Happiness in Animals?

Of course! It seems like a simple question, but as is often the case, our big, complicated brains allow us to add nuance to the answer. I’ve gone on record as arguing that yes indeed, mammals like dogs and horses can be happy, how could they not be? Feeling good is a way for the body to tell the brain (as if they were separate, forgive me for this simplistic duality) that it is in an environment that is safe and healthy. The neuro-hormones associated with happiness, like dopamine and oxytocin are shared by all mammals, and expressive mammals like dogs have the same facial expressions as we do when we are happy ourselves. I write about this in the book For the Love of a Dog and show examples in the DVD of the same name.

However, I was reminded that the question has more depth than “can a dog feel happy?” while reading  the book Mental Health and Well-being in Animals, edited by Frank McMillan. It is an excellent book for anyone interested in the mental life of animals, with chapters by Pam Reid, Marian Dawkins (on suffering, always an extremely thoughtful writer), Mark Bekoff, Suzanne Hetts, Temple Grandin, Jaak Panskepp, Bernie Rolland, and on and on. A truly impressive collection of knowledgeable, thoughtful people.

McMillan himself wrote the chapter titled “Do Animals Experience True Happiness?” In it, he reminds us that the concept of “happy” has two meanings: 1) a temporary mood or short term experience (joy, enthusiasm, pleasure) and 2) a long-term state associated with, in his words, “one’s evaluative overview of life.” In other words, there is a difference between being happy the moment you discovered you won a prize, and whether you’d describe your life as a happy one. “We just want you to be happy, dear,” coming from your parents isn’t asking that you have a few seconds of pleasure from a chocolate chip cookie, but rather enjoy a long-term state of satisfaction and contentment with life overall.

McMillan suggests that we use the term “happy” for the short-term state and “happiness” for the long-term one. It’s the “happy life” aspect of happiness that causes people to question whether animals can experience happiness. All biologists I know agree that mammals can experience short term pleasure, but some argue that animals like dogs are not able to evaluate and make judgements about their lives. McMillan writes an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking article about this issue, arguing in part that animals exhibit many of the same needs that people have in order to achieve long-term happiness (such as control over their environment, a sense of achievement, and comparisons with others).

These are important and interesting arguments, and McMillan ends the article with an anecdote of a Beagle named Billy, whose relentless enthusiasm makes it impossible not to describe him as an animal who experiences happiness. Billy’s case brings us the concept of “set point,” or the well recognized tendency of individuals to have a base level of happiness (or lack thereof) that may be influenced by short term events, but not for long. I’d add that given what we now know about neurobiology and behavior, much of a person’s emotional approach to life is a question of how their brains function, based both on genetics and experience. Thus, it seems to me that “happiness” is not just a matter of cognitive judgements about one’s life, but also about one’s brain function and physiology. Our dogs may not make the same kind of judgements about their lives as we do (Oh, if only I’d…. when I was younger!), but it does seem reasonable that individual mammals have the same set of biological factors that influence whether we are generally cheerful or not as we go through out days. I’ve known so many dogs I’d call truly happy, others I’d categorize as experiencing “happy” times but not true happiness.  You?  Willie, by the way, seems to tilt between extreme joy and extreme anxiety on a daily basis.  What about your dogs? (And you… would you describe yourself as a “happy person?” Do you think that influences your dog(s)?)

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Holy moly, there is a lot going on. The wolf controversy continues to take lots of my time (about to do an interview on it now, testifying next week at the NRB in Eau Claire) and I have lots of evening talks to prepare for. In addition, fall in the country is wonderful and, well …, full. There are apples to pick & process for my annual apple/wild plum butter sauce, tons of gardening to do (just ordered a few tons of mulch, oh my), barns to clean out, windows to wash, garages to clean, trees to trim, thistles to kill, and on and on. And now, cats to get final vaccinations for . . .

Introducing the next, and hopefully VERY long, chapter in life on the farm. As many of you know, after a feral cat had kittens in my barn I had hopes of taming her and keeping one her kittens as barn cats. She had other plans, being a truly wild animal, and after I had her spayed, she attempted to lure her kitten away from the barn and into the woods. One can hardly blame her; after all, from her perspective, I stole her kittens (probably ate them for all she knew), trapped and tortured her and then expected her to stay? I wish I knew where she was, but am glad that she is spayed and won’t be having more litters.

That left me with no cats on the farm at all, and when the cats away…. Yup, the mice will play. Worse, the rats were not just increasing, they were beginning to hold conventions. I expected to walk into the barn and find them holding little cell phones and video cameras. I could write an entire article on rats, and how much I adore domestic ones as pets, and how much I dislike having to rid the barn of them. I’ll summarize by saying that the last time I pretended there were no rats in the barn they ended up in my house. It’s one thing to have a pet rat. It’s another altogether to see a wild one run across your kitchen floor and discover the gaping holes they’d chewed in your cabinets. (And to hear your friends suggest that they might never visit again.)

