I wrote the following post originally for a HAWS Tattle Tales article. I would argue that teaching children animal safety should absolutely include this concept. Allowing pets to make choices is a topic I'd like to explore in the future, since I believe that this is the foundation for respect and fundamental to humane education.
A study with nursing home residents showed that those individuals who were encouraged to make personal choices for themselves were happier and healthier than residents who had all decisions made by staff. (Langer & Rodin, 1976).
Lack of control in the workplace is considered to be a huge stressor for an employee. A study showed that employees in high stress jobs with a lack of control were more stressed than employees in high stress jobs and more control. (Karasek, 1979)
Allowing an individual at least some autonomy gives them control over their lives, helps develop confidence, reduces stress, promotes a happy life, and can be an important part of developing a relationship.
Everything I’ve written so far is in reference to human beings, but is equally applicable to animals. Indeed zoos make every opportunity to allow their animals to have as many choices as possible. Just because an animal is on display doesn’t mean you’ll get to see him if he’s decided he wants to hide from you. A large part of enrichment for zoo animals incorporates the opportunity to make choices and have some control over their environment.
I would argue that we also need to provide our pets with choices. So much of our pets lives are dictated by us; we tell them where to eliminate, where they should sleep, control when they eat, dictate what they can and cannot play with, and decide when we are going to provide them with exercise. While we can’t give our pets full autonomy, we can try and give them the ability to make choices as often as possible.
Humane Education is all about respecting and displaying compassion for all living things. What better way to instill these concepts than to teach children about allowing animals to have choices. Just because you want to pet the kitty doesn’t mean that the kitty wants you to pet her. Allowing a cat to leave the room and hide is a great way to show respect and acknowledge her rights as an individual to decline an interaction that makes only one of the two of you happy.
Giving our pets choices about whether they want to be touched or approached by us or others not only gives them autonomy and respect, but is also a safety issue. Animals that are stressed, anxious or frightened are more likely to feel the need to defend themselves; we know that most bites are caused by animals who are frightened.
Our jobs as pet owners are not only to care for them, but to protect them and help them thrive in our world. And what better way is there than finding ways to give our pets some choices about their lives.