This seems like a good question to begin a new year together in our inquiry about human/animal relationships. I’ve been engaged, as so many others are at this time of year, in writing out my goals for 2016. Some are personal, some are professional, and many, not surprisingly, relate to my dogs. I spent a lot of time last week thinking about my hopes and plans for them: Maggie–more comfortable around dogs who, shockingly, are not Border Collies, Willie–a sound body all year long, even if I have to retire him for herding [I do], Tootsie–a final solution to her tummy and UT problems). As I was pondering how to accomplish all that yesterday, I sat at the table in the dining room, all the better to both write and keep my eye on Willie and Maggie. They needed watching because they were outside, gnawing on raw bison knucklebones in the snow.
While both dogs were chewing away in the snow, their behavior differed markedly. Maggie was laser-focused on her bone the second it appeared, and began exercising her teeth and jaws as if working out at a gym. Willie, on the other hand, tentatively licked the bone once, then again. He looked at me; he looked toward the barn where Jim was working. He licked the bone again, then nibbled on it before looking up again. Eventually Willie set to chewing on the bone, but not with an intensity similar to Maggie’s.
What matters to our discussion here is not so much why Willie’s behavior was so different from Maggie’s. What matters is that it was. (For the record, because you’re probably wondering–I suspect Willie’s behavior related to breaking a tooth years ago on a hard, long bone that he never should have had.) What made Maggie blissfully happy did not have the same effect on Willie. This is just one simple example of how different dogs need different things to make them happy. On the one hand it seems ridiculously obvious to make that statement. All dogs are not alike. Duh. On the other, it’s my experience that what seems patently obvious often gets less attention than it should. And it brings up the question: What does a dog need to be truly happy?
This is why I hereby change my dog-related 2016 goals from the list above to “I want each of my dogs to be as happy as they can be.” In some ways, one could argue that is merely a restatement of my more specific goals. For example, one way to make Willie happy is to allow him to play freely and avoid being on leash/crate restrictions. Maggie will be happier if she perceives non-Border Collies as playmates rather than monsters. Tootsie will be happier if her tummy doesn’t hurt.
But, it still feels different—putting the emphasis on happiness shifts my perspective in a way that feels important. I’m reminded of Maslov’s famous hierarchy of needs, from physical needs like food and water to “self-actualization.” Subsequent research has found that his hierarchy is not universal (culture and other factors can have significant effects for example), but once I began focusing on “happiness for dogs,” I still found it an interesting exercise. Here’s what I came up with when I attempted to translate Maslov’s hierarchy to dogs:
Physiological Needs: First on the Maslov’s list, (at the base of the triangle) this includes food, water, oxygen, etc. (Maslov, controversially, includes sex. Maggie, currently in standing heat, would concur.) This reminds me how important not just food, but GOOD food is for my dogs. I spent much of yesterday cooking up all the scraps I’d crammed into my freezer to make chicken/beef/lamb/turkey soup-broth for the dogs for their dinners. I often supplement their dinners with high-quality canned dog food, but I’m resolving to do a lot more cooking for the dogs in 2016 than 2015.
Safety: It is true that food, and water are essential to any mammal’s survival, but I think it is crucial for all of us to remember how often dogs feel unsafe. They have so little control over what happens to them—they are unable to leave an empty house, usually restrained on leashes when outside, and often forced into frightening situations. And many of them are tiny—we must look Brobdingnagian to them. (I am grateful for an excuse to use that word. Thank you Mr. Swift.) I think about what the world must be like to Tootsie, who is tiny, and can be bowled over by exuberant Border Collies or even when Jim or I roll over in bed. Maggie needs to feel safer around unfamiliar dogs–she’s improved a great deal since I got her, but I’m resolving to do much more this winter. I slacked off a bit in 2015, and it’s high time I got back to it.
Love/Belonging: Surely this is as important to an animal as social as a dog as it is to humans. Clearly “belonging” is more important to some dogs than others, but anything we can do to help dogs feel connected and loved surely is a good thing. Both our own dogs (Do you quietly and intentionally tell your dogs how much you love them everyday? I try to; this year I will make it a point to do it every day) and dogs who have no homes. I’m re-committing myself to doing what I can do help homeless dogs in any way that I can this year.