As often happens, the  universe provided: Right after Xena the feral cat disappeared and Calico had found a wonderful new home, I learned that neighbors had a momma cat who showed up in their shed half dead, starved and pregnant. She eventually had 7 healthy kittens, thanks to the care and concern my friends showered upon her. Momma was clearly raised around people, she was super friendly and sought out people to rub against. When I contacted them they had one kitten left and also needed to find a home for momma. And so, here they are, momma Nellie (bottom) and kitten Polly, who are now settled into Redstart Farm, I hope for many, many years to come. They came with horrific diarrhea but I think we have that turned around. Nellie continues to gain weight and Polly is growing like a weed. Polly (both cats are polydactyl) is all white but her eyes are green and she does not appear to be deaf. She might have some health challenges in the future (all white cats are more susceptible to skin cancer) but I’ll give her the absolute best life I can. And how many barn cats have a cat tree in the hay mow?

Here’s one of fall’s most reliable predictors: the wild sunflowers in bloom in front of the barn. It is always bittersweet to see them.

But it is cool (yeah!) and raining today (even better) and we get to be home this weekend. Willie and I will work sheep a little, but I’m afraid his shoulder is regressing. He was visibly limping last week, so we’re back to exercise restrictions and lots of PT exercises. I  honestly don’t know if he’s going to be able to do the physical work to be able to compete in trials–driving a big course takes lots of ‘short stopping’ and stress on his injured ligaments. (His tendon was surgically repaired, but no such possibility for the medial ligaments that were torn.) We’ll see, I’m taking a long term, philosophic approach, and remind myself every day that Willie still can work sheep at the farm, and that’s more important to him than anything else. He’s entered in one more trial and a sheepdog clinic in mid October, we’ll see how he’s doing. He doesn’t know about any of this and is happy it’s cool and that Jim and I are home and he gets to work sheep a little bit. Life is good.


  1. says

    I’m not certain that, overall, I’d describe myself as a “happy” person. Mostly comfortable, sure, but I like complaining and being snarky too much to be considered truly happy at current. Elka, though….I’d say that she’s happy, both episodically and persistently. If anything, it’s her efforts that keep my happiness quotient where it is! She takes such simple joy in things that I sometimes wouldn’t otherwise notice, and every morning is greeted exuberantly (which, admittedly, can be trying but does get me out of bed before work to take her on our walk)!

    Congrats on your latest barn cats! A cat tree in the haymow is certainly an extravagance.

  2. Barb Stanek says

    Very interesting question about happiness. I am a happy person. Now about my dogs. My first PWD came to me needing surgical repair of two hips and an elbow at the age of 6 months. The surgeries and recoveries lasted through his 18 month birthday. He is now 11, and he is indeed a happy dog. He is always cheerful, even in pain and convolescence, and considers the game the thing. Doesn’t really matter which game or who plays it, as long as he’s part of it. And barking at his younger brother and sister playing is considered being part of the game! He will often try to encourage others to play if he’s too sore to do so. I honestly think that he came hard-wired to be happy.

    My girl (age 5) struggled with undiagnosed chronic pancreatitis for the first three and a half years of her life. She rarely shows me unabandoned joy. But she does show me self-satisfaction, especially if she thinks that she has pleased me. She has little of the playful nature of my 11 year old. She has had to learn to curb her tendency to be the fun police. She is generally serious and thoughtful. I think that she is content to be cuddling with me. But I think that the only time that she is truly happy is when she is running flat out or swimming. Those are the situations that make her eyes shine. I think that she came to me hard-wired with this outlook on life and happiness.

    My two year old puppy is a half brother to my girl. He is generally happy. He can be apprehensive. But in general, he finds games to engage in and things to smile about. When he comes to visit me, it is often to start a game, not cuddle. He often has shiny eyes and a wagging tail. I’m not sure that I can say that he’s hard-wired either way. More time will help me make a decision.

    I have influenced my dogs’ happiness quotient, as they have influenced mine, just by being who I am. I also think that training my dogs and showing them in as many different canine disciplines as possible has helped increase all of our satisfaction with life and happiness with each other. Using positive reinforcement has helped us to offer behaviors to each other that are mutually pleasing — happiness building, if you will. In the end, I think that we become happier with each other and our lives in an interactive positive reinforcement environment. I wonder what others think of this.

  3. Kat says

    Ranger is happiness personified. Everything in life is good and he’s very philosophical about the inevitable bumps in the road. If he could talk I’m sure he would describe a vet appointment to have his anal glands expressed (as far as he’s concerned the worst thing ever) as “I got to go for a car ride with my favorite person, and where we went there were people who petted me and told me I was wonderful and I made that sad woman smile and It was a GREAT day. Oh and the vet tech did some icky stuff to me too but it was still a GREAT day.” He’s a very happy dog he loves his life and everything in it.

