I spend an inordinate amount of time gazing at my animals and wondering things about them.
Like: When they dream, and their feet and tails and ears twitch, what’s running through those little minds of theirs?
And: When he digs through his toy basket searching for just the right one, does he go into it with a specific toy in mind? Or is he assessing his options before deciding?
Also: When Coop perches on the highest spot in our yard and gazes out, does he think he’s surveying his kingdom? keeping watch? guarding the family? or maybe just chilling in the nice weather?
And, perhaps most importantly: Is my dog happy?
I want him to be happy. I want the cats to be happy. Of course, anyone who lives with an animal knows there are moments when you can see pure joy on your pet’s face. There are also moments when you see the opposite. But, in general, from day to day, I wonder: Is my dog happy?
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First Things First: The 5 Freedoms
Have you heard of “The Five Freedoms” in animal welfare? These are the international standards of animal care established in the UK in the 1960s. They are:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
- Freedom to express normal behavior
- Freedom from fear and distress
Here’s a printable poster of the five freedoms from ASPCA if you’re interested.
Though–in the U.S. at least–those have been subjected to wide and varied interpretation, the idea is that an animal kept by a human must be free from suffering.
Meeting that basic criteria, while vital to any pet’s well-being, won’t necessarily make an animal happy. Having those needs met is so important, and I’m assuming in this post that’s the foundation we’re all coming from. The five freedoms provide a pet with a lot: Comfort, yes. Safety, yes. Security, yes.
But what about happiness?
What makes a dog happy?
Cooper loves to chase a squeaky ball.
If you squeak a ball anywhere in his hearing range, he runs at full speed, skids to a stop in front of you, and plops into a sit–mouth hanging open, tail swishing the floor. His muscles clench. He’s so ready. When you pull your arm back to throw, he tenses his whole body. Let the ball go and he’s off like a rocket. He chases it down, turns, and sprints back to drop the ball at your feet and wait–open mouth, tense body, swishing tail–for you to throw it again.
I can say, without doubt, that chasing a squeaky ball makes Cooper happy.
He doesn’t feel the same about chasing all toys or even all balls, for that matter. Toss a plain old yellow tennis ball, and he can take it or leave it. Throw a stuffed toy and he’ll chase it down, but then lay in the grass and rip it to shreds instead of bringing it back for another chase. (Ripping stuffies to shreds: another thing that makes Cooper happy.)
But chasing a squeaky ball doesn’t make all dogs happy.
If you threw a ball for Emmett at the height of his youth, for instance, he’d look up at you with eyes that said, “I don’t know why you did that because now you have to go get it.”
However, meeting new people, getting tons of attention, eating snacks… those things made Emmett happy.
When I come home–whether I’ve been gone five minutes or five days–I know Cooper is happy. He wags hard enough to thwack me hard enough to create a welt. He cries. He paws at me. He jumps on me. He licks my face. He curls his body into a C-shape and presses up against me while I hug and pat him.
When I get an ice cream out of the freezer, he does many of the same behaviors–wagging tail, whining, jumping up and down–though thankfully to a lesser degree… otherwise it might hurt my feelings! ha!
Same thing when he’s running. He’s relaxed and focused, enjoying the physical exertions.
I know lots and lots of things that make Cooper happy.
But when I think about people, I know there are lots and lots of things that can make even unhappy people happy, at least momentarily.
So, is my dog happy?
Assuming all your dogs’ basic needs are met and he’s not unwell, how can you tell if your dog is happy?
I’ll list a handful of signs your dog’s happy below, but here’s the thing: Most dogs, I believe, aren’t necessarily unhappy. If they’re not happy, they’re probably bored or scared. Boredom is more of a chronic condition, while fear is more acute.
This is a basic list, but here are five ways to tell if your dog is happy:
- A loose body: This includes soft ears, soft eyes, and probably lots of wiggles.
- A wagging tail: In fact, in the happiest moments, the tail can seem to wag your dog’s whole body! (Opposites to watch for: stiff or tucked tail.)
- Good behavior: Dogs who suffer from boredom might find their own fun by, say, shredding the curtains or snacking on your shoes. (Note: This is different from separation anxiety, which is also an unhappy condition that needs a vet consultation.) Happy dogs exhibit fun, playful behavior, and engage with their people and other animal friends.
- A healthy routine: Your dog sleeps and eats and bathrooms normally. He gets a good amount of physical and mental stimulation each day!
- Physical contact: Your happy dog will find ways to touch you. Even dogs who don’t love cuddles as much will poke you with their nose, lead into your legs, touch your hand, and so on. A happy dog will seek out a bit of this contact to the degree that makes them happiest. (On the other hand, dogs who get excessive, unwarranted, or unliked contact–think clumsy hugs from toddlers–can be decidedly unhappy!)
I think about Cooper’s happiness often. I learned a ton about his actual mental state when I read What It’s Like to Be a Dog And Other Adventures in Animal Nueroscience, and it inspired me to think more about how to enrich his environment (i.e. our backyard for the upcoming summer) and to provide him with more thinking activities. I HIGHLY recommend that book to anyone who loves dogs. Or seals. Or marsupials.
Anyway. I want Cooper to be happy. I know he’s a tightly-wound, stress-prone pup, so it takes extra effort to ensure his happiness on a day-to-day basis, but I think we’ve done pretty well. He, like most dogs, thrives on routine. His schedule is usually predictable. He gets a ton of physical exercise (trail running lately). We challenge him by feeding him in puzzle feeders (here’s an EASY one you can make at home) and working on training.
And I throw his squeaky ball for him. A lot. Sometimes until my arm can’t lift the ball anymore! But it’s worth it to see his happy grin and loose, wagging body! For me, it’s super rewarding to see him relaxed and having fun–maybe because he is such a stress case?–but it makes ME happy to make HIM happy. Win-win!
What makes your dog happy?
I’d love to know what activities, adventures, routines, or snacks (ha!) make your pup happy! Please share in the comments below! 🙂