Authentic Happiness; New Lambs

I re-read Seligman’s Authentic Happiness this weekend.  Ever read it? Seligman is one of the American Psychologists who decided to focus on mental health rather than mental illness, and yeah for him I say. I’m writing about it here because it got me thinking about our happiness and our dogs.

In the book, Seligman asks us to determine our “signature strengths,” and suggests that the road to happiness is to do what you are good at and what you love. (He has a questionnaire in the book to help you decide your strengths. Mine include Curiousity and Love of Learning. I’m not saying what my weaknesses are!)

So here’s my question related to dogs: Is that true of our dogs as well? Is their happiness, at least in part, related to having an opportunity to do what they love and what they are good at?  It seems intuitively that it must be true, and that like us, so many of our dogs are asked to do things that they aren’t good at. I know I spent a couple of years working with one of my Border Collies (Pippy Tay) on working sheep, until a sheep chased her across the field at a herding dog trial, and everyone in the stands laughed so hard they fell out of their seats. I may be indulging in inappropriate anthropomorphism, but I called Pip back to me and she walked back with her head and tail down, as if she was (dare I say it?).. ashamed.

I still feel guilty for not realizing sooner that, although she was brilliant at certain aspects of herding, she simply didn’t have the motivation and the courage to work sheep competively. I stopped training her on sheep, let her herd at home when it was fun and easy, and switched her to working with dog-dog aggressive dogs. She was brilliant at it, absolutely brilliant, and I truly believe she loved it.

As the years went on I saw so many people in my office who had dogs who, to me, didn’t enjoy agility or obedience or whatever, and yet their owners felt they “shouldn’t give up.” I’ll grant it can be a hard call to know if you should try to work through a problem, or decide that your dog just doesn’t enjoy a particular activity, but it seems to be an important one, yes?

Meanwhile, back at the farm: It snowed 3 or 4 inches, but compared to the blizzards and floods of other parts of the country, we can’t complain. The vegetation that has emerged is frozen solid, but tulip and other bulbs are amazing hardy, bless them, and I suspect they’ll be fine. But, with the snow, came new lambs… Lordy, lordy, I do love newborn lambs.

Here’s a bird’s eye view of Lady Godiva (daughter of Snickers and niece of Truffles, what else could I name her?) and her new born lambs. They are absolutely tiny (maybe 3-4 pounds?).. not so good when you are raising market lambs, but I love that they are all white and seem to be doing well.

Lady Godiva is a ewe lamb, meaning she’s just about one year old right now, and this is her first lambing season. What a good momma she though.. see how, in the photo below, she is flexing her back legs to make her udder more accessible to her lambs? Good girl!  The nursing lamb is wagging his tail–always a good sign, since they usually only do that when they are getting milk. The lamb on the ground has nursed less. I’m anxious to check him later this afternoon… he has some milk in his belly, but not as much as his brother. I’m hoping for a big, fat milk-filled belly this afternoon.

One last image from this morning,of the morning sunlight coming into the barn. Nothing special really, but I just love barns and old wood…


  1. Sabine says

    Hi Trisha,

    thanks for discussing this interesting topic. I’ve been doing therapy dog work now for over 10 years and I am a temperament evaluator for our area agency on aging and my shepherd and my puppymill rescue are the dogs I am working with now. Therapy dogs can’t be trained, they are born as such and these two are now my fourth and fifth dog I’ve been using for therapy work. My first therapy dog was working with the American Red Cross Disaster Relief after the 9/11 attack on the pentagon and was honored for her work. Made me very proud of my little dachsie.
    Tessa (the shepherd) is an unflappable dog. She is well socialized and loves people and dogs alike and I use her as the neutral dog whilst I am testing new handler/dog teams. So far, so good. I have the feeling she does not completely enjoy visiting nursing homes. a. It’s very hot there and my girl is more the type who loves to sleep in the snow, and b. she has the true shepherd personality: Close, but not too close. In other words: She goes through commands like “Go Visit” and she lets people pet her, pull on her, and whatever else our patients have in mind, but she does not initiate a visit. If someone animates her, she will respond, but a person not paying attention to her will keep her passive. Alzheimer’s patients aren’t always the most outgoing bunch of people, and so I am often wondering if she truly enjoys her work.
    Tessa likes to be in the room and observe – that’s what she finds most relaxing and enjoyable.