    Finna on the other hand is a very different kettle of fish. I’m not sure she’d ever been happy before she came to live with us much less known happiness. It was a wonderful breakthrough as we try to rehabilitate this profoundly damaged dog to get to a point where she smiles. It was months of patience, kindness, and consistency before it happened but finally she looked at people in the family and smiled! We’d gone from the terrifying monsters that she was forced to live with to sources of pleasure and happiness. Watching her day by day gain confidence and assurance and relax her watchfulness and lower her need to be constantly on guard is amazing. Finna carries much of her stress and tension in her hips. If you want to feel what it was like to be her when we first adopted her tighten you butt muscles as much as you possibly can and then walk around. There are days now when her gait is nearly normal. I wouldn’t say that she’s attained happiness but she is much happier today than she was 10 months ago when she came to live with us.

    I think that happiness is built on an expectation that the new experience is going to be good rather than bad and I believe that you learn that from your early experiences. Ranger came from very good beginnings and learned that life was going to give him wonderful things. Finna grew up with animal hoarders learning that people are not to be trusted and that the things that happened were likely to be unpleasant. Ranger is a happy dog Finna is discovering happiness.

    And I would describe myself and my family as happy. I’m sure that living in an environment with happy people helps promote happiness.

    And finally welcome to your new cats. Long may they reign in the barn creating terror in the rodent population.

  4. Laura says

    tricia, I’m so glad you have kitties again and they are adorable. Here’s hoping they will become good mousers and keep the rats to holding conventions in Sunny Florida. Anyway, to your question about whether or not our own dogs feel happiness, I have had 3 dogs so i can give 3 different examples.
    My Marlin was happy a lot of the time, playing, eating, snuggling and all of that, but I think, the emotion I perceived most from him was calm. Marlin was my steady boy. He was always willing to work, in fact I know he enjoyed it, but he was just as willing to have a day off and just hang out with me. He was a serious dog, but didn’t let himself get too stressed out about it. When he retired, he took it a lot easier than I did, but I could tell he missed working. He wasn’t sad, I think a little confused as to why his working life had to be over, but like everything else, he took it in stride. Miss you Mar.
    Torpedo on the other hand wasn’t happy a lot of the time. I could feel a constant undercurrent of stress from him, especially when we’d finished working. Don’t get me wrong, he was excellent at his job, but he was too stressed out by it. My sister observed, when he was working, his mouth would be tightly shut and he’d never look relaxed. She said he always looked like he was about to throw up.. I feel guilty about that. Maybe he shouldn’t have been a guide? I don’t know. He did it for as long as he could and now, when I speak with his Raisers they say how happy he is. I saw him after he’d retired and he was much more relaxed. That helped heal the hurt from having to retire him, knowing he was experiencing happiness as opposed to just being happy for a few moments.
    ah… Seamus, my current ray of sunshine. This dog is happy when he wakes up in the morning, happy while sleeping, happy while working… you get the idea. He bounces through life with an attitude of, isn’t everything great? My toys are great, food’s great, Mom’s great and working is great. He makes me happy just by being with him. The perception I get from him is, he has so much joy in just being himself that I take joy in what he does. Joy is in waking up in the morning, in eating breakfast, in being with people and in doing a job you were asked to do. So many times we complain about work, but we should take joy in it, because we’re doing something productive, something helpful and useful. Also, he just makes me laugh, a lot, and even on the days where he is dificult, like this afternoon, I can never stay frustrated with that happy face for long.
    Well, I’ve written a novel, but that’s my thoughts. Like I said, I can’t tell you what i visually observe in my dogs, but it’s just a feeling I get from them.

  5. Laceyh says

    I’m generally one for contentedness, with occasional ups and downs but nothing drastic. My current single dog has always been a rather tranquil, happy beast, in spite of severe old injuries leaving her lame and arthritic in two legs. My last full-time dog (overlapping with her) seemed to be at a “set point” of mild to moderate anxiety and pessimism, but never panic nor aggression. Before that was a fluffball who was very excitable (up and down), who did show bits of every extreme emotion, including some aggression (nipping). I really am not sure she had a strong “set point” because of her range of emotion.

  6. Lisa W says

    Our dog of several years ago was always encouraged by the success of her last encounter. She was always smiling. She taught her “sister” who came from anything but happiness how to smile, too. In all of the photos we have of the two of them, they are close together with nose to ear grins. I am so glad we have those pictures and those memories. It makes me happy.

  7. Michael says

    Can’t offer any insights into ‘happy’ or ‘happiness’, but wanted to quickly express my appreciation for this blog, and reading stories of your life with Willie. I sometimes feel rather connected to him (maybe because of his struggles and imperfections?), and certainly wish him the very best. Thank you for doing all you do to insure his health and happiness!

  8. Beth with the Corgis says

    Oh, what lovely cats! Sorry to hear of Willie’s setback, but I think that you had expected this to be a likely outcome. Hopefully you can find that magic balance point where he has enough activity to be happy, but not enough to cause him more than modest pain.

    Yes, I think dogs are self-aware enough to BE happy, as opposed to just experiencing in-the-moment joy. Both of my dogs are happy, happy dogs.

