My sensitive little rescue dog, Annie, isn’t a fan of bustling, noisy cities—and neither am I, to be honest. We’re fortunate enough, however, to enjoy a tranquil mountain lifestyle. It’s in this environment that I would describe Annie as being truly happy, and it’s one reason I chose to base myself here. How do I help her continue to feel content? By focusing on meeting her needs, understanding her breed traits and individual personality, and reading her body language.
A Tail Wag isn’t Always a Sign of a Happy Dog
Your dog’s body language and expressions tell you a lot about their emotional state, and looking for a combination of subtle signs can help you understand if they’re feeling content and untroubled.
Over-arousal, for example, is sometimes mistaken for true happiness. Brenda Aloff has been training dogs for over 20 years and specializes in problem dogs. She uses the example of a dog that’s very excited when you return home to them. “I think they’re ridding themselves of anxiety that might have been present when you left. They’re happy to see you, but I wouldn’t describe that as the same type of contented happiness. It’s a release of tension, which, to me, feels very different from the animal that is just in that open state emotionally,” she explains.
She describes a happy dog as having an open countenance, a relaxed expression, a lack of stress lines around the face, and no tension in their body. “They kind of soften their eyes and their ears are back just a little. It’s what I call a half-mast ear, where the ear carriage is relaxed, not flat back, nor held forward like in predation or arousal.”
A closed mouth with a tense jaw indicates discomfort, and then there’s also the submissive grin, where a dog shows their teeth. Aloff says a grinning dog isn’t necessarily uncomfortable, “but is a dog showing a certain bit of obsequiousness—just a wee bit of anxiety, or sometimes arousal. Unless we make a fuss when the dog does it, then it can quickly become a ‘trick’. Some dogs turn this into a habit, because people in the know tend to tell the dog they like the ‘smile’.” She endearingly describes a content dog as having an open, wide “muppet smile.”
Many people assume that when a dog wags its tail, this is a sign of happiness. Tail movement and position are highly sophisticated, and not all wags mean a dog wants you in their space.
Aloff explains that you’re looking for a tail in a lower position, and the wag should be slow, rhythmical, have a casual quality about it, and move back and forth like an “old-fashioned metronome.”
Of course, there are breeds, like Aloff’s Fox Terrier, with a tail that stands up straight all the time. But an aggressive tail wag is “going to be short and sharp and the body feels tense,” she says.
Body tension is a big giveaway that a dog isn’t happy. If you pet a happy dog, “they don’t feel like the top of a wooden desk, their skin will actually move underneath your hand,” says Aloff. She also looks at whether “the dog’s physicality feels like it’s meant to repel you out of the space and hold you out, or whether it feels more like an invitation to come in or just to hang out together.”
Species, Breed, and Personality Affect Happiness
When we’re considering what makes our dogs happy, we have to think about it on three levels. What dogs as a species need overall, what their breed traits and drives are, and the fact that they all have their own unique personalities. Often it’s as simple as thinking about appropriate ways just to let your dog be a dog.
Emily Tronetti, is an anthrozoologist, owner of Coexistence Consulting, and co-founder of the Humane Alliance of Rescue Trainers. She explains that “sniffing is one of the most important behaviors that we must allow dogs to engage in every day. However, we’re often so worried about our dogs not being under our control on walks, we might not allow them to do this. This needs to change. We can train our dogs to walk loosely on leash while also allowing them the freedom to sniff and explore.”
Finding appropriate outlets for natural dog behaviors we humans aren’t generally fans of is important too. “Behaviors like digging and chewing are normal, and our dogs’ lives are more enriched when we allow them to engage in these activities. Of course, this doesn’t mean our dogs should chew our shoes or dig up the garden. We can and should provide outlets for them to do doggy things in ways that are safe and appropriate,” says Tronetti.
Breed and individual character traits also influence what might make your dog happy. “Most of the German Shepherds I’ve been around, not all of them – you have atypical ones – are pretty reserved. My Shepherd, she loved me and tolerated everyone else. So, to take her to a cocktail party every evening or fill my house with guests all the time would have been not just stupid on my part; it would have made her very uncomfortable. Whereas my Terriers were party animals—you could have had a party every night, and they would have been fine,” says Aloff.
The Ability to Switch Between a State of Arousal and a State of Relaxation
If you’re playing a game with your dog, it’s important to teach them how to relax afterwards—leaving them in a heightened state of arousal isn’t conducive to a happy dog. Aloff thinks this is a neglected place in our understanding of dog behavior and something that happens too often. “If I’m going to play ball with my dog, I’m not just going to get them jacked up and then leave them in this aroused state. I think that’s a cruelty, because I don’t think many dogs know how to bring themselves back down from this state,” she says.
“I think it’s a kindness to teach them how to flip between their thinking brain and their limbic system (relating to instinct and mood). I do things like lie down, stay, throw the ball, “okay, go get it”, the dog brings it back. Can you heel with the ball, can you put the ball in the hand? And then I’ll maybe give them two or three throws where I let them run back and forth, but put a little more obedience in there.”
Happiness is a State of Comfort
It’s worth mentioning that a happy dog isn’t simply one that gets to do what they want, when they want, all the time. Aloff says that she is “seeing way too much passivity in dog owners, and it’s creating behavior problems. We need to have boundaries and structure, so that they can feel safe and comfortable. And then, in the capacity of what they can comfortably do, we need to offer them choices.”
She sums things up well by explaining, “I equate happiness more with a state of comfort. Thinking about the dog being totally comfortable with what is going on in the environment around them and with their interactions with you.”