I’ve been thinking about Maggie a lot lately, and wondering whether she wants to continue to compete in sheepdog trials. She is always eager to work sheep, leaves the course (or did last year) as if eager to do it again, even when it went badly. She clearly adores the part she’s good at (outrun, lift, fetch, and shedding), but struggles on the part she’s not (driving). She likes to drive sheep who are easy to move, as long as she’s within 100 yards of me. She hates, and I use that word with confidence, driving sheep who are “heavy,” who would rather stand still, or who are pulled in another direction like a set of iron fragments to a magnet. She’s brilliant at defense, and dislikes being on offense. She may look ready to go at any time, but once she’s out there struggling, she looks miserable.
I’ve worked all winter on it, trying to help her learn some strategies to control difficult sheep. Sometimes I think we’ve made progress, sometimes not. There’s no question that if I was more skilled and experienced at this I could have helped her more. (I’m reminded of one of the best dog training sayings ever: “We all train with regret.” How many times have we each said “If I only knew then what I know now . . .?”)
All this pondering got me thinking about happiness in a general sense, and how important it is to a good life. Of course, the pandemic and its partners of fear, suffering and social isolation have made being happy especially challenging lately. Given that, and numerous other challenges, I’m aware that asking about happiness in our dogs is a very privileged question. I’m grateful to have a life that allows me to focus on it.
This morning, pondering happiness, I thought about a post I wrote in March of 2009, titled Authentic Happiness. It’s short, so I reprint it here in its entirety:
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 Curiosity and Love of Learning.
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 called Pip back to me and she walked back with her head and tail down, as if she was 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 for competition, 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, I felt, 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?
That got me thinking again about Segilman’s concept of “signature strengths,” a concept relevant to both us and, I’d argue, our dogs. Maggie loves big huge outruns on sheep who need to be finessed, not pushed, no doubt because she’s great at it, and always has been. But strengths can be learned too, right? I discovered that I could be truly happy talking about animal behavior on the radio or in front of a crowd, once I got over being frightened of it. (I don’t say “frightened” lightly. My goal for my first public talk, at an Animal Behavior Society Conference, was to not throw up or faint. Imagine my surprise when the guy who spoke before me fainted dead away at the podium.) It just feels good to do something that you are good at, doesn’t it? Surely it must to dogs too.
I’d love a conversation about what you think makes your dog happy and if that relates to their “signature strengths.” Of course, there are forms of happiness that don’t involve any skill. As best as I can tell, Skip, Maggie, and I equally adore getting massaged, and I guarantee you that none of us needed some inherent skill set to do so.
What about you? Are there things that you’ve tried with your dog that you found did not make them happy, or something that, conversely, brought out expressions of pure joy in them? Did Ranger adore agility after the first lesson? Has tracking helped Patches to blossom? Did Cisco hate the noise at dog shows, or did he find his inner movie star and start to strut around the ring like he owned it?
And then, of course, there’s us, and our strengths in relation to what we do with our dogs. Are we good at what we’ve chosen to do with our dogs? Did you start agility and realize that you can’t remember the sequence. (Not that’s what would happen to me or anything.) Ah, a trickier issue indeed, but one worth thinking about.
I’m not going to write too much more today; it’s a busy week getting ready for our first sheepdog competition since last fall, not to mention a garden desperate for the rain we’d normally have this time of year. But I’m going to spend time this week thinking about happiness, in both us and our dogs.
If you’d like to read more, you might want to go to the section in the Learning Center on Emotions in dogs, or to the chapter in For the Love of a Dog titled “Happiness.” The part I find most interesting right now talks about how some people are born with a low density of dopamine receptors in their brain, and thus have a reduced ability to feel satisfied or happy about much of anything. There seems to be a strong genetic component to happiness in humans, and I’d bet the farm that that’s true in dogs too. Some dogs are sparklers of joy all their lives, others, not so much.
There are several other books that have good sections on emotions in dogs, including Clive Winn’s Dog is Love, Gregory Berns What It’s Like to be a Dog, and Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog. Just in case you’d like to do some binge reading on emotions . . .
So, there’s lots to ponder here–what are your dog’s signature strengths? How happy is your dog when _____ (fill in the blank)?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Unlike Maggie, Skip thinks it is fun to hold sheep against a fence. He can get nervous when he’s extremely close and the pressure builds, but he’s far enough away here that both he and the sheep are relatively comfortable. One of them was even chewing her cud, a good sign of a relaxed sheep.
I don’t have a photo of Skip’s continuing effort of “suicide by fence,” given that I didn’t expect him to slam into a gate, full bore, at 20+ miles an hour yesterday. I’ll just leave you with the image of him splattered against a fence gate, like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. I was pretty sure he’d come out badly injured, but luckily the gate gave and he bounced off and continued his outrun as if nothing had happened. Needless to say I stopped him and brought him back and he seems fine. I was working on his taking sheep off of a fence with another group behind the fence, something that happens at trials and is an important skill for any working farm dog. He decided to blow through the gate and get both groups of sheep. Sigh. I just about had a heart attack watching it happen, and he thought nothing of it. Note on Skip’s signature strengths: Using his body instead of his mind. Maybe we’ll try Canine Sumo wrestling next?
I couldn’t resist taking a shot of Beyonce’s nose and muzzle while the sheep were close to me and against the fence. Sheep have an excellent sense of smell, and have scent glands below their eyes and inside their hooves. Just another example of what way cool animals sheep are.
In other news, it’s been April on a sugar high here, cold, hot, and everything in between. We have hundreds of daffodils still blooming, along with lots of smaller bulbs. Here’s some Grape Hyacinth with a backup chorus of peony stalks.
Tulips are some of my favorite flowers, but the deer love the flowers and every small mammal known to the Midwest loves the bulbs. I planted just one bunch of them last fall, which required the construction of an elaborate tent to keep them alive during the 3-night “sugar crash,” when it got down to 24 degrees. I covered the Bleeding Hearts and the lilies (about 20+ buckets, plus numerous towels) each of the nights, and got pretty sick of it by the third night. But here’s the reward:
It got down to 29 or 30 here on Saturday night, but that was warm enough not to need protection. Good thing, cuz I can’t get a bucket over the crab apple trees. Here’s to the possibility of gorgeous.
Here’s to your own possibilities, and what I’m sure will be an interesting discussion re dogs, us and “signature strengths.”