    Jack is serious about life, but very happy. I like Kat’s suggestion that happiness is an expectation of what outcome a new activity will hold. Jack just went through a week with a cone after Bad Kitty (my own) scratched him in the eye. He had a midnight trip to the emergency vet, followed by a week with a cone and antibiotic drops 3x a day. The vet visit made him anxious, and I believe he was in a fair amount of pain. The first night or two was tough; he’d get “stuck” in the middle of the kitchen floor and bark for me. Heartbreaking! But he adapted. A Corgi, with a massive neck and tiny legs, is a horror in a cone (it hits the floor when they try to move) but he soon found out how to navigate on level ground, and that I would come help him negotiate corners if he barked (agility hand signals came in handy there). And he still looked forward to his walks (we rigged up the cone with a line through the top to hold it off the ground), still made some pitiful attempts to play, still got very enthusiastic about meals and treats and bedtime. His activity level was a bit depressed, he was clearly a bit worried and would hover near me for comfort (something he normally does not do) but he definitely had a cheerful “Ah well, but life is still good, isn’t it?” outlook.

    Jack thinks everyone in life is a new friend to meet. We walk regularly in a busy park, and all it takes is someone smiling or looking at him for him to rush over to say hello. He is similarly enthusiastic about meeting dogs. On the very rare occasion when a dog snarks at him (he is generally well-liked), he just walks away like “Oh well, can’t win ’em all over” and goes on with his day. He loves to play, loves to walk, loves to eat, loves to meet-and-greet. He hates the vet, but he still is happy in the waiting room and happy going up the hall. He only gets nervous when he’s in the room. He hates baths but makes a determined little bark and runs right upstairs to the proper bathroom when we get his bath things together; might as well get it over with and get to the nice towel part, right?

    Maddie is a happy air-head. She’s a bit clueless. She’s more inclined to worry a bit than Jack is (she’s not quite so confident) but thinks that life is for cuddling, eating, and chasing just about anything that moves. She was spayed late (she was a retired show/breeding dog when we got her at 4-and-a-half) and while she refused to move farther than a sitting position when we brought her home, she still ate her dinner with gusto. If she does look a little worried, a bright mention of her name or one of the many words for food she knows puts a smile back on her face and happy is her default setting. If something bad happens (blood draw at the vet, she gets rolled by another dog for running underfoot) she quite literally gets up and shakes it off and goes back to playing. Once she got seriously rolled and pinned (but not bitten) by a much larger dog and headed straight for home once we got them separated, but as soon as I caught her and leashed her and asked her to do some sits and heel work, she was ready to play again.

    I have the luxury of seeing a fairly large group of dogs on a regular basis and I definitely can name which ones default to “happy” and which ones default to “worried” or “sad” or “angry.” I think that dogs, like people, have a pre-determined level. I think that it is influenced by early experiences, but I also think there is a strong breed tendency. Corgis tend to be happy but their alertness can tip towards neurotic anxiousness if breeders aren’t careful. German Shepherds tend to be thoughtful. Labs tend to be happy and goofy, beagles happy and eager, Scotties on their toes, and so on. Individual dogs within breeds vary, of course, but I do think there is a strong correlation between breed and happiness level. You can stick a beagle in a coop in the yard (and many people do) and feed them twice a day and let them out once or twice a week to run around and they will still be joyful little things much of the time. A typical German Shepherd would fade away under similar living conditions.

  9. lin says

    I’m cautious about terming myself ‘happy,’ but I’m optimistic about life and that the next day will be, if not great, okay.

    Pupper set point is mildly anxious. She doesn’t want to approach people or most dogs, and even among the dogs she knows quite well, she will only sniff a couple of them. Food makes her happy, and as she grows older, is her biggest motivator.

    Happy for your kitties, hope they are terrific mousers! They have fallen into kitty hog heaven, if they haven’t realized it yet.

  10. Kathy says

    First, I want to say how much I enjoy reading your stories! Even when I’m in a hurry the first sentence or 2 will pull me.
    I would consider myself to be mostly contented with the occasional ups and downs. A bit more stressful lately since being laid off from my job. I believe we do have an effect on the emotional state of our dogs. Mine, though thoroughly happy to have me at home more, do at times seem to reflect my stress. I have 2 dogs, a 9yr old BC mix who was very timid as a pup and became extremely attached to my older dog. She definately grieved his loss but has grown into a very confident and independent dog. She wears a very “happy dog” look most of the time. My other BC was a rescue that came to me with the fur from his shoulders to the tip of his tail burned and brittle from not being able to get out of the hot sun except his head under a porch overhang. He has strong herding instincts and is the worrier as well as the alpha wannabe. He is 4. His state of happy is much harder to judge because he is always so focused on something. When I took him for a couple herding lessons I think I saw the happy dog! I do think dogs have a certain cognitive awareness to choose a state of happiness. My friend had a stray dog show up at her farm. A young BC, rather shy at first. He was fed and put in a crate on her porch at night while we tried to find his owner. My friend tried to stay neutral insisting she was NOT going to keep the dog. When the owner came to claim the dog, just a few days later, he wagged his tail and went to him, but when he realized he was supposed to go home with him he didn’t want to leave my friend. I dont believe he was physically abused, he looked healthy enough, they got him to work with their cattle but he shows no interest. So now they leave him alone outside tied up and mostly ignored. So the dog was ready to choose the new home over the familiar home – wasnt that his way of choosing happiness?

