Is My Dog Happy?

Poodle in Grass.jpg

Last year, I worked with an owner and her newly adopted dog. She was a first-time dog owner, but had previously enjoyed lots of fun adventures with a friend's dog.
We met to discuss what the new dog needed, and she shared that Pup had some leash-reactivity she was really wanting to get resolved so they could go on adventures together just like with the friend's dog. 
As the training progressed and we got to know Pup, I had to be honest with her about where Pup was at and what kind of progress we could anticipate. She was disappointed when I said that Pup's personality might not enjoy the adventures she was dreaming about. 
Several months later, I saw them again for a follow-up lesson. My client shared that she'd taken Pup out (successfully) for an activity with friends. Afterwards, the gang was planning to go for dinner at a dog-friendly patio restaurant and asked if my client was coming. "No, that just wouldn't be fun for Pup." 
I rejoiced to hear my client making sacrificial choices for Pup's well-being! Not only that, but my client was actually okay with that! Yes, there was initial disappointment, but she let go of initial expectations to embrace and love her dog for who she was.

I share this story for several reasons:

1) Knowing dog body language is part of truly knowing your dog.

The vast majority of dogs are an open book when it comes to their emotions. They wear all their feelings on the outside. Even though it's not always slap-you-in-the-face obvious, they'll let you know how they're feeling. Here are two videos of the same exact dog showing anxiety in one situation and calmness in another
Dog body language is discussed with nearly every family I work with--that's how important I believe it is. We primarily focus on the signs that can accompany stress, anxiety, and conflict. When these signs are present, you can be pretty sure your dog isn't happy:

  • Pinned ears
  • Tongue flicks
  • Yawning
  • Stress panting
  • Clown mouth
  • Look away/turn away/walk away
  • Shake-off
  • Dropped tail
  • Sniffing 
  • Scratching
  • Tension in the face
  • Hypervigilance

To learn more and see pictures, check out Lisa Mullinax's wonderful blog post, Stress Signs in Dogs.

So what does "happiness" look like? In addition to noting the absence of anxiety/stress/conflict signs, you can look for:

  • Soft eyes and face. Here's a great set of photos contrasting the same dog showing a tight face and a soft face.
  • Consent. Does the dog choose to participate in the activity, or does he choose to avoid/escape? If we label our dogs as "happy" or "loving" something, but they would prefer not to be there, that Check out this short video on the Consent Test.

Be careful not to confuse consent or enthusiasm with inappropriate behavior or happiness. Just because the dog is choosing to interact with a person or animal, that doesn't automatically make it appropriate or something you want to encourage.
There's no argument that a dog who jumps on visitors is "choosing to participate" and "enthusiastic," but that doesn't make the jumping okay and it doesn't necessarily mean the dog is happy. Lots of kids/babies and dog interactions fall under this category as well (see this video of a dog covering a baby with a blanket for a great example of something that is NOT okay).

2) Once you know what to look for, notice what he truly enjoys and what makes him uncomfortable. And respect it.

If your dog likes casual strolls in a quiet park, but traffic makes him nervous, choose to spend time together in quiet parks. If he's uncomfortable with things that are a regular part of his life, work with a reward-based trainer to help them feel better about the scary stuff.

When I had that conversation with my client about who her dog was, it wasn't so we could throw-up our hands and declare the situation hopeless. Rather, that conversation was about helping everyone recognize the raw material they've welcomed into their family and go from there.
Training is a beautiful thing that binds dog and human closer together by providing a common vocabulary. Training has the potential to create incredible behavior change and teach impressive tricks, but it can't turn a hammer into a saw. Trying to force a hammer to do the work of a saw will make everyone miserable.

When trainers see a potential conflict between owner expectations and the dog's innate ability to deliver, we want to facilitate understanding and compromise so the dog becomes the very best he can be--whatever that looks like.