Esteem: Now, there’s a controversial category when it comes to dogs. Can a dog feel “esteem?” I will argue that they can, and that although “esteem” might feel different to a dog than a human, every dog still needs a sense of confidence and yes, even ‘achievement.” No doubt I’m influenced by having working sheepdogs, who radiate what I can only describe as pride after successfully managing a difficult group of sheep. Do all dogs “need” to feel accomplished? Perhaps not, but surely even a couch warmer like Tootsie can profit from feeling like she learned/achieved something. Teaching tricks is a great way to give dogs a sense of accomplishment—there’s no pressure on them to be “obedient,” or on you to have “an obedient dog.” There is nothing to lose and everything to gain when teaching tricks—and perhaps best of all are the shiny eyes of a dog who has just figured out how to perform a new trick. Maggie’s esteem will come from an increased proficiency when working difficult sheep, Willie and Tootsie from an expanding trick repertoire.
Self-actualization: Got me there. Do dogs need a sense of “morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving and lack of prejudice” to feel as happy as a dog could be? Hmmm. Problem solving? Maybe. “Creativity?” Not sure. “Spontaneity?” Yes, I’d say—surely all dogs yearn to be able to be spontaneous. (And aren’t they usually? Isn’t that part of why we love them?) Morality? That’s a tough one. Perhaps gist for another blog?
I’ve rambled on longer than I had intended (yeah, that never happens), but hope you will take up this issue by writing about what your dog(s) need(s) to be deeply and truly happy, and what you can do to try to provide it. I write this knowing that some of you have deeply troubled dogs, or dogs who are struggling with serious health issues. For them, all we can do is strive for “as happy as is possible,” which of course, applies to us too. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and whether “Making My Dog Happy” seems like a good goal for the New Year. Here’s to a year that is kind to us all, two and four-footed alike.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. Finally, the best of winter has arrived! The horrible mud of November and December has disappeared under a layer of snow. Granted, the snow was full of ice when the storm hit, and it was awful to shovel, but we felt so lucky given all the troubles that people suffered in the rest of the country. Right now, it’s blue-sky sunny, so appreciated after what felt like months of pouring rain or irksome drizzles. Lately it’s been in the mid-twenties, with no wind–as perfect as weather can be in winter. We’ve had some lovely walks in the snow in the last few days, and I could even work Maggie on the sheep in the barnyard. She needs more confidence working in tight quarters, so it’s a valuable exercise.
Willie is officially retired from working sheep. Yes, it was (and is) a hard decision, but it is made much easier by asking “What makes Willie happy?” Willie and I met with the surgeon who repaired his badly injured shoulder and his physical therapist last week, and they both agreed that being in a ‘stalking’ posture was not ideal for keeping him pain free. Decision made. Besides his lack of structural soundness, I can tell that Willie has lost his heart to work. He even tongue flicks sometimes when I ask him to “Walk up.” I think it is in part because he knows that he can be injured, and that he simply doesn’t have the drive anymore to take the risks necessary to work sheep at a competitive level. Herding sheep is far harder than most imagine–it takes an intense combination of physical and mental exertion that takes guts and heart and commitment. I’ll still let Willie ‘play’ at herding. I call it “lopey lopey,” when he lopes behind the sheep and moves them with his body rather than his eye. It will give Willie a chance to still feel like he is working sheep without asking him to do something that he’s just not capable of doing anymore. (By the way, Willie is nine and a half, the age I’m told that quite a few working dogs start to slow down.)
Tootsie seems to be enjoying her Pet Pals work more than ever. I’ve learned to place her belly up on the children’s lap, all the better for the kids to stroke her tummy. Besides looking adorable (people walking past the door stop and say “Awwww, she’s SO cute!”), she seems to relax in that position faster than any other. I’m going to teach her some new tricks and continue working with her vets to try to improve her tummy situation. (She’s licking her paws again, even with the Ginger/Mint drops I give her which used to solve the problem.)
