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Is My Dog Happy? A Guide to Putting a Smile on Your Dog’s Face - PawSafe
Dog Behavior

Is My Dog Happy? A Guide to Putting a Smile on Your Dog’s Face

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Tamsin De La Harpe

is my dog happy

As dog owners, we all want our dogs to be happy and content. But how do we know if they truly are happy? Because if they’re not, there is little they can do about it and it’s up to us to change things. This is a very important question that every pet parent needs to ask themselves.

In my work training and rescuing dogs, I come across a spectrum of canine emotions, from the depths of distress to the peaks of joy. In my personal life, recognizing the happiness of my dogs is more than a task; it’s a commitment much like caring for family members.  But to really answer the question on whether or not your puppy is truly happy, this article aims to go beyond my own experience.

This article aims to guide dog owners in understanding the nuances of canine happiness, a blend of art and science, influenced by our lifestyle choices and daily habits. We will look at the work of experts like Dr. Emma Grigg and Dr. Tammy Donaldson for the science on how pups express joy, contentment, and quality of life.

Contents show

Key takeaways on the signs of a happy dog:

  • Loose, wagging tail
  • Playful
  • Relaxed body parts like open mouth, soft eyes, and loose or wriggly posture
  • Healthy appetite
  • Healthy appearance
  • Affectionate behavior like cuddles and nuzzles
  • Well behaved
  • Not reactive
  • Calm around new people or dogs
  • Understands boundaries

While wagging is the most obvious sign of ment content, it’s important to note that not all tail wags are created equal. A slow, relaxed wag typically indicates that your dog is feeling calm and content. However, a fast, stiff wag may indicate excitement or even aggression. 

But what about the more subtle signs of happiness? It’s important to pay attention to your dog’s overall behavior and demeanor because sometimes, it’s the little things that matter.

 A happy dog will typically be interested in their surroundings, enjoy spending time with their owners, and engage in activities they enjoy. Our article on how do dogs show affection shows that a sense of security and comfort are necessary for a dog to show you what you mean to them and overall contentment.

By paying attention to your dog’s behavior and physical cues, you can get a better sense of whether or not they are truly happy.

Remember, every dog is different, and what makes one dog happy may not work for another. Pay attention to your dog’s communication and behavior, and adjust your approach accordingly. With patience and understanding, you can help your dog feel happy and comfortable in any situation.

The video below shows how one Golden Retriever, Nala, does her viral “happy dance.”

14 Ways For How To Know Your Dog Is Happy

Most of a canine’s joy has to do with their relationship with the people they’ve bonded with. However, other factors like play, good food, and health are also highly contributing factors. A leading study on 103 free-range dogs proved this by showing that a dog’s trust is built on affection, not only food.

Don’t confuse happiness with neurotic behavior in dogs. Sometimes, excitement and happiness are vastly different, with the latter typically displaying a lasting sense of calmness and contentment. 

The key to understanding your dog’s happiness is to look at their overall behavior and physical cues rather than relying on a single emotion or mood. A happy dog is one who is well-fed, well-exercised, and well-loved, with plenty of opportunities to explore and play in a safe and supportive environment.

Here are a few things that show your dog is happy:

1. Your Dog Looks Happy

When trying to gauge our dog’s contentment, one of the first things we should look at is their bodily communication cues. 

Warning: A dog’s physical communication can be subtle and complicated. A wagging tail alone does not mean a dog is happy, especially if the tail is stiff or held high (then it could be aggressive). Subtle cues like licking their lips, pinning the ears back, showing you the whites of their eyes, and a stiff body are all signs of an unhappy and stressed dog. Make sure you don’t make the common mistake of missing these cues.

A happy and relaxed dog will have a few key indicators that we can see. Here we will list some signs according to Dr. Bonnie Beaver, DVM.

