Dogs, like people, need to be happy to be mentally well. As owners control most aspects of dogs’ lives, we need to claim responsibility not only for the dog’s well-being but also happiness.
My ‘happiness project’ is based on three simple steps
I watch the dog for a week or two, playing with her, spending as much time as possible observing her during feeding, walks, interaction with other dogs and people. I use games that help me assess all the unique talents she might have. I make notes. Which sense (apart from smell, which is any dog’s superpower) is dominant: does she look at things more or listens to sounds around her? does she like being touched?
Walks are brilliant as they tell me most about the dog: is she a sniffer, walking with her nose close to the ground (and sniffing the air with the typical bloodhound expression), does she look at me often, checking with me where to go next, does she get distracted by noises or things she sees? How quickly does she react when she sees a dog or someone she knows (the shorter the distance, the less the dog relies on sight) ? Does she play with dogs, does she come up to people to get some fuss? Does she chase small animals and birds? Does she ‘retrieve’ sticks or small stones? Does she walk close to me or explore the world independently? Or would she rather stay in a field and play with a ball? The possibilities of getting to know your dog during walks are endless.
At home I try to notice how she solves problems, how she understands the world around her, how quickly she remembers where things are. Does she find shortcuts, does she try to outsmart me when she wants (or doesn’t want) something? Is she guarding her toys and her people? It’s also the best place to see if she likes chewing and taking toys apart (everything else falls into ‘toys’ category at this stage). A chewing dog will usually use her mouth a lot (they are the mouthing, biting, licking puppies). I learn what she’d work for (her salary) because it will make her happy when we train.
Obviously, I consider the size and physical features of the dog as well as temperament and energy levels. I doubt a Pug will like fetching a ball or a Frisbee. Brachycephalic muzzle is not too great for sniffing and fetching moving objects. For small dogs, running in thick grass can be challenging – not because it’s hard, if you’ve ever met a Jack Russell you know they like a challenge, but because of all the dust and grass seeds that goes straight into their nose and mouth. Big, heavy dogs might have joints problems, so sudden turns while running shouldn’t be encouraged. Dogs with undercoat will get hot faster, but they might love water. I use common sense before I consider any game or activity.
Based on the dog’s profile I try a few things that I believe will make her happy. Some work better than others. I tend to pick three or four favourites to do every day. And as I am a control freak, I set a time threshold (minimum time for the activity). When I work with the shelter dogs I don’t have the chance to watch them for months and years. With my own, every day I learn something more about them and I improve and adapt my ‘happiness project’.
Lily has a high quality walk (minimum 1 hour, continuously), playing with a toy (10 minutes), oxytocin loading (or ‘cuddles’ in plain English, 30 minutes), chasing ‘ducks’ or ‘fat bastards’ a.k.a.wood pigeons- sorry, I know it’s not politically correct but it kind of stuck now ( a couple of seconds’- long outbursts on each of her four walks). All that is daily and the times given are the minimum, anything more is fine.
Lily is happy. Life is good.