Time to stop writing and play with my dogs! Sloppy kisses to all of yours. Here’s what Willie and Maggie were up to just minutes ago. No question that this makes both of them equally happy!
Jann Becker says
“What makes dogs happy” certainly includes fresh snow!
Anne Baker says
Both my dogs love it when we’re all together – Meeko (chihuahua/minpin, Katy (papillon/chihuahua), Ray (my husband) and me. They love it when we all lie down for nap together, when we’re all sitting close together going for a ride in our golf cart, and going for a walk. The key words are “all together.” Contentment abounds!
Just like people — something to do (chase squirrels), someone to love (and be loved), and something to look forward to (breakfast and dinner). Just a thought — has Tootsie been exposed to new furniture or carpet? Those fire retardant chemicals cause too many pet health problems.
Kasey Litt says
Today I had an exceptional consultation with a woman and her dog Sam, a labrador X. She had just moved to GA from California. The woman had great patience and a wonderful working relationship with Sam and her reason for calling me was that she recognized Sam needed some additional training for Sam to help him get happy. He’s been a nervous wreck since the first moving box was packed in California. Here is a dog that sits, goes to mat, stays, walks well on leash. She has done everything a trainer could ask for with him. Now we will work on redirecting some of his anxious behaviors and get him involved in activities that will make him one happy dog! I will be sharing this with Sam’s guardian!
I think the most fundamental thing my dog needs to be happy is; her ability to understand me, and my ability to understand her. Largely powerless (for their own safety and good) is bad enough, – but voiceless, too? When you think about it, it takes a lot of the shine off of ‘living a dogs life.’
Jo Schreiber says
Happiness to our Great Dane is… oh pretty much anything with the exception of another dog and/or people visiting us. She loves food, the couch, car rides, a few zoomies in the yard and then sleep. She likes to learn new things and we are now getting into some “nose work” for fun. What I sometimes wish “was” her happiness, like having another dog, people visiting or even for her to be a therapy dog….isn’t what brings HER happiness. I guess that is where I am with 2016 🙂
Laura S Riggs says
My border collie, Mason, is a urban bc. He is loved by many people. He gets over stimulated by all the people and dogs. Making it difficult to walk him on a leash.
He is unable to pay attention and focus on his walking manners. I’ve uses the harrness that attach in the front. He chews them up in the front and then he’s free to run around, He likes to keep constant tension on the leash, so it doesn’t matter how long the leash is, even if the leash is retractable, he goes to the end where there is pressure. I have tried treats, and also not walking, just standing still until he breaks the tension on the leash, then I’ll walk a few steps until there is tension and stop again. He is two years old, very little improvement. So, there is a product called a “comfort cap” or “thunder cap”. It’s made by the same company that makes thunder shirts. Anyway,he can see through it, but it cuts down on visual stimulus and also breaks eye contact with people who want to love on him, which is the hardest thing for him to ignore. Long story short, it’s made my life so much better, he can now walk on a leash like an almost normal dog. However, this product looks very odd, and people stop me and ask me why I have my dog blindfolded. And I got a visit from the the animal police because they got a call about the mask, etc, etc. So, my question for you is, if this situation is bad enough that I have to resort to this, would he be better off being rehomed? He’s very happy, he loves everyone. It’s the people who don’t know anything about border collies, and chose to assume the worst, that are stressing me out and making me think about rehoming him. I don’t know what to do?
Chris from Boise says
Self-esteem: our dear departed Bandit was a very mellow, wise Aussie, who very occasionally had second thoughts when faced with new things. One day my husband took him on a long walk, which included crossing a pedestrian overpass over a busy avenue. Bandit had to think long and hard about whether this was a wise thing to do, but he eventually decided that if Mike could walk over it, he could too. Mike reported that Bandit was fairly dancing with pride by the time they reached the other side (as if saying “did you see what I did??!!”), and he never gave it a second thought on later walks.