Physical signs of happiness in dogs include:

  • A wagging tail: The tail should be neutral or slightly raised, with other signs like receptiveness and relaxed body language. 
  • A lolling tongue, where the tongue hangs out of the mouth in a relaxed and floppy manner.
  • A soft gaze is also a sign that your dog is feeling cheerful and relaxed.  You may also see your dog’s eyes gently close when they are happy, as in the picture above of a happy corgi.
  • Open, relaxed mouth that almost looks like a smile or grin. 
  • Receptiveness: When a happy dog approaches you for attention and cuddles, they will often do so in a playful and relaxed manner. They may lower their heads and paw at you.
  • Ears: In a state of glee, a dog’s ears are often in a natural and neutral position.
  • Playfulness, such as rolling in the grass or play-bowing.
  • Appeasement distance-reducing signals. These are behaviors that dogs use to communicate that they are feeling friendly and non-threatening. These signals can include approaching with a relaxed body posture, avoiding direct eye contact, and turning their head to the side while wagging.
  • Zoomies: while we never encourage a pet dog to be too excited, an occasional case of the zoomies is often a sign of joy in dogs. See the video below for an example of Nala the Golden Retriever being thrilled at being in one of her favorite spots on a hike:

It’s important to note that physical signs alone are not enough to determine a dog’s overall happiness. It’s also important to consider other behaviors and their overall well-being.

2. You And Your Dog Can Communicate Effectively

When it comes to understanding if your dog is joyful, effective communication is key. Dogs communicate through body language, vocalizations, and behavior, and it’s important for us to learn how to interpret these signals.Happy dogs are often “talkers” and will make all sorts of funny noises to get your attention and interact.

A dog’s receptiveness to training commands and the ease with which they follow instructions reflect effective communication. Another indicator of good communication is an intuitive connection where you can predict each other’s needs and moods.

3. Your Dog Gets Enough Fun Activities

One of the clearest signs of a happy dog is an active lifestyle filled with plenty of exercise, engaging activities, adventures, and playtime. When a dog gets enough physical activity, it’s not just their body that benefits, but their mental health too. 

Regular exercise helps burn off excess energy, preventing boredom and destructive behaviors. Adventures and explorations in new environments stimulate their senses and keep their minds sharp, while playtime, whether with humans or other dogs, is crucial for social development and emotional well-being. 

You can often see the joy in a dog’s demeanor during a game of fetch, a run in the park, or simply exploring new trails. Their bright eyes, wagging tails, and enthusiastic engagement are telltale signs of a dog that’s not just physically fit, but also emotionally content and happy.

4. Your Dog Is Relaxed In New Spaces And Around Strangers And Other Dogs

When our dogs are cheerful and comfortable, they tend to be relaxed in new spaces and around strangers and other dogs. This is a good sign that they feel confident and content in their environment. If your dog is happy, they will likely wag their tail, approach new people and dogs in a friendly way, and show interest in exploring their surroundings.

If you notice that your dog is anxious or fearful in new situations, it may be a sign that they are not feeling comfortable. Signs of anxiety in dogs can include shaking, panting, drooling, and hiding or avoiding new people or places. However, improper socialization has been shown to cause fear around new people, even in cheerful dogs.

5. They Feel Part Of the Family

Dogs are social animals and thrive on interaction with their owners and other dogs. A happy dog enjoys spending time with their family. They may also be more willing to learn and participate in training activities.  

Leading studies by PubMed prove that just spending time with us causes a surge in a dog’s happy hormones like oxytocin. And, In fact, social interactions affect a dog’s behavior depending on whether they are positive or negative. So, positive quality time with our dogs is essential to knowing if they are happy.

One way to make your dog feel like part of the family is to include them in your daily routines. Take them on walks, play with them, and give them plenty of attention and affection. Dogs love spending time with their human families, and it helps them feel more secure and content.

6. Your Dog Is Neither Apathetic or Hyper Aroused

One common misconception is that a calm and relaxed dog is apathetic or bored. However, this is not necessarily the case. Just like humans, dogs need downtime and rest to recharge and process the world around them. A calm and relaxed dog may simply be enjoying a quiet moment rather than feeling unhappy or unstimulated. Still, if your dog is lethargic and uninterested in normal activities, they may be depressed, sad, or have medical issues.

On the other hand, a dog who is hyperactive and bouncing off the walls may not necessarily be happy either. While it’s true that dogs need exercise and play to stay mentally and physically healthy, too much excitement can be overwhelming and stressful for some dogs.

