How to tell if my dog is happy

How many times have you been to the pub with your dog, taken them to a social event, or party, and wondered whether your dog is actually enjoying themselves? Can you spot the signs your dog is giving you that they are feeling uncomfortable? Do you ask yourself, is my dog happy here?

In my experience there are more dogs that don’t enjoy, or are not suited to those experiences than are. And that’s because sometimes the signs are so subtle that owners very often miss them.

So how do we know if our dogs are enjoying being at a social event with us? How can we tell if our dog is happy? And when is it okay to say no?

We put a lot of pressure on our dogs to be the ‘perfect’ dog

Dogs are not born knowing how to behave in a way that us as humans see as appropriate. There is so much learning that has to be done to teach them how they need to behave in our homes and outside. Some people expect dogs to just inherently know how to do these things. They expect them to know that when you go to the pub, they must sit down or lie down nicely under the table, stay near their owner and don’t charge about or bark at anyone or anything. This is an incredible undertaking for a dog. If you have a dog that finds it hard to settle at home, or is ‘reactive’ to movement, noise, children, dogs or people, then its difficult to expect them to be okay in other environments like the pub, on holiday, or at the café in town.

Dogs see things as important, or unimportant

I have 7 dogs all with very different personalities. Something I repeatedly say to my students is to train the dog in front of you. A training exercise I do with one dog, I may tailor slightly differently for another. And as dog owners it’s important that we get to know our dogs REALLY well so that we can train them in the way that suits them best.

For example I have two dogs that are at the very opposite end of each other when it comes to seeing events as important or unimportant. Strike, my working Cocker Spaniel, was born with a very ‘stuff just isn’t that important’ attitude. He has his struggles don’t get me wrong (helllloooo water!…..🤣) But when it comes to people, dogs, noises and movement, he used to notice it but with training he now doesn’t. He walks past things without a care in the world as if they are not even there! Eg a cat, a builder in hi vis jacket, a dog on other side of the road. He’s cool, he knows he’s got this!

I’ve never once taken this for granted and I still continue to reward that ‘no reaction’ bank account.

But he IS the dog that could go into a social situation and see everything as a non-event. So the boundary training I’ve worked on with him will transfer to the pub, and mean that he will not find social situations harder than they need to be.

My Border Collie Kapow however sees a lot of things in life as important. This is what she was bred for. To notice things. She would then ask herself the question, is that thing good or bad. And the general answer was always bad. Over time I have helped her to see things as less important, and to help her answer that actually some things ARE good. However, this requires a LOT of work on her part. And it can be very bucket dependent.

So could I take her to the pub? I probably could. But would she enjoy it? No she wouldn’t. She would be asking that question over and over again. Every movement, noise, small person running around. She would try very hard to see those things as good, but at some point she might decide it’s all a bit too much and that actually, something was bad. As a dog owner and her advocate, I am the one putting her into that position so it’s up to me to make that decision for her and set her up to succeed wherever I possibly can.

There are times where I may have no choice but to take her with me to a social event. The training we’ve done means that I know she can handle it with careful management. But there are some situations that I absolutely won’t put her into.

Visitors to the house

When I have friends over I make sure that Kapow has a safe place to go. Now she may not always be able to choose that place herself, so I have a room set up where she can relax with a nice chew, bone or frozen treat while I have people over. She is VERY happy! Kapow does have good relationships with some of my friends and family that have built up over time. But with people she’s only going to see rarely, there really is no need to put that pressure on her. If we have people in the garden and she needs a toilet break, then I take her to the toilet in the front garden. This keeps the pressure off and is in her best interests.

All too often we feel that our dogs should be in the same room as us when people come to visit. That they must say hello, and behave, and not jump all over our visitors. Again, these are all big asks depending on your dog, and your dog’s level of understanding. So the next time you are in that position, really ask yourself, am I doing this for me? Or my dog?

Noticing your dog’s warning signs

It’s natural that when we think of dogs reacting to things, we think of them barking and lunging as they are very clear signals that they are not happy about something. But what are the more subtle signals? Here are some to watch out for with your dog which will give you an indication of them not enjoying a situation.

  • Yawning
  • Licking lips
  • Scratching
  • Restlessness
  • Tail tucking under
  • Panting
  • Licking
  • Jumping up
  • Becoming goofy/submissive

Tail wagging can also be confused with being happy when actually a dog is feeling stressed.

Be an advocate for your dog

You need to learn to be an advocate for your dog. You need to feel confident enough to say “actually my dog would prefer to stay home today” even when you have mounting pressure from friends and doggy friends. If your dog has had a busy day, is not themselves, or you’ve learned that actually they find those situations just plain stressful, then you need channel that confidence into being their advocate. Politely decline and explain why. You are always going to get people who think they know better than you. You are always going to get those people who say ‘Oh it will do him good’ or ‘It’s the only way they’ll learn’. Have this blog handy to remind yourself that actually you are responsible for your dog and you know them best!

You know when and what they can handle. You know how to set them up for success. We’ve all had moments when we’ve not read our dog right. And they’ve failed because we missed something. I’ve been training dogs for years, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t!

Just learn from those moments and keep them in mind.

If you have a dog that interprets events as bad, or maybe you want to guard your dogs amazing optimism, then we run various classes throughout the week, virtual and in-person – the first class is always free to spectate so there is literally nothing to lose! Come and join us now. Send us an email to nikki@ontheall.dog