The topic of agency comes up a lot when I help clients with leash walking. A good way to understand what it is and why it’s important is to try to imagine what your dog might be experiencing. Imagine you are on a leash with a human companion and this person is in charge, deciding where you will go, how fast you will go, when you can or cannot stop and check something out, and when the walk is over. Say there is something along the way that you would normally choose to avoid, maybe you worry for your safety or are just not in the mood to engage with whatever it is. Your human companion is oblivious to your concerns and wishes, and perhaps thinks that you should just “get over it” and move on. You are forced to move closer to that thing. You cannot move away and find a distance or place where you will feel safe or more comfortable. You are trapped. Without that ability to choose and control the outcome, can you imagine the frustration, the anger, the fear, the measures you might feel you need to take in order to keep yourself safe? Or what if it’s something you really want to check out, but you can’t access it because your human companion on the other end of the leash prevents you. It’s that lack of agency on leash that can make leash walking a challenge for our dogs.
Just like our dogs, we human dog walkers, can also experience a diminished sense of agency. When we walk with dogs that pull, or would rather chase wildlife, or bark and lunge at the sight of another dog, that feeling of being pulled and tugged at can wear us down along with our patience. On our bad days, many of us with reactive dogs end up behaving badly ourselves. We become reactive!
That reduced sense of agency when we put on a leash can be the source of much conflict between dogs and the people who walk them. The most important first step to a remedy is understanding this. When we approach leash walking with that appreciation and take steps to give back some of the agency that is taken away, we reduce the conflict.
If we were tethered to another human, we would likely be talking, sharing our concerns and desires and negotiating a walk that is enjoyable for each of us. In the absence of a shared language, we are left to find other ways of dialoguing with our dogs. We can watch our dogs’ body language, notice whether or not they are responding to our cues, whether or not they will take treats, etc. These inform us of their level of comfort or interest in something. We can express our wishes by reinforcing behaviors we like, both ones we ask for, and ones they offer on their own. The more we dialogue with our dogs in this way, the more we shift the momentum from being trapped together and competing on leash, to a shared walk we can both enjoy.