7. Your Dog Does What They Love (Working With Genetics)

When it comes to determining whether your dog is content or not, it’s important to consider their genetics. Most dogs are happiest when doing what they were bred to do. For example, a herding breed like a Border Collie will be at its best when working with livestock, while a retriever like a Labrador will be happiest when retrieving things.

It’s important to note that not all dogs will have the same drive to do what they were bred to do. Some dogs may have a stronger drive than others, while others may not be interested. It’s important to understand your dog’s individual personality and preferences.

In addition to their breed, your dog’s genetics can also affect their happiness. For example, some dogs may have a higher predisposition to anxiety or fearfulness, which can impact their overall happiness. 

8. Your dog does not engage in obsessive, self-harming, or destructive behavior.

Obsessive, often self-harming behavior can include excessive licking, chewing, and biting or scratching themselves. This behavior can lead to self-harm and even infection. Destructive behavior includes chewing furniture, excessive barking,  or digging holes in the yard, which has been shown to lead to pet abandonment. 

If your dog is engaging in obsessive behavior, it is important to identify the underlying cause. It could be due to anxiety, boredom, or even a medical issue. Addressing the root cause can help your dog stop the behavior and become happier.

9. Your Dog is Not Reactive

Reactive dogs overreact to stimuli, such as other dogs, people, or loud noises. If your dog is not reactive, it’s a good sign that they are content and comfortable in their environment. They are able to calmly observe their surroundings and interact with others positively.

Exercise, training, and socialization help reduce reactivity. It’s important to pay attention to your own behavior. Dogs are highly attuned to their owners’ emotions, so if you are anxious or stressed, your dog may pick up on that and become reactive as well. Keeping a calm and positive demeanor can help your dog feel more relaxed and content.

10. Your Dog Understands Rules And Boundaries

When we set clear boundaries, our dogs know what is expected of them and what they can and cannot do. This clarity helps dogs feel safe and secure, which is essential for their joy and well-being.

By setting clear rules and boundaries, we can help our dogs feel safe, secure, and happy. Training, routine, and socialization are all important tools for achieving this goal. We can create a harmonious and fulfilling relationship with our furry friends with patience and consistency.

11. They Look Physically Fit and Healthy

Ensuring your dog is physically fit and healthy is an important aspect of their emotional stability. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and regular vet checkups are key to maintaining their physical well-being.

12. They Get A Healthy Diet

When choosing the right food for our canines, it’s important to consider their individual needs. Factors such as age, breed, and activity level can all impact the type and amount of appropriate food for our dogs. Monitor the food portions because causing an obese dog is not caring.

One way to ensure that our dogs get the nutrition they need is to choose a high-quality dog food specifically formulated for their age and breed. Look for foods that contain real meat as the first ingredient, and avoid those high in fillers or artificial preservatives.

13. They Are Not Left Alone For Long Periods

Dogs require human interaction to stay happy and healthy. Leaving them alone for extended periods can lead to separation anxiety, depression, and destructive behavior.

If you work long hours or have a busy schedule, our article on dog bored all day suggests hiring a dog walker or pet sitter to come and spend time with your dog during the day. Alternatively, you can enroll your dog in doggy daycare, where they can socialize with other dogs and receive plenty of attention and exercise.

It’s also essential to provide your dog with plenty of mental stimulation while you’re away. Puzzle toys, chew toys, and treat-dispensing toys can keep your dog occupied and entertained for hours. You can also leave the TV or radio on to provide some background noise and make your dog feel less alone.

14. They Have Their Own Quiet Place To Rest & Feel Safe In

Dogs are den animals, and having a designated space to retreat to can help reduce stress and anxiety. This space can be a crate, a dog bed, or even a specific room in the house. It should be a place where your dog feels secure and comfortable.

It’s important to make this space cozy and inviting. Provide a soft bed or blanket, and consider adding some of your dog’s favorite toys or treats. Make sure the area is well-ventilated and at a comfortable temperature.

When introducing your dog to their new quiet space, it’s important to do so gradually. Encourage them to explore the area on their own, and reward them with treats and praise for positive behavior.

