted their lives.  

Many of the answers were common things I hear from guardians of reactive dogs.  However, there was one underlying theme that surprised me.  

Read through the following comments can stop and think what comes up for you:

“One trainer recommended we pop her collar, but I just couldn’t do that.”

“The trainer was really focused on using BAT but in our busy city neighborhood, we couldn’t make it work.”

“A prong collar was suggested but that was a hard no for me.”

“We tried using LAT but now I feel anxious, always scanning for triggers.”

What strikes me is the complete disregard for the guardian’s agency.  

I think anyone who is in the R+ community understands the importance of giving dogs a sense of agency and recognizing consent in our dogs.  And I totally agree.  

Why wouldn’t the same be true for the human end of the leash?  

The method, technique, and recommended equipment are irrelevant (some were +R/force-free that I use myself).  What matters is the guardians were not given a choice.  They did not buy into the proposed solution.

If you are not on board with what is being recommended, it is a non-starter right out of the gate.

Think about a time when you *had* to do something, you did not have a choice.  And you found that something to be quite unpleasant.  How does that make you feel?  What is your reaction? 

When I worked in corporate America, I was hired on by a company to fill a particular position.  I had a background in the company’s industry and was interested in the work my team would be doing.  Fast forward about 2 ½ years, I was feeling like a productive, valuable member of the team and I was comfortable in my role.  But then I was told that I was being transferred to another team doing different work (and a lot more of it) on a project I found incredibly dull and boring.  Oh, and no raise.  

I went to my current boss to plead my case.  I did not want to go to this team for a LOT of reasons.  My boss, an understanding, effective, fair manager, was sympathetic to my plight. But his hands were tied.  Go to this new team or be out of a job.  

What do you think happened?  

I’ll spare you all the tears and anxiety.  I lasted a little over 2 years and then I quit.  

It wasn’t until a few years later, after studying and researching behavior science, that I understood the science behind what happened.

What IS agency, anyway?

Agency is the capability of individuals to make choices and to act on those choices in ways that make a difference in their lives. (2) 

In psychology, agency is the ability to act autonomously and freely,  feeling that one is able to act independently and effectively to control their own lives.  A common goal in therapy may be to help people act autonomously in a way that works best for their individual needs and lifestyles. 

People who feel that they do not have any agency may be anxious or depressed, and may struggle with motivation or procrastination (1) (see my story above). 

Why Agency Is important for behavior modification

Let me be honest.  Taking on a behavior modification plan for your reactive dog requires change for the humans involved.  And change is tough.  To make change effective and sustainable long-term, we must consider agency.  Science tells us that there are 4 components to agency: intentionality, forethought, self-reflection, and self-regulation. (3)

Bandura’s Theory of Human Agency (3)

Let’s break each of these down and apply it to working with dogs.

This refers to an awareness to conduct yourself and your actions in a certain way based on an idea or goal.  It is important that the actions you take are clearly tied to a goal.   You conduct yourself differently to achieve a certain outcome. If you are practicing a skill or cue with your dog, with no real understanding how it is going to get you closer to your goal of getting your dog more comfortable around people, you are not going to be effective in adhering to the plan because the purpose and the intent is not there. 

Because you are now becoming more intentional, the ability to think and plan ahead comes into play.  You guide your actions in anticipation of future events.  You are more aware of what situations your dog is likely to be successful in (or not) and plan ahead to increase the likelihood your dog will stay relaxed. You are also able to plan training sessions ahead of time because you have intentionality behind the action you are taking.

This is an active, constructive process where you set goals and then attempt to monitor, regulate, and control your cognition, motivation, and behavior.  This is the step beyond setting goals and taking action.  Once action is taken, you track progress over time.  Have progress markers for yourself, not just your dog. This is key to know if a behavior modification plan is having the desired effect. 

This is a functional self-awareness in which you reflect on your personal efficacy, thoughts, actions, the meaning of their pursuits, and make corrective adjustments if necessary.  You are able to objectively look at the results of your data collection and evaluate your own progress and current path.  Yes, it is important that your training plan is yielding positive change for your dog.  But how are you feeling?  Is your training schedule leaving you drained and exhausted?  Do you find certain techniques or methods recommended by the trainer to be anxiety-inducing? 

If a trainer is telling you what to do and handing you a behavior modification training plan without any input from you, they are not considering YOUR agency.  

Everyone has their own lives, schedules, thoughts, habits, likes and dislikes.  For long-term sustainability (which is important for addressing reactive behavior), it is important that the guardian buys into the plan.  An easy way to do this is to work with a trainer collaboratively to set goals and structure a plan that works for you.  This is the approach I take with the guardians that work with me.  Without it, we are not considering the most important aspect in helping the dog:  the guardian.

What thoughts come up for you after reading this?  Do you feel a sense of agency when working with your dog?  


  1. Frie, R. (2008). Psychological agency: Theory, practice, and culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Bandura’s Theory of Human Agency (Bandura, 1986, 2000, 2001, 2006)

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