    Fast forward to my “rookie”: Bica is a puppymill survivor. People scare her, because people (men in particular) hurt little dachshunds. Someone cut off a piece of her ear, kicked her throat in(her trachea is collapsed), her back was injured, her tail and her jaw were broken as well and her claws were growing into her pads, not to mention that her teeth were dark brown and rotten and she was severely underweight and she had patellar luxation on both sides. In other words: This is a little dog understandably has all kinds of issues and phobias, and people aren’t her favorite living beings to begin with. I adopted her three years ago and she was a mess on four paws. The puppymillers dumped her through a drop off slot at some killshelter and left her to be put down, because she lost her value to them as a breeding bitch. It’s also obvious that she had been tied to some breeding stand and was “raped” by dogs. Touching her rear end was impossible for a very long time.

    Neither here nor there: This little dog is a constant work in progress and has come a very long way in those three years. (I am convinced she suffers from ADD – she can’t concentrate for a second.) She still has issues and it took my husband almost a year to be able to just touch her on occasion. To this day he has not been able to pick her up or lean over her. She adores me and does trust me now most of the times, but will scream of fear for no apparent reason, which leaves me baffled and sad. (I am sure she has a reason and it brakes my heart every time…………) The point I am trying to get at: She is in love with the (female) seniors at the nursing home and since they don’t put any pressure on her, she enjoys being petted and held. It’s like owing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This little dog who’s been through hell and back is coming out of her shell as soon as she is confronted with a needy person. In our case residents of a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.

    There is a huge heart beating in this little body and words can not describe how much I love that little dog for all the hardship she overcame to come out victorious.

    Here she is at her initial onsite training visit:

    My love for this little dog is groing every day. You met her at the seminar in Woodbridge this year and I am not sure if she actually did let you touch her. She did sit up on stage with you, and I know it took all the courage she had. —>

    Before you all wonder, if this little dog is really happy now, let me show you a current video of her and you decide: (this was about the third time EVER in her live, she showed signs of play behavior. Forgive my somewhat silly animation voice. :O )

    I guess I will take her more to visit the elderly and take shepherd more for sheepherding lessons, because that’s something she really seems to be enjoying……. Go figure ! :) (Sorry for rambling – but every little step this dog makes forward makes me happy beyond belief.)

    Love the pictures of the newborns and the sunlight streaming into your barn. One of these days I will get out of the city again and smell some country air ! :)

  2. Libbye says

    For me, authentic happiness IS new lambs. 😉

    And for the Terv boys, it seems to be anything that involves going to the barn and moving sheep around. Buzz put up the sheep who were grazing in the barnyard this afternoon. A simple thing but his delight in this chore was unmistakable.

  3. ABandMM says

    “Is that true of our dogs as well? Is their happiness, at least in part, related to having an opportunity to do what they love and what they are good at? ”

    I would suspect that not all dogs get the opportunity to discover what they might be good at. I think my hound mix might be very good at tracking rabbits, however, I have not found a safe place to determine this. Most of the tracking sites I have found are for purebreds, and I have yet to find a place that would teach us these skills in a safe environment. As much as I think she would enjoy it, I just cannot let her out loose at dusk and find out how many of the neighborhood rabbits she can get.

    I also bet there are quite a few dogs living in very good homes that would like to hunt raccoons, herd sheep, and/or roam outside and really protect their humans and property.

    I actually do not find it surprising that you have treated dogs that aren’t enjoying what their humans have “signed them up for”. We see this often with children who do not enjoy becoming the athlete/musician/scholar etc. that their parents want them to be. Some people don’t see this in their children, who do have the ability to vocalize their feelings. We can only make educated guesses about what our dog is thinking.

    I do wonder whether my dog enjoys the obedience work that we do (all positive/food reward based), especially since it is hard to see all of your dogs body motions and signals when competing. However, people who have watched us (and taken pictures) assure me that my dog is “upbeat”, paying attention to me and has a “happy” tail wag. And I guess short of the dog saying “Yes, Mom, this is fun”, those things are as good as sign as any that she is enjoying what we are doing.

  4. says

    Wow. Interesting topic. I’ve had the similar thought that dogs must have a sense of what activities feel good for them to do, and those are the activities that they would be excel at and love (assuming that their training is positive too).

    In the mental health field, there’s a movement called Person Centeredness, which promotes more respect for the client’s values and preferences as opposed to just diagnoses and clinician’s treatment biases. I’ve been thinking that there are analogous approaches in dog training.

    Interesting aside: Seligman is a leader in the Positive Psychology movement. It’s fascinating to see how his career has changed in the forty-odd years since he did the original Learned Helplessness experiments in dogs.

  5. says

    Thank you for the book recommendation. One of my dogs HATES competing in agility; took me a shaemfully long time to get the message. Now we are training for Rally-O (which he loves) and plan on checking out APDT Rally.