  11. Mireille says

    The descriptions above made me smile in recognition :-). Four sibes to describe, four different ones. Shadow is the easiest, happy and happy go lucky, life is fun, Spot ( his brother) is fun and we are fun. In general, everything new is, well, fun. Not all new dogs are fun though, since he entered the joys of puberty (ahum) he does like to know where he stands with strange male dogs. So far, on top of the world (ahum)
    Janouk went through life as a worried dog, glad to cuddle, happiest when running. Chenak was intense, not unhappy I think, but his baselevel emotion felt a bit frustrated. Sorry, can’t descibe it better. Truly happy when meeting new people and when skiing with us. I think that with a better start in life, there might have been less frustration..
    Spot I find difficult describe, not as happy go lucky as his brother, not as worried as Janouk. Bit cautious when seeing new things, happy to cuddle with, bit scared to miss out on good things. On the whole, I would think he s content.
    Me, I’m a bit of a seesaw, from happy to miserable within hours, but in general lfe is ok and the dogs wit their joy make is better :-)

  12. Lisa W says

    I am so sorry to hear about Willie’s relapse. I know first-hand how hard these types of injuries are to stabilize and rehab and how hard you both have worked to give him the life he needs and the outlets you both love. One idea for you might be to “borrow” a herding trial dog? That way, you can still compete from time to time, and Willie can work the sheep at home. I remember reading about this in Donald McCaig’s book, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men. Apparently, it’s common practice in Scotland (maybe here, too, I don’t know). Anyway, just a thought as we all know how lucky Willie is to have you and vice versa. Healing thoughts heading your way.

    Sorry for the double-post, for some reason this part of my last post didn’t show up.

  13. Ravana says

    I consider myself to be content. While I will admit to being happy at times I’ve never truly understood the concept of a “happy life”. I guess it is because I tend to live in the moment, much like most dogs. Getting an unexpected treat makes me happy. Playing with the dog makes me happy. A friend calling just to say hi makes me happy. I’ve noticed that the people who have to own the biggest, best and latest things seem to be on a quest for a happy life and they are usually failing miserably. I am content to live in a small house with a big dog, a big garden, and without many of the things people seem to think of a necessary (clothes dryer, microwave, cable tv for example).

    As to my dog, he seems generally content with moments of happiness too, although he also has panic attacks sometimes. My vet says that she thinks his problem is that “he thinks too much”. For instance, he is having laser treatments for arthritis which are helping him a lot and which he loves, but every 80 seconds during his treatments he tenses up and starts to shake because he knows that the machine makes a soft beep once every 90 seconds and he hates things that beep. After the beep he relaxes again until the 80 second mark. She says she’s never had a dog who does that before.

  14. Frances says

    I too like Kat’s description – and I am fortunate that my own default setting is happiness. Of my two dogs, I would say Sophy (Papillon) also defaults to quiet contentment with life in general – she clearly feels that she largely controls what goes on around her, enjoys nearly all of it, and as far as possible avoids stuff she doesn’t. Getting her to accept unpleasant stuff like nail clipping and teeth cleaning takes long, slow work with lots and lots of rewards. Poppy (Toy Poodle), on the other hand, can easily default to mild anxiety. She is very easily made happy – more deliriously happy than Sophy – but equally easily made worried and slightly fearful. She is much more liable to trust in other’s judgment than her own – if I say she needs her teeth cleaning she will let me do it, enjoy the treat, and be happy it is over. Sophy needs a very definite reason to submit, preferably involving chicken!

    I’m sorry to hear about Willie’s set back – hope he is able to continue to work enough to keep him happy and satisfied. And I look forward to hearing he further adventures of the barn cats – rats have been very few and far between here since my cats moved in, although they were quite a problem before that!

  15. Don Hudson says

    Mattie, our 8 year old minature Schnauser, does not know what sad is. Disappointment is as low as she goes. She does evolve through certain things like toys; dog toys no longer interest her (thank goodness$$$$). Now it’s my old socks tied into a knot. She will take one with her wherever she goes.
    Patches, our Youkie, is more serious. But he is also a natural therapy dog. He has visited a couple nursing homes and rehab centers where he finds the loneliest, angriest, sickest patients and sits infront of them wiggling from nose to tail, waiting to be told he can jump into a lap. I always ask permission. He kisses,licks, cuddles until he gets a smile. Then he sits up and shows off his new friend to anyone that walks by.
    One time Patches found a young woman that was a double amputee and insisted on meeting her. I was embarrasted he even went in her room. I tried to quickly take him out. But she asked if she could hold him.
    I put him on the bed and he jumped on her chest, went to her face and started kissing and licking. Then he climbed up her pollow and made a nest between her hair and her bedding. For the first time I looked into the woman’s face. She was crying great crocodile tears which Patches ran down the side of her pillow and promtly licked away. I left Patches with her and visited my wife across the hall. A couple hours later I went to retrieve him. He was sleeping in the hollow between her neck and shoulder. And she was sleeping too.
    A couple hours after we left the lady died. Very sad, but I was so proud of Patches. In the last few hours of her life she knew nothing but unconditional love. And I have no doubt Patches knows this. In his world, that’s happiness.

