Dogs aren’t very good at hiding their emotions. We tend to know pretty easily if they are fearful, angry, happy, or sad. They most effectively convey their emotions through their body language, and the more we can understand about these signals, the better able we are to help make every day a good day for them.
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Signs of a happy dog
It seems silly to say, but a happy dog seems happy. They enjoy playing, taking walks, riding in the car, and just spending time with you. They have good energy and are able to regulate their emotions and calm down easily from exciting activities. A dog who jumps around and barks when you come home might seem happy to see you, but their release of emotion is different from one who is cheerful, content, and relaxed. Our dogs are enthusiastic when we return, but it might take a few minutes of settling for them to be happy.
Dog trainer Brenda Aloff looks for a relaxed body and tail posture and ears held without tension at ‘half-mast’ to signal that a dog is really happy. In addition to being relaxed, your dog might have a full-body wag. They might even wiggle right down to the ground and show you their belly.
Take note of your dog’s different tail wags to know what they are feeling. While all breeds have different ways of naturally carrying their tails, for the most part a slightly raised, enthusiastically wagging tail shows happiness. A Current Biology study published in 2020 noted that dogs who wag their tails more to the right are showing happiness while wags primarily on the left might indicate stress or nervousness. A curled under tail usually indicates fear, and a stiffly held, high wag and tense body can be a sign of stress and aggression. ElleVet Sciences CBD + CBDA is a safe, effective option for helping to manage your dog’s stress.
A happy dog has a loose, open mouth and what might be called a goofy grin. Your dog’s tongue might even hang out when they are very content and relaxed. This is different than an open mouth pant, which could be a sign of stress or excess excitement. Some teeth may be showing, but there is no feeling of anger. Curled lips and bared teeth are usually signs of aggression.
A relaxed and unwrinkled brow and eyes that are open, calm, and relaxed are other signs of happiness in your dog. A worried brow, narrowed eyes, or extra wide-open eyes showing the whites could indicate nervousness, aggression or fear.
Another sign that your dog is happy is that they are trying to get others to play with them. One of the most common ways for them to do this is with a play bow. The dog lowers its head and front part of the body to the ground while keeping their rear end high. Their tails will be up, and their eyes will be on you. They might give little yips or other vocalizations to show you just how great it will be to play with them.
Happy dogs are good eaters. They look forward to their meals and treats. A lack of appetite is a clear sign that something is ‘off’ with your dog.
A happy dog also enjoys a good amount of sleep. Healthy adult dogs can sleep up to 14 hours a day, while puppies need 18-20 hours of sleep every day. Dogs who don’t get enough sleep can be stressed and are likely to act out, and lethargy or a lack of interest in activities can mean something is wrong with your pup.
They want to be with you
If your dog seeks out your company by following you around, cuddling next to you on the couch or sitting on the floor next to your chair, they are showing that they trust you and are happy to be near you. Happy dogs like contact. A totally content dog might also lean against their favorite people in a display of trust. Take a cue from your pup and never force them into hugs or pats on the head that they don’t solicit.
The importance of letting a dog be a dog
We love our dogs and want to make them happy, but that often means we apply our standards of happiness to them and assume that what makes us happy will also make them happy.
Animal ethicist and author Jessica Pierce thinks that what we see as giving our pets a good life—regular meals of yummy food, walks in the neighborhood, quick games of catch when we come home after being gone at work all day—can really be working against dogs’ natural state of being. Dogs need purpose that comes from having a defined role and tasks. Pierce points to a 2020 study published in Nature–Scientific Reports that revealed that 75% of dogs suffer from stress and other types of anxiety and another study that showed 86% of dogs to have behavioral problems. From these large numbers, she has concluded that most of our pet dogs are struggling with the noise, separation anxiety, commotion, and boredom they face in their daily lives.
Pierce suggests an important way to increase the happiness of our pets is to allow ‘dogs to be dogs’. Remembering that sniffing is an essential way for dogs to interact with their environment and allowing walks to ‘be about them’ with lots of sniff breaks along the way is a good start. It is still possible to have good leash manners and allow for sniff breaks along the way.
Giving them a healthy, well-balanced diet and ensuring that they get enough quality sleep during the day and night are key to building a happy foundation.
Offer adequate physical activity every day, and use chew toys, puzzle feeders, and training exercises to keep them mentally engaged and prevent boredom.
Work to understand your pup and their personality to know if they are most comfortable with a quiet evening at home with the family or if more stimulation makes them happy. Clear and consistent routines and expectations allow your dog to understand their people and their world and lets them be their happiest selves.
Finally, offer them tons of love and affection and enjoy lots of tail-wagging moments with your happy best fur friend.