    It’s a difficult lesson to learn for OURSELVES – let alone our dogs (especially when they have the skills ;-P). It is so important to respect what our dogs WANT. Thank you for bringing the topic up. And thank you for the lamb pics!

  6. Liza Lundell says

    My basenjis have definite preferences, but how much was due to early conditioning, I wonder. The old lady, now 15-1/2, retired from rally at 13. She’d been a show dog since she was 6 months old; her favorite was always conformation (you stand still and look gorgeous, and they put liver right in your mouth!) she managed obedience enough to get 2 CDs, but never loved it, ran some agility, did a little coursing which she loved as long as no other dogs were involved, and finally did APDT rally after losing her vision. The younger girl was a hard-core lure courser, from the first day she saw a lure. She does agility and rally for me, and now we’re doing tracking for her as well. The old man I got when he was 8, he’d been retired from conformation and coursing, and I was all set to show him in rally when he explained to me that he really doesn’t like dog shows, doesn’t like a lot of people and dogs around, and would really rather be a couch spud. So he’s a spud, and he’s my nurse dog, and if you’re not feeling well and need someone to lay on the couch next to you and be comfy, he’s your man.

    The old man is the sire of the younger girl. She’s a happy, confident, go anywhere, try anything type of girl. He’s a spud, so it’s not entirely genetic.

    Love the lambs. Basenjis do not herd (bet they’d move those sheep at the speed of light, given a chance).

  7. says

    Yes, yes, yes! I firmly believe that animals also derive happiness from their job or what activities they are able to do. I bred a dog that was quite happy living with me. He was very social and outgoing, and always happy. One day I introduced him to my best friend’s kids, and he went into outer space (in his head). I had never seen him so happy, not ever. I think he could have lived his entire life with me being happy. But now that he lives in a family with kids, he is in bliss. His “job” is to be with the kids.

    At home I have a female that I started training as a 12 week old puppy, using the clicker. She has always been extremely soft and that makes her difficult to train. As long as she is not making mistakes, she’s fine. As soon as I use a NRM or corrective tone of voice, she shuts down completely. She is not your typical clicker dog, because she doesn’t venture outside of her comfort zone to offer new behaviours. she once sat and stared at me for 15 minutes instead of offering her paw when we were working on shake a paw. She is trained for Novice competition, but I don’t compete with her due to her softness.

    In the fall I started agility with her. She is like a brand new dog! She tries everything, can handle corrections or NRMs and just keeps on going. The change in her demeanor is incredible. People who saw her doing obedience run throughs can not believe it’s the same dog when we do agility. I think, for this dog, I have found her happiness. I still require manners and practise obedience, but our focus is agility.

    I think it’s very important that we, as owners, are aware of our dogs. I think giving them the opportunity to try new things and to truly watch their reactions to those new things is what allows them the greatest chance at finding what they love.

  8. nan says

    I think recognizing that our dogs have strengths (and weaknesses)and that the road to happiness involves honoring those is an increasingly important area to focus on given the growth of dog activities and the implicit (and often explicit) pressure to take full advantage of it. Often breed type will give you a good cue but is no more the end of the story than our genetic heritage is for us. What I love is seeing who the dog is when a key strength is tapped. For example I took in an unsocialized rough collie when he was about 7 years old and watched him anxiously scan the world for aliens with unmentionable plans involving collies over the next 8 or 9 months; I made only small inroads in his worries. Then i brought him into a pen with a few well socialized “trainer” sheep and suddenly the dog he was meant to be was in that ring. His posture changed, confidence spilled from every pore of his being, his eyes filled with joy as his head lifted. The shepherd began having us work a bit and Rob took to herding as though trained from puppyhood–lifting the sheep gently off the fence, bringing them to us with only the energy needed, keeping them together–everything you could want. When we left some of the old worry returned to his eye and stance but some of his new sense of purpose remained. Agility and herding brought him into himself and he now handles all situations with comfort and aplomb. That said while he is courteous at a dog park he is not happy there, he thrives on therapy work with children and hospice but is troubled on the alzheimers wing. I’ve learned to watch carefully and we do what brings him joy and let go what does not. It has been easy with him because the signals are clear even though he will obediently do whatever I ask. The tricky bit I think is with the dogs who are less clear. Using my labrador as an example she will do what I ask, the metronome of her tail holds steady and her ear set is subtle. I thought she “should” like agility and she obliged me, it was really when I watched a video of her doing agility and contrasted it with a video of her messing around with some freestyle that I could see that in the former activity she was complying and in the latter celebrating. We have left agility behind and she is a happier girl. I see so many folks now who are themselves very wedded to a dog sport and who seek the perfect agility, fly ball, herding or other dog partner. No matter how expert the puppy eval I doubt it can elicit enough about whether that venue will be the one that brings the dog joy. I’d love to see us do more with the adult dogs needing placement to identify their strengths both to enhance their quality of life and because I think it could meet a need in pairing like to like in activity preferences.

  9. Kima Bee says

    Some years back I decided to get my 28-lb. rescue dog involved in agility–he and I were both overweight and I thought the activity would be good for both of us.

    The local kennel club held the training sessions indoors in a storefront. Butchie learned to do everything, but never with any great enthusiasm, and then as we went round the course, every time we approached the door to the storefront he would try to dart over to it! I took the hint and we did not continue agility training.

    However, bring out his special Jolly Ball when we arrive at the dog park and you’ll see some enthusiasm. He’d fetch it repeatedly from the pond for hours if I let him. He’s not much of a retriever otherwise, but his does love his Jolly Ball. And I love giving him his special good time.

  10. Jennifer Hamilton says

    I find it very interesting that I have spent years trying every possible dog sport/activity possible in my attempts to find the best balance of what motivates my dog and what my dog can physically do (she the one that had 5 hip/pelvic surgeries). We’ve learned just about every trick in the book that doesn’t require back leg stamina, we’ve done dog dancing, Rally, scent discrimination, tracking, traditional obedience, lure coursing, water work, every one of Nina Ottoson’s puzzles…all at the what I call “para” level. Recently, she’s just got strong enough to now try what I call “para-agility”…basically, everything is at 6″ or less in height.

    In my constant search to find the optimal cross-section of joy and capability, I recently realized that, while my dogs likes many of the activities we do together, there’s nothing she loves more than to fence fight with the dog next door. For the first two years I considered it a very bad behavior and worked (mostly positive techniques but with a handful of 30 minute down stays at the fence as well). I was able to manage it, but if I took my eye off her for a couple of minutes…it would be off to the races and the fence fighting was on. (This was especially difficult because my neighbor’s dogs were outside dogs and my neighbor had no interest on working on the problem together.)

    Then one day, a friend of mine came by and, much to my dismay, witnessed “cujo” come alive. Rather than tell me how upsetting it was to see my dog acting so scary, she shocked me by saying it was the happiest and most active she had seen my dog in a while. She also suggested that running back and forth along the fence line in the sand was really good physical therapy as well. (Seems the non-stop barking and teeth snarling didn’t phase her.)

    It was at that point that I realized she was right. And instead of looking at this as a terrible, bad behavior (which by the way I know it is), I decided to look at it as a way to learn what motivates my dog. Why does she love it so much? What motivates her to push through the discomfort and pain she is likely feeling in her hind quarters? Why will she fence fight until I make her stop but other activities seem to quickly challege her endurance and lose her attention?

    I know the adrenaline rush has to be the primary motivating factor. But why this activity? Why only at home with the neighbors dogs and never in another environment where dogs exist on the other side of a fence? Why does she show no other signs of aggression in any other situation but looks like she’s possessed by the devel along our fence line. What’s going on in her brain to make her love it so much.

    And by the way, she really does love it…as soon as she thinks she is about to go out in the yard, it’s the best way to see Premack’s principles in action. She’s excitment barking, charging the front door with enthusiasm, ears forward, tail up and wagging with anticipation. When the door opens and she gets the “alright” command, she flys like a bat out of hell to the fence and a way she goes. And I know she’s not defending her property because strangers, with or without dogs, can come over unexpectedly and she’s more than happy to let them in…no questions asked.

    So, rather than look at this as a negative…I’m trying to see what I can learn from this. If I could only bottle her enthusiasm for fence fighting in to one of our many other dog sports and activities, I would be a very happy camper indeed…as I know she would be too.

  11. says

    Just re-reading ‘The Emotional Lives of Animals’ in which Marc Bekoff states that the well being of animals is directly affected by how they feel. My dogs are so much happier and feel better when they do something they are good at – a great self esteem builder. I can see a resignation set in, especially during long winter months when they can’t get out as much to do the things they love.

  12. Trisha says

    I just wrote about a half hours worth of comments, and then lost them before posting. Sigh.

    In brief, I was responding to Jennifer’s interesting comments about ‘fence fighting.’ I see lots of dogs who do the same, and show no signs of the same behavior away from the fence. (There’s a famous ethological observation of male ungulates going after each other on either side of a fence (deer? elk?), until the move down the line and the fence just stops… All of a sudden they are face to face, and they immediately stop head butting, etc, and begin grooming and grazing.

    Willie does something somewhat similar, in that he loves to stick his head through the fence and wait for a sheep to get close so he can nip its nose. He also loves to run back and forth on the outside of the fence if I’m working outside then pen. I don’t let him, in the belief that they are all bad habits (but given the above, will they really hurt his real work? Hummmm….?), but I think he likes to do them because they are ‘no pressure’ ways to work the sheep. He knows perfectly well that the fence protects him from the sheep, and that there is no pressure from me either to do anything that makes him nervous.

    Here’s a wild idea about fence fighting: is it possible that dogs like to fence fight (some at least… I do know some who will continue to fight with no fence) because its a bit like play fighting with no boundaries? Sort of like boxing with gloves and rules? A way to let our their ‘inner bad dog’ with no consequences? Food for thought.

    And I love the photo of me and Sabine’s dog from the seminar. I got the strong impression that she was very uncomfortable on the stage between me and the other dogs (note the tongue flick), so I tried to give her as much as possible. (And cuddled up to the slap-happy black dog on my left!)

    I have a wild hypothesis.

  13. says

    That’s a confronting idea, actually. That we should genuinely put our dog’s happiness above or equal to our own.

    I love canine freestyle and non-competitive agility and tricks classes. But does Penny, my dog, also love these? I think she does, because her tail wags, but is the tail-wagging just the pleasure of being with me? I hope not. I hope she actually enjoys it.

    One thing she certainly loved was going to obedience lessons, but her idea of fun was to race around visiting the other “obedient” dogs. We don’t do that any more.

    The other thing that has happened lately is that she doesn’t want to get into the car, after four years of no problems. I think it might be because we used to take frequent short trips to go romping with her best canine friend but now we only take long trips to training and to our house in the country.

  14. Jennifer Hamilton says

    Trish…I think you have a very interesting hypothesis about fence fighting. At our pet resort, we see highly social dogs fence fight viciously and then join the group and everyone resumes a state of total peace. (Don’t get me wrong, I’ve also seen the opposite, so I never encourage or would promote fence fighting as acceptable or a good thing.) But for some dogs, there is definetely something more going on that deserves a better explanation then simply “fear”, “protectiveness”, or “defensiveness”.

    My dog will welcome anyone with two or four legs onto our property with just a little “sentry” bark. Once she’s told me someone’s there, she’s quick to welcome them all the way up to our front door. And in any other environment, she has never displayed an aggressive or defensive move with another dog at a fence, on a leash, or off leash. But man, she turns into cujo at our fence line…and she absolutely LOVES it.

    I’m really trying to learn what goes on in this type of dog’s brain…and how to use that mechanism to motivate other more desirable behaviors.

    I also recognize that, with some dogs, fence fighting has tremendous capacity to escalate into other dangerous behaviors that make me so nervous I would hate to even suggest to lay people that it may not be all bad to let a dog fence fight from time to time. I can only imagine the bad situations that could come out of people generalizing the idea that fence fighting is ok for any dog at any time.

    I’m really interested in this topic since it is so key to my dog’s happiness. Please keep thinking about it…and let us know your thoughts!

  15. Kat says

    Fascinating topic. I do believe that dogs enjoy doing the things they are good at and have things that they are particularly suited for. When I adopted Ranger I was looking for a family pet. What I got was a dog very well suited to therapy work. This dog lives to meet people; the only thing we do together that gives him as much satisfaction is training–any kind of training, he loves to learn new things. I think a large part of that is simply the challenge of figuring out what Mom wants him to do. Some things he likes to do for their own sake–jumping over things, other things he’ll do for a reward–recycling plastic bottles once he’s learned the behavior. We’re working on our Delta Society registration and will retake the evaluation when we find one scheduled that works with our other obligations. I found scoring “not ready” on the evaluation when we first took it highly instructive. A commute to the site that should have taken 90 minutes turned into a 3 hour marathon with everything going wrong. I arrived very stressed and communicated that right down the leash. I tried to bull through it anyway although I should have canceled it. After it was over and we went on to visit Grandma while I was taking him for a walk I’m quite certain I heard him say “I don’t know what that was all about Mom but here’s something to remember. You’re my favorite person in all the world and I’m you’re partner, if we aren’t having fun doing something together we shouldn’t be doing it.” And he’s right! There are some things that are necessary that might not be fun (trips to the vet can fall into that category as can baths) but the things we choose to do together should be fun. I’ll remember that next time and he’ll be able to relax and do what he does so well and so naturally–meet people and make them feel better.

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