You might be surprised at how easy it is to improve your four-legged best friend’s happiness.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
October 07, 2020
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Credit: Westend61 / Getty

Dogs do so much to enrich our lives. They make us laugh, they provide us company, they entertain us, and they don’t judge our life choices (thankfully). Yes, doggos are truly our best friends, and we want to do our very best to return the favor.

From the day we bring home our canine buddy, we look for ways to entertain them and make sure they’re healthy. But, there’s a lot more we can do to ensure they are truly happy, living their best dog life right alongside us. One key to their happiness starts with their ability to decide for themselves. 

How to Tell If Your Dog Is Happy 

While happiness is pretty subjective—in humans and pets—we know that happy dogs engage in a variety of activities. Sometimes a happy dog is one that is playing, other times a happy dog is one that is napping. “Since dogs are social animals, a happy dog will usually have a good balance of activity on his or her own, social activities with others in the home, and rest,” says Irith Bloom, KPA-CTP, CDBC, CPDT-KSA, Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog, LLC.

When a dog is happy, or enjoying the activity they are doing, you will see it in their canine communication and body language. Differences in breed appearances can muddy the body language waters, but there are signals you can watch for.

A Happy Dog’s Face Will Show:

  • Relaxed facial muscles
  • Brow is smooth & relaxed
  • Eyes appear “soft”
  • Ears are loose, relaxed
  • Slightly opened mouth
  • Lips appear wrinkle free

A Happy Dog’s Body Will Show:

  • Running with a bouncy gate
  • Relaxed body muscles
  • Affiliative behavior (wanting to be close) or soliciting attention
  • Tail is loose, hanging naturally

“To ensure your dog is happy, give your dog a lot of options for ways to keep busy. Food toys, chew toys, walks, training time with you, and playtime with you are all part of a happy life. Dogs who get too little of these types of activity can get bored and depressed,” Bloom says.

How To Tell if Your Dog is Not Happy

The things that make us humans happy are not necessarily the same things that will make our dogs happy. While we may enjoy going to parties, hanging out at a festival, or going to a new friend’s house for dinner, dogs don’t. Not only is it unfair to force our likes on our fur babies, but it can create a stressed dog instead of a happy one.

Learning to recognize the signs of an unhappy dog can be a game of opposites. A tired dog might be worn out from having fun—or may actually be stressed. They may avoid food—or gobble it down too quickly. They may appear sluggish—or they may be overly rambunctious. And these are just a few examples. Learning the signs and signals exhibited by your own dog is crucial to recognizing their unhappiness. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, here are some signals to watch out for.

A Stressed Dog’s Face Might Show:

  • Tight, closed mouth
  • Ears back, tight against head, or alert
  • Whites of eyes easily seen
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Grimace appearance on face
  • Wrinkled skin around the mouth

A Stressed Dog’s Body Might Show:

  • Stiff body posture
  • Tail tucked or very slowly wagging
  • Hackles up (hair on back)
  • Weight shifted forward
  • Cowering
  • Trembling or shaking

Choices Make Any Dog Happy

Whether your dog is just a puppy or a distinguished senior, every dog has a hierarchy of needs. But just meeting those basic needs isn’t enough to make your dog happy. One crucial thing that dog parents often forget: Dogs need the ability to make choices for themselves. 

Choice goes beyond just choosing which dog treat they like best or which squeaky toy will come home from the pet store. Choice involves letting a dog decide when, how, who, where, and what. It gives your dog the ability to say “No,” which many dog owners forget to give their dog a chance to say. There are several ways pet parents can offer choices to their dog, including easy-to-incorporate options like when to go for walks or when to play.

“It’s important to give your dog permission to make choices,” Bloom says. “Often, dogs don’t have a choice about when or how they are petted. Most dogs also don’t get to choose when and where to walk, or how fast (or slow) to move while on a walk.”

Here are five ways you can give your dog choices and increase their happiness—and make the world a better place for dogs.

  • The Choice to Not to Be Touched

Dogs should be allowed to say no to being touched, petted, or hugged—and you should respect their decision.

  • The Choice to Leave a Situation

Never force a dog to remain in a scary situation and never restrict their ability to get away from something that makes them uncomfortable.

  • The Choice to Be in a Safe Space

Providing your dog a safe, quiet place they can retreat to where no one can bother them (like space invaders!) is an important way to keep your dog happy. This space should be available to them at all times. 

  • The Choice to Not Train

Positive reinforcement training should always be fun. Sometimes your dog is just too tired or the environment is just too stressful. Your dog should be able to tell you when they feel up to the task, and you need to listen.

  • The Choice to Smell

Dogs experience the world through their nose. On walks, in your backyard, and at the park you should allow your dog plenty of time to enjoy sniffing and smelling their surroundings.

If you’re ever concerned over your dog’s behavior, or they appear less happy than before, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away to rule out any health issues.