    Ps. I know this has nothing to do with the topic but I need to know; what is a Bonobo? I’m a retired high school English teacher, 68 years old, I’ve read thousands of books, and I’ve never seen that word before.

  16. Elizabeth2 says

    Bonobos are an endangered great ape, close kin of chimpanzees (and of humans), known for the frequency and inventiveness (and happiness?) of their sexual behavior.

    Beautiful story about Patches.

    One of our dogs is a beautiful rescue, part Keeshond and part Corgi, of a relentlessly vigilant, anxious disposition–her nickname is “Homeland Security.” While perfectly gentle with us, she doesn’t seem to know how to express relaxed affection but only agitated appeasement, rolling on her back and squirming when anyone approaches. She doesn’t initiate close contact, and prefers to settle down across the room, where she can keep an eye on things. When stroked, she starts tongue-flicking like a maniac, so we resist. Because this post makes me think about it, I would say no, through whatever combination of genetic predisposition and previous experience, she hasn’t been happy, she doesn’t possess that basic confidence that things will turn out well, and to pre-empt the bad things that can happen she relies either on agitated charm (with people) or threat (with dogs). In the five months since we adopted her we’ve been working on her dog reactivity with a trainer, and we’ve been working on being generally clear and calm, ourselves, in hope she’ll begin to see her world as more secure. Progress has been slow, with small gains and frequent setbacks. Then just last night, she jumped onto the bed and fitted herself closely and tightly against the length of my body, and then (unprecedented for her) held completely still until daylight. No licking or wriggling or whimpering, just getting as absolutely close as she could get, and then, wonder of wonders, staying there stretched out at full length, calmly, quietly being very, very close. I want to believe that this is evidence of some gain in happiness in her. To me it felt strangely like happiness was as much outward as inward, not as if I felt it inside, and she did too, maybe, more as if it was gently materializing around the two of us–that it was almost like an actual, perceptible change in the air, or in the way that reality fitted itself around us, there in the dark. I’m having trouble explaining. It was very quiet, this change, this shift into happiness, and even if it’s a while before it happens again, it seems like something I can hold onto, and maybe she can too. It was just this shining experience.

  17. Wendy W says

    Great topic! My dog Hope (an Aussie/Golden mix) is the happiest dog I’ve ever had, and living with her has made me (a generally happy, but somewhat moody person) even happier. It could have turned out a lot differently, though. I got Hope from the SPCA after having lost my last dog to a long struggle with congestive heart failure. I was at that time looking for a “medium energy” dog who would be happy to take a couple of walks a day, play a few games, and then chill on the sofa. I fell in love with Hope the moment we met, and because the tag on the kennel door described her as a medium energy puppy, I figured we were good to go. The first months were difficult though, since Hope left the shelter with pneumonia and then struggled to overcome a series of other ailments. And then she got healthy, and strong, and active – and there went any hope of a medium energy dog!
    I had never had a dog with even a quarter of her energy, and was clearly out of my league. The old school techniques I knew (choke collars, leash pops, etc.) made things even worse, with both of us becoming increasingly more frustrated with one another (needless to say, my first attempts at alpha rolls were a disaster). I then took her to a series of obedience classes, which on the surface advocated the use of positive reinforcement (mostly luring), but were steeped in the need to dominate the dog. My silly, sensitive dog rejected this premise, and things would have continued to escalate if I had not stumbled on a copy of The Other End of the Leash.
    Your book opened my eyes to the possibility of new types of interactions, and from there I was able to learn new ways of channeling Hope’s energy, first by learning agility and then by joining a flyball team. I learned a ton of skills from folks on the flyball team, but left it after realizing that my very soft dog would never learn to be comfortable amid the noise and intensity of these high drive dogs.
    So now Hope and I have an incredibly enjoy able relationship, taking long walks, doing agility on the equipment I built for her in my backyard, hosting weekly doggy playdates, and doing trick training (my smart girl has learned 60+ cues). I doubt any of this would have possible without your books (I’m looking forward to your next one :-)) and thank you for your blog and for the blog community’s ability to help keep me learning!

  18. Kat says

    Full disclosure, since so many of you have liked my phrase about expectations and happiness. I was paraphrasing from this article http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/how-technology-from-30-years-ago-is-helping-military-dogs-perform-better-now because that idea resonated so strongly with me especially as it applies to my own dogs. Ranger is convinced that whatever is going to happen next is going to be good. Finna came to us convinced that whatever happened next would be scary and bad. I like to think that she”s progressed to a point where her expectation for whatever happens next is that it will probably be bad but possibly might be OK. In other words that her expectations of her future are no longer consistently pessimistic, that there is now room for some very cautious optimism.

