» What Do You Mean When You Say Your Dog Is “Happy”? - The Optimal Dog

What Do You Mean When You Say Your Dog Is “Happy”?

What Do You Mean When You Say Your Dog Is “Happy”?

You want to make your dog “happy,” right?

Dog HappinessOf course you do.  Maybe you buy my argument that, due to the emotional bonds that you’ve developed to your dog, it’s in your self-interest to do so.  Or maybe you’ve got another justification.

And maybe you agree with me that most humans know precious little about how their dogs perceive and experience the world (i.e., whether their dogs are happy).  Or maybe you don’t.

But if you live with a dog — if you feed him, give him shelter, take him for walks, buy him toys, finance his expensive medical procedures, scratch his belly, and let him sleep in your bed — you’d have a hard time making the case that you simply don’t care about “making him happy.”

So here’s the $64,000 Question: What does that mean?

If you’ve spent any time meditating on this question then you already know how slippery potential answers can be.

As this mind-blowing presentation shows, human beings (even some really smart ones) have a very hard time talking and thinking about their own happiness. Thinking about what it means for a dog to be happy is exponentially more difficult because of (a) the fundamental differences in how dogs perceive, experience, and think about the world and (b) dogs’ inability to communicate their internal experiential states using verbal terms.

That being said, here’s why devoting attentive thought to this question is a worthwhile activity: Thinking about this topic will help you battle your innate tendency to assume that your worldview is fundamentally correct.  We all have a tendency to assume that we’re right.  We fight this tendency off in some instances but let it captain the ship for most of our lives. Curiously, for many of us, the tendency is most pronounced when it comes to big questions that don’t lend themselves well to easy, verifiable answers (such as the one which is the subject of this essay).

While this tendency makes things comfortable for our fragile egos it also has the profound tendency to lead us astray of our goals.  (To see this amazing phenomenon in action just stop by your local health club and watch the hordes of body image-obsessed patrons logging long, torturous workouts on machines that won’t do much to improve their bodies.)

So if maximizing the well-being of your pet is something you care about (and I know because your are reading this blog that it is), you should be willing to push back against your assumptions about a hard topic like happiness.  You should be open to changing your perspective in the service of your worthy goal.

Let me dash your budding expectations right now and tell you that I don’t have a definitive “correct” answer to the question and neither does anyone else.  That being said, in two weeks (on Thursday, March 1 — mark your calendars!) I’ll post a follow-up essay that summarizes the perspectives of several popular culture “dog experts,” numerous scientists, practitioners, and other leading thinkers, as well as my own personal thoughts on the issue.

In the meantime, my goals with this preliminary post are two-fold: (1) I want to get you thinking on your own about this interesting topic and (2) I want to encourage you to share your pre-existing perspectives in the “comments” section of this post.

Sharing your thoughts now — before you are exposed to influential thoughts from others — is crucial. It will help you to crystalize into an articulable form your vague ideas of what “happiness” means for dogs.  It will also maximize the usefulness of this project by ensuring that everyone who reads this post is exposed to a rich variety of perspectives on the issue.  If you just wait around for the big guns to weigh in, you’re likely to defer to them and just avoid voicing your opinion altogether.

You’re smart! You’re interesting! Your thoughts are valuable!  Now, let’s hear them!

Sound good? Great.  I look forward to reading your comments and to discussing this interesting issue with you.

Have a great Thursday,

– Coach Dan


  1. Dawn Garrison says:

    I believe a big part of making my dog happy is engagement. Engaging to me means commiting to whatever activity we are involved in. He knows when I am committed responding in like, making him happy.

  2. Nathan says:

    I think that for us all, we have instincts that need to be satisfied. As it pertains to dogs, activities similar to what we see in wild dogs seems to make them happy. Socializing, exercising (herding, running, fetching, swimming – it’s different for different breeds), and eating are the obvious ones. To Dawn’s point, some dogs want to be a part of the pack – they enjoy following your lead or responding to your cues.

    Is all of this just a response to positive/negative punishment or reward? To some degree yes (right?). Isn’t that why we can train a dog with a treat, a la Pavlov? And for the experts, which of these 4 stimuli is the most effective, or is that task dependent?

  3. Stacy Mastro says:

    Lucy, my 7 year old bulldog, was undoubtedly over-the-moon happy this weekend at the beach. Her typically lethargic, chubby body ran through the sand and into crashing waves with enthusiasm and speed seen so rarely in this canine couch potato. What made her so ‘happy’ about this trip to the beach? Certainly not the running (I believe the running to be an indicator of her excitement rather than a source of her pleasure). She was in the water, but didn’t swim. There was no food present. Perhaps she was pleased to spend a weekend away in the sand with her brother Kody and her humans?

  4. Marcia says:

    I think of dogs and cats a lot like men and women. lol. Dogs are a little simpler in terms of their definition of happiness IMO. You simply meet their needs as a dog and that gives them the opportunity to be happy. I wouldn’t say it guarantees happiness, simply because you will always have variable that you may not be able to control including perception. I think the goal is to try your best and always look for ways to improve and use your dog’s feedback as a gauge of success. A truly happy dog that is contented with his situation has a certain air of relaxed peacefulness. This is especially apparent in animals that are rescued that start out anxious and hesitant, and after some time you see them turn confident and happy. It does make you think about what things help in bringing dogs to a higher level of happiness, not just semi-happy. Makes me think of the commercial “are you settling, or are you living.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *