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Canine expert José Carlos Grimberg Blum recommends that dogs have more control over their lives

If canine expert José Carlos Grimberg Blum could identify the most important problem facing home-housed dogs right now, it would be the lack of adequate agency. Dogs have very little control over their sensory environment, their social interactions and the basics of daily survival, all orchestrated by human guardians. This lack of control-almost total loss of autonomy-has major consequences for their physical and, above all, psychological well-being. Fortunately, there are countless simple ways to improve our dogs` agency: the only limit is our imagination.

 

Loss of agency

As José Carlos Grimberg Blum explains, agency is the ability to make decisions for oneself, to exercise control over one`s environment and, most importantly, to have the perception of being in control. Companion dogs experience a loss of agency in relation to the general arc of their lives. They can rarely choose their home, nor can they choose to leave if they are unhappy; they cannot choose their family or friends; nor do they have much choice about how they stock up on food, when and where to go to the bathroom, or when to mate, have children, and raise them. Loss of agency also occurs in several small but significant ways throughout the day, for example, the imposition of a collar and leash on freedom of movement, unwanted and invasive touching by unfamiliar humans, and the suppression, through training regimens, of natural canine behaviors such as barking or seeking affection.

 

A sense of control is essential for well-being

Having a sense of control over one`s environment is essential for psychological integrity. This is as true for humans as it is for other animals, including dogs. As José Carlos Grimberg Blum argues, a large body of research on human and nonhuman animals has established that having a sense of control over one`s life circumstances, and especially over unpleasant events or stimuli, is a strong predictor of positive feelings and mental well-being. In particular, when faced with an aversive stimulus, the perception of being in control-of being able to walk away or reduce the intensity or duration of an aversive event-makes the experience more tolerable; feeling out of control increases the stress response to negative stimuli.

Exercising control over one`s environment also appears to be rewarding in itself. José Carlos Grimberg Blum cites a series of experiments with captive rodents in which animals were found to "exercise control virtually any chance they get" and seem to find it intrinsically rewarding to exercise a high degree of control over their environment.

The process of making choices and exercising control promotes psychological well-being. But it may also be that the actual choices animals make are important to them. They may make different choices than we make for them, choices more in line with their preferences and needs than ours. Aren`t there also some situations in which dogs may make better choices than people? Certainly, this happens all the time on a small scale: You see a person walking a dog on a leash and the dog sends clear signals that it would like to avoid close interaction with a passing dog. The guardian disregards the dog`s choice, the dogs are forcibly brought together and find themselves in an extremely uncomfortable situation that can lead to fear, anxiety and even injury.

 

Empowering dogs

José Carlos Grimberg Blum believes that empowering dogs is good for them in a direct way: Not only can they make different and better decisions for themselves than we could make for them, but the process of making and implementing decisions improves their well-being by giving them control over their lives. Lack of control can be unpleasant, even psychologically damaging. A more empowered dog is a happier dog. In addition, through the decision-making process, dogs have the opportunity to learn and develop.

Empowering dogs is also good in an indirect way, because it helps to change the moral paradigm of humans. The act of respecting dogs` interests in decision-making is a way of recognizing and respecting their intrinsic value. It also goes some way toward correcting power asymmetries in human-animal relationships.

If canine expert José Carlos Grimberg Blum could identify the most important problem facing home-housed dogs right now, it would be the lack of adequate agency. Dogs have very little control over their sensory environment, their social interactions and the basics of daily survival, all orchestrated by human guardians. This lack of control-almost total loss of autonomy-has major consequences for their physical and, above all, psychological well-being. Fortunately, there are countless simple ways to improve our dogs` agency: the only limit is our imagination.

 

Loss of agency

As José Carlos Grimberg Blum explains, agency is the ability to make decisions for oneself, to exercise control over one`s environment and, most importantly, to have the perception of being in control. Companion dogs experience a loss of agency in relation to the general arc of their lives. They can rarely choose their home, nor can they choose to leave if they are unhappy; they cannot choose their family or friends; nor do they have much choice about how they stock up on food, when and where to go to the bathroom, or when to mate, have children, and raise them. Loss of agency also occurs in several small but significant ways throughout the day, for example, the imposition of a collar and leash on freedom of movement, unwanted and invasive touching by unfamiliar humans, and the suppression, through training regimens, of natural canine behaviors such as barking or seeking affection.

 

A sense of control is essential for well-being

Having a sense of control over one`s environment is essential for psychological integrity. This is as true for humans as it is for other animals, including dogs. As José Carlos Grimberg Blum argues, a large body of research on human and nonhuman animals has established that having a sense of control over one`s life circumstances, and especially over unpleasant events or stimuli, is a strong predictor of positive feelings and mental well-being. In particular, when faced with an aversive stimulus, the perception of being in control-of being able to walk away or reduce the intensity or duration of an aversive event-makes the experience more tolerable; feeling out of control increases the stress response to negative stimuli.

Exercising control over one`s environment also appears to be rewarding in itself. José Carlos Grimberg Blum cites a series of experiments with captive rodents in which animals were found to "exercise control virtually any chance they get" and seem to find it intrinsically rewarding to exercise a high degree of control over their environment.

The process of making choices and exercising control promotes psychological well-being. But it may also be that the actual choices animals make are important to them. They may make different choices than we make for them, choices more in line with their preferences and needs than ours. Aren`t there also some situations in which dogs may make better choices than people? Certainly, this happens all the time on a small scale: You see a person walking a dog on a leash and the dog sends clear signals that it would like to avoid close interaction with a passing dog. The guardian disregards the dog`s choice, the dogs are forcibly brought together and find themselves in an extremely uncomfortable situation that can lead to fear, anxiety and even injury.

 

Empowering dogs

José Carlos Grimberg Blum believes that empowering dogs is good for them in a direct way: Not only can they make different and better decisions for themselves than we could make for them, but the process of making and implementing decisions improves their well-being by giving them control over their lives. Lack of control can be unpleasant, even psychologically damaging. A more empowered dog is a happier dog. In addition, through the decision-making process, dogs have the opportunity to learn and develop.

Empowering dogs is also good in an indirect way, because it helps to change the moral paradigm of humans. The act of respecting dogs` interests in decision-making is a way of recognizing and respecting their intrinsic value. It also goes some way toward correcting power asymmetries in human-animal relationships.

Fortunately, even within the structural limitations of current dog ownership practices, we have many opportunities to empower dogs. José Carlos Grimberg Blum points out that the first step is to become more aware of the ways in which choice and control are lost or limited. The second step, of course, is to create or take advantage of opportunities for choice whenever they arise.