You challenged us last year to write down our resolutions and share them publicly, which I rarely have done. My dog-related one was “Spend more time doing with border collies Habi and Obi rather than reading about things to do with them. Specifically: twice a week downtown leash walks or foothills off-leash walks, and log them on the calendar to keep me honest. Both dogs need the former and can now handle (and deserve) the latter.” I am thrilled to say that not only did we keep that resolution, Habi went through her second reactive dog class (different instructor, and different stage in her journey), wherein we realized that she had no idea that butt-sniffing is more polite that aiming for the head (which invariably ended badly). Once we clicker-trained her to sniff dog butts (Obi was the very patient decoy), her interactions with other dogs improved greatly, and we have started going out on off-leash hikes with up to a dozen other dogs (and their owners)! I NEVER in a million years expected she’d be able to do that.
This year: more of the same, as being outdoors exploring is their favorite thing in the world. Our sympathies on Will’s forced retirement, glad he can still enjoy lopey-lopey. We realized this past year that Habi (now 11) can no longer handle twenty mile hikes; she can be happy and healthy on two to four mile hikes, so if we’re out on a long group hike, we’ll turn around and head back early. Obi (now 5) can go forever, but because he’s an all-around sweetheart is willing to turn back when Habi needs to.
With my rescue ‘Doberwoman’, there’s a certain level of physical contact with her, where I feel a wonderful sense of comfort and security emanate from her. She enjoys curling up beside me with her rump pressed up against my leg, and then I rest my forearm on top of her, absent-mindedly stroking her as I read or watch TV. She is at peace and absolutely exudes contentment. I cherish every occasion.
I think you have shown me that I need to play more with my dogs. They are contented, polite, love the meals I cook for them, snuggle comfortably on (or in) my bed at night, love the walks we take together twice a day (unless it’s raining, when we compromise and walk shorter distances), enjoy meeting family, friends, nice dogs – but for sheer, wriggling, giggling joy they need me to be down on the floor playing silly tug and tickle games. Hard work when I am tired, or feeling unwell, or suffering the creakiness of aging joints, but something I need to do more often and more generously. Sophy is now seven, and Poppy six and a half – the playful months and years are passing by, and I should be making the most of being able to make them deliriously happy so easily while I can!
I’ve always thought of self-actualization as using your talents to their fullest, doing activities that let you live up to your potential. Therefore, when herding breeds are allowed to herd (or do activities similar to herding), retrievers are retrieving, etc., aren’t they self-actualizing? It seems to me that participation in a growing variety of dog sports (agility, herding, barn hunt, flyball, dock diving, tracking, lure coursing, nosework) in recent years has allowed more dogs to self-actualize. That’s not to say that informal activities like retrieving in the back yard couldn’t provide opportunities also. I’ve always had herding breeds, dogs that need some sort of job to do. You can tell by their faces that they feel pride and satisfaction in doing a task they consider to be very important work, even though it may be just some fun game to me.
Lane Fisher says
Self-actualization? A strong maybe. When my Merlin, a heeler mix, improvises new ways to retrieve balls, he fully appears to find satisfaction in his creativity.
Well after I’d retired my now-sainted rottie, I had him at the last session of a basic manners course. (Jolly still loved watching.) Handlers and dogs had been practicing speed on a series of position changes, and the deal was that they’d earn treats if they beat young Merlin’s time at this class. They did their best, Merlin approximated his, and then Joll caught my eye: he was _imploring_ me.
I couldn’t say no. Truly against my better judgment, I put two mats together so that he couldn’t step off them–a prolapsed disc had undermined his coordination, especially in the rear–and invited him over. Jolly did the routine with such determination and focus that he took a quarter of a second off the the best time of his youth. It still moves me to tears.
Ian Dunbar has said that the holy grail of dog training is that the demonstration of competence becomes the reward. That night Jolly Good Fellow came home with the holy grail.