  19. LisaH says

    I am very fortunate to have two happy dogs. One is more astute and seems to know how to find or make happiness, and the other is just happy, happy for attention, food, play, meeting people & dogs, riding in the car, training, snuggling. And mornings here are wonderful as both are soooo happy to start the day, to cuddle, to potty, to run around, to grab toys, to eat, to just be. It seems the older one also knows how to get me happy with his prancing, and getting me toys, being silly, and so sweet at the same time. My husband has said I seem happier since dogs entered our lives 5 years ago & I agree as they make me smile or laugh or just bring me happiness – by entertaining me, because they smell good, feel good, want to be w/me, enjoy training & agility – many times over every single day.

  20. liz says

    Hooray for the chorus of happy dog owners, and the joy that it is to read this post and comments!
    In thinking about happy experiences vs. happiness overall, I wonder about the ability of dogs to ‘step outside’ of their “set point” and evaluate from a wider perspective. In other words, when we experience life in one predominant state it tends to just be normal everyday-ness. Things that clearly affect the baseline state stand out (injury, fright, etc.) but even we sometimes have difficulty acknowledging how happy our baseline is when it is uninterrupted. So if I could ask my happy girl if her life has been one of happiness, I’m not sure whether she’d say it was just a good, normal life or if she has weighed all of her unhappy experiences against how quickly and how often she again resided in happy-world. (Oh nuances, I may have given myself a headache!)
    I also think about how difficult it is to get her away from happy, and how her tolerance for all things in life (short of nail clippers and thunder) is so much greater than my serious dog. It makes me wonder if she shares my ability to compare and contrast, as I often play the It Could Be Worse game to cheer myself up when needed. Perhaps happy feelings are more self-reinforcing to some dogs than others, and that some are always hovering somewhere near it to just feel good when others never experience the same degree of emotional high. So what’s released in a happy state for one dog could make her/him feel far better than what’s release in serious dogs- the ones who may say, “Happy- pshht. It’s overrated.”
    Wish I write more and in greater detail/clarity, but must leave it at “Thanks for the good time!”

  21. Jennifer says

    I’m a therapist, and one of the things I hear most from my clients is, “I just want to be happy!” Ironically the desire to be happy causes incredible angst. I wouldn’t describe myself as a “happy person” but I am a contented person with moments of great happiness. My pooch, Maggie, is much the same way I think. She’s always been a little anxious in new situations, but now that she’s 12 and mostly stays home she’s a pretty mellow girl. She’ll show signs of excitement and joy when it’s time for a walk, or time to work in the garden, and when some of her favorite people come over and visit. Our baselines are pretty close to the same – mellow, content, not overly social, with peaks of happy.

    I’ve definitely worked with dogs who could be called happy though. I worked in animal control for awhile and I’ve seen a wide array of personalities in dogs. We could easily describe which were happy and which weren’t, and we could see when their happiness increased due to different circumstances. As a bonus, they didn’t create any angst for themselves as they pondered whether or not they were happy. Dogs are good teachers. :)

  22. ABandMM says

    As for me, I am a pessimist. There are times that I am “happy”, and I know there is much that I have to be thankful for in my life. However, I do not think that my life is “happiness”, but it is so much better because of my 4-legged friend (and my family’s 4-legged furballs).

    My girl is a hound mix and really doesn’t have a lot of facial expressions, and rarely has that “smiling happy dog” look. I think that for the most part she is content. She probably isn’t completely happy because I do not let her off leash to chase the cats, rabbits, squirrels and other critters and I sometimes have to curtail her sniffing (some stuff on the city sidewalks is gross). But she does have a safe place to live (complete with pillows, beds and couches), I take her out and about when I can, and like today, sometimes make her stinky salmon/tuna training treats (THAT was a happy moment for her!).

    There are times that I definitely wished that she would let me know how she is feeling and what is behind that hound dog look.

    I hope your new kitties are ratters/mousers extraordinaire.

  23. jackied says

    I’ve read quite a bit of stuff about how very poor pre-natal (through severe maternal stress) and post-natal experiences can permanently damage the brain’s capacity to deal with stress and feel pleasure. This must surely impact on the potential for happiness in some of our dogs.

    One of my dogs probably came from such a background. He is certainly much happier than he was when he came to us 3 1/2 years ago, but he’s still not completely adjusted to life as a pet and is always, I think, faintly anxious, even when nothing ‘bad’ is happening (in his special meaning of the word ‘bad': Somebody might walk past. I might take him out of the house, a visitor might arrive.) Whether he will eventually make that step I don’t know. He is a BCxSpringer, possibly more than 50% BC .

    Our other dog (also a rescue of unknown background), is Happy Happy Happy. All The Time. She might be temporarily worried by the odd dustbin lorry or large dog, or slowed down marginally by an injury, but her fundamental nature brims over with joie de vivre. (She is a working springer.)

  24. LS says

    A very interesting discussion. I think (and I may be wrong) that the Buddhist conception of happiness involves being balanced, having a balanced mind, and when I read this that is what came to my mind. We describe dogs as being ‘balanced’ and I think I would say that a balanced dog is a happy dog.