How To Know If You Dog Is Unhappy

unhappy dog

Dr. Grigg points out that different dogs show stress in their own unique ways, depending on their personality, past experiences, and what’s stressing them out. But there are some common signs to look out for that suggest a dog might be really unhappy:

  1. Doing Harmful Stuff 

    This is when dogs do things that aren’t good for them, like hurting themselves.

  2. Repeating the Same Actions Over and Over

    You might see your dog doing things like spinning around a lot, barking non-stop, or jumping up and down too much.

  3. Acting Frustrated or Confused

    If your dog is chewing a lot, making noises, shaking, or lifting a paw, it might be feeling pretty mixed up or frustrated.

  4. Looking Scared or Down

    A dog that often looks scared or keeps its body low might be feeling stressed.

  5. Big Changes in How Active They Are

    If your dog is either way more active than usual or really sluggish, it could be a sign of stress. Being super active is a more common way dogs show they’re stressed.

  6. Freaking Out Over Small Things (Reactivity)

    Sometimes stressed dogs get really upset over little things, which can lead them to do stuff like run in circles or jump around, maybe because they’re upset they can’t check out whatever’s bothering them. In extreme cases, we call this reactivity and hyper arousal. A common example is when a dog loses their mind when passing another strange dog on leash.

So, these are some signs that a dog might not be feeling great. It’s all about noticing the little changes and understanding what your dog is trying to tell you.

Key Components of Canine Well-being

The Five Freedoms concept, initially developed for farm animals, has been effectively adapted for domestic dogs. These freedoms outline the basic needs of animals:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: Ensuring access to fresh water and a nutritious diet.
  2. Freedom from Discomfort: Providing a comfortable environment, including shelter and a restful sleeping area.
  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, or Disease: Through prevention, rapid diagnosis, and treatment.
  4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: By providing enough space, facilities, and companionship.
  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress: Ensuring conditions and treatment avoid mental suffering. These freedoms form a foundation for holistic canine well-being, ensuring that a dog’s physical and psychological needs are met.

Activities and Lifestyle Choices

The role of playtime, exercise, and engaging activities is pivotal in maintaining a dog’s happiness. Each dog has individual preferences and joys, which can range from fetch games to peaceful walks. Understanding these preferences and incorporating them into daily routines ensures that dogs live fulfilling lives. Regular physical activity not only maintains physical health but also provides mental stimulation, which is crucial for a dog’s overall well-being.

Emotional and Physical Health

Maintaining a dog’s emotional and physical health involves more than meeting basic needs. It includes providing mental stimulation through interactive toys, training, and social interactions. Physical wellness is maintained through regular check-ups, a balanced diet, and appropriate exercise. Recognizing signs of distress or discomfort early on is crucial in preventing long-term issues. Emotional health, often overlooked, is as important as physical health in ensuring a happy, well-balanced dog.

How to Keep Your Dog Happy

Taking care of a dog can be a lot of work, but it’s worth it when you see your canine wagging their tail with joy. Here are some tips to help keep your dog happy.

  • Regular exercise;
  • Healthy diet;
  • Adequate playtime;
  • Mental stimulation;
  • Consistent routine;
  • Quality time together;
  • Safe and comfortable environment;
  • Veterinary care;
  • Positive reinforcement; and
  • Socialization opportunities.

Remember to provide plenty of love and attention, and don’t hesitate to consult a veterinarian if you have any concerns about your dog’s health or behavior.

Common Misconceptions About Dog Happiness

There are a lot of misconceptions about what makes a dog happy. Here are a few of them:

Misconception 1: Dogs Need Constant Attention

While dogs enjoy spending time with their humans, they also need time to rest and relax on their own. It’s important to provide your dog with a comfortable space where they can go to unwind and be alone when they want to.

Misconception 2: A Wagging Tail Means a Happy Dog

While a wagging tail can signify happiness, it’s not always the case. Dogs can wag their tails for various reasons, including fear, anxiety, or even aggression. It’s important to pay attention to your dog’s body language as a whole to understand how they’re feeling. 

Wagging research shows that wagging to the right often shows happiness, while to the left can suggest stress.