    I am always amazed at the personality differences in my two dogs. Both are mixed breed rescues. They are complete opposites in their reaction to the world. One I would describe as an ‘eternal optimist’ – she is enthusiastic about everything and when things go badly she endures them and seems to have the attitude that things will be better at any moment. The other dog is like an ‘eternal pessimist’ – he is cautiously excited about things and the moment something goes awry he seems to be convinced that we are all going to die and that there is no chance of rescue or improvement. It takes some work to convince him things are ok again.

    I suppose my first inclination would be to describe the ‘optimist’ dog as ‘happier’. But as I reflect on it, I don’t think that is true. She is just braver in the world. When the ‘pessimist’ dog feels safe, which is the majority of the time, he is happy in a sweet, goofy, wet noodle, lovey kind of way…..

  25. Woodsman says

    You might want to consider a more ecologically responsible way of dealing with rodents, by using native species instead of highly destructive man-made invasive species, i.e. cats. Encourage and attract barn-owls, gray-fox (this species doesn’t even have poultry on their menu), snakes, etc.

    Your cats are going to cause your sheep (and other livestock) to miscarry, have still-births, or have hydrocephalic or microcephalic lambs from their highly infectious Toxoplasma gondii parasites. As well as putting any human visitors in peril who might , or at any time in their lives, be pregnant or have an impaired or compromised immune system. As this cats’ disease becomes a permanent lifetime parasite in the minds of humans. Killing humans whenever their immune system is compromised. like anyone undergoing chemotherapy or taking anti-rejection drugs for needing a skin-graft or other operation at ANY time during their lives. This cats’-parasite is now also linked to autism, schizophrenia, and brain cancers. Women being most susceptible to committing drastic forms of suicide after having been infected by this parasite. Don’t believe me? Read all the new studies online.

    Not to mention bringing T. gondii oocysts onto your dinner table every time you bring in vegetables from the garden, or eating any meats from your own livestock that your cats previously infected. Not even washing your hands and vegetables in bleach will destroy this cats’ parasites oocysts. And they last over a year in any soils where cats have shed them. A cat can become reinfected many times during its life, shedding millions of viable oocysts every time (contrary to cat-lovers’ self-deceptive myths).

    This is why any cats are routinely destroyed on all farms and ranches today by shooting them or drowning them. The two most humane and cost-effective methods. I, myself, had to shoot and bury HUNDREDS of these vermin cats on my own lands due to neighboring farmers letting them roam free. They had almost completely annihilated all the native wildlife on my lands during a 15 year period. Until the sheriff finally advised that the best way to confront the problem was to shoot every last cat, collared or not. It worked. My land and wildlife is now recovering nicely for the last 2 years. And not one sign of any cat since. (Cat-lovers’ “vacuum effect” after you remove all cats is also a lie. Simple reason being: cats attract cats. If you get rid of every last one there’s none there to attract more of them. If you want more cats, keep even one of them around. More will find you.)

    Another fun aspect? T. gondii’s strange life cycle is meant to infect rodents. Any rodents infected with it lose their fear of cats and are attracted to cat urine.


    Cats attract rodents to your home with their whole slew of diseases. If you want rodents in your home keep cats outside of it to attract diseased rodents to your area. I experienced this phenomenon (as have many others), and all rodent problems disappeared after I shot and buried every last cat on my lands.

    Cats are now even spreading the plague to humans. No rats nor fleas even required after a cat colony has contracted the plague. The cats carry and spread it all on their own. Should a plague-infected rat be nearby, the cat will attract it, the cat become infected, and then bring the plague right to you. People have already died from cat-transmitted plague in the USA in the last few years (for a couple decades now, actually). The disease is alive and well and now being spread by cats to humans in the USA.

    Here’s a few links for proof, because I know you are doubting this. These FACTS now totally disproving that myth that more cats in Europe could have prevented the plague. More cats would have made it exponentially worse.


    Be responsible, smart, and wise. Use NATIVE predators for rodent control if you must. Not your disease-infested invasive species cats that have now become a worldwide ecological and health disaster. Cats are now even killing off rare and endangered marine-mammals along all coastlines from run-off from the land carrying cats’ T. gondii parasites. Its oocysts surviving even in saltwater. Cats are worse than a continent-sized oil-spill today — on every continent.

    These are just the diseases they’ve been spreading to humans, not counting the ones they spread to all wildlife. THERE ARE NO VACCINES against many of these, and are in-fact listed as bio-terrorism agents. They include: Campylobacter Infection, Cat Scratch Disease, Coxiella burnetti Infection (Q fever), Cryptosporidium Infection, Dipylidium Infection (tapeworm), Hookworm Infection, Leptospira Infection, Giardia, Plague, Rabies, Ringworm, Salmonella Infection, Toxocara Infection, Toxoplasma. [Centers for Disease Control, July 2010] Sarcosporidiosis, Flea-borne Typhus, and Tularemia can now also be added to that list.

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