Misconception 3: Spoiling Your Dog Equals Happiness

While it’s tempting to spoil our pups with treats and toys, it’s important to remember that dogs need structure and routine to feel secure and happy. Providing your dog with consistent training and boundaries can actually increase their happiness and sense of security.

When to Seek Professional Help

If you have noticed changes in your dog’s behavior or mood that persist for a long time, it may be time to seek professional help. Here are some signs that indicate your dog may need to see a veterinarian or a professional dog behaviorist:

  • Aggressive behavior toward people or other dogs;
  • Excessive barking, whining, or howling;
  • Destructive behavior, such as chewing on furniture or digging holes;
  • Loss of appetite or excessive weight gain/loss;
  • Incontinence or other sudden changes in bathroom habits; and
  • Excessive lethargy or hyperactivity.

If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to take your dog to a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions causing the behavior changes. Once medical conditions have been ruled out, it may be time to consult with a professional dog behaviorist.

A professional dog behaviorist can help you identify the root cause of your dog’s behavior changes and develop a plan to address them. They may suggest behavior modification techniques, training, or medication to help your dog feel more comfortable and happy.                                                                                                                             

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can I tell if my dog feels neglected?

Neglect can be detrimental to your dog’s mental and physical health. Signs that your dog may feel neglected include destructive behavior, excessive barking, and changes in appetite or energy levels. Spending quality time with your dog, providing regular exercise, and giving them attention and affection can help prevent feelings of neglect.

What is happy body language for dogs?

A wagging tail, relaxed body posture, and a playful demeanor are all signs of a happy dog. Other signs include bright eyes, a relaxed mouth, and a willingness to engage in activities. Pay attention to your dog’s body language to better understand their emotional state.

What are some signs that my puppy is happy in their new home?

A happy puppy will be curious and playful, have a healthy appetite, and sleep well at night. They may also show affection and seek attention from their new family. It’s important to give your puppy time to adjust to their new surroundings and establish a routine.

How do I know if my dog loves me?

Dogs show love through their actions, such as wagging their tail, cuddling, and following you around. They may also show excitement and joy when you come home. Pay attention to your dog’s behavior to better understand their feelings towards you.

Can dogs be happy lying around all day?

While dogs need regular exercise and mental stimulation, they also enjoy relaxing and spending time with their owners. It’s important to provide your dog with a balance of activity and rest to ensure their happiness and well-being.

Final Thoughts

Determining whether or not your dog is happy can be a complex task. Many factors can influence a dog’s happiness, including their environment, socialization, and overall health. 

You can gain valuable insights into their emotional state by paying attention to your dog’s behavior and body language. Remember, a happy dog is a healthy dog. Ensuring your dog receives proper exercise, nutrition, and veterinary care is essential to their overall well-being. 

References

  • Grigg, E.K. and Donaldson, T.M., 2017. The Science Behind a Happy Dog: Canine Training, Thinking and Behaviour. 5m Books Ltd.
  • Beaver, B.V., 2009. Canine behavior: insights and answers. Elsevier Health Sciences.
  • Marshall-Pescini, S., Schaebs, F.S., Gaugg, A., Meinert, A., Deschner, T. and Range, F., 2019. The role of oxytocin in the dog–owner relationship. Animals, 9(10), p.792.
  • Galambos, Á., Gergely, A., Kovács, A.B., Kiss, O. and Topál, J., 2021. Affect matters: Positive and negative social stimulation influences dogs’ behavior in a subsequent situation involving an out-of-reach object. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 236, p.105242.
  • Bhattacharjee, D., Sau, S., Das, J. and Bhadra, A., 2017. Free-ranging dogs prefer petting over food in repeated interactions with unfamiliar humans. Journal of Experimental Biology, 220(24), pp.4654-4660.
  • Howell, T.J., King, T. and Bennett, P.C., 2015. Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports, pp.143-153.
  • An epidemiological analysis of dog behavior problems presented to an Australian behavior clinic, with associated risk factors.
  • Belshaw, Z., Asher, L., Harvey, N.D. and Dean, R.S., 2015. Quality of life assessment in domestic dogs: An evidence-based rapid review. The Veterinary Journal, 206(2), pp.203-212.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

Author

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.