I would think self-actualization in humans and dogs would be similar in that the concept of self-actualization is that the person/dog has attained their potentials — they are being all they were meant to be. Maslow said that self-actualization “looks” different from person to person because different people have different potentials to actualize. So rather than thinking of self-actualization in dogs from a human-centered perspective (“morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving and lack of prejudice”), it seems you would need to reframe it to be more dog-centered, whatever that would look like. And I would think that in the same way as humans, self-actualizing dogs would be very different from one another. Thoughts from a psychologist and dog owner, but NOT dog expert!
I am loving these comments about dogs and self actualization. Much more thoughtful than mine, and very insightful. And Lane, should I admit that your story almost brought me to tears too, or is that too much information? But thank you for it, it made my morning.
What a wonderful thought experiment, Trisha. I’d love to hear more about your work helping Maggie feel comfortable around other dogs in the coming year. My dog has always been nervous around other dogs and I’m always interested in new ideas!
Happiness for our dog is to be with us at all times possible and to be able to go on off leash walks so that he can follow the interesting scents at his own discretion. If off leash is not an option, being able to take his time sniffing makes him just as happy.
What makes my dog happy? Treats! And walks and belly rubs, and his Kong toys and his moose that squeaks, and most of all, attention. He loves his people and wants to be touching them any time he can.
Tony Soll says
I was already thinking about this today, since my BBC (Brooklyn border collie) Izzy, is 9 years old today. My goal for her remains helping her relax and be more comfortable with daily existence while keeping her stimulated. She’s super sweet, increasingly as she ages. We live on the 23rd floor and she has a huge group of fans for her elevator etiquette- vocalizing a “hello”, sitting in the corner, shaking hands, etc. She does have a few ocd- type habits that seem to stress her, but is fairly easy to retrain and we’re always working on these. She and I get plenty of exercise off the leash in local parks and that always makes her happy as do all the multi species interactions (we have 3 cats too). Learning new stuff : putting her ball into a bag is the latest; something she loves to do over and over again. Most of all, it’s important to keep reading her signs and communicating effectively. And loving the little beast.
Susan Nikiel says
My Ruby’s most favorite thing in the world was to retrieve pinecones. She could, literally, do it for hours on end, tail wagging, body wiggling and eyes dancing. We would have to keep a bag of fresh ones on hand as she would wear them out. When I would say, “Do you want a new one?” she would race to the spot where we kept the bag of pinecones and jump around with excitement. Then, I would toss her a “new one” and she would race around the yard in delight. Now that she is gone, every time I see anything with a pinecone on it, my heart warms.
Leslie Sherman says
This is such a good statement that I am going to print it out to remind myself to focus on my dogs as individuals and to help them reach that peak of self-actualization. Thank you.
Nannie Herron says
Loved this. I was moved by you giving your dog the task for his sense of purpose. My Bailey, who passed away in September, was happiest when she was by water with my husband. Even looking back at photos, you can almost see contentment radiating from her gentle soul. My Jethro is happiest whenever he is the center of attention.
During my first session with a new client I ask what their dog does that makes them the happiest. It’s helpful to remind them when they become impatient or struggle. I am going to start asking clients what makes their dogs happy. I love this! THANK YOU.
Ah, this takes on new meaning to me now that our Maddie has advancing DM, has gone down behind completely, and needs a cart to get around. Carts, harnesses, booties, and nail caps have become part of our routine. She can’t really use the cart inside, and while she can sort of drag herself around like a seal, it’s a LOT of work and so she doesn’t move around as much as she’d like. I watch her for signs of stress and try to anticipate what she wants. Sitting on the couch panting? She may need a drink, or may want to go into another room. Looking worried? Needs to potty. Licking the couch? Wants attention. And of course the ongoing evaluation of “How good is her quality of life?”
And it also gives new meaning to trying to keep Jack happy. Busy, smart, active, “nurse dog” Jack. We don’t have the variety of walks that we used to, and we don’t have the hours left in the day to give him the one-on-one training/activity time he craves. And so it’s a balance as we try to fit some long walks in the woods in with him without skimping on the exercise and change of scenery Maddie needs to be happy and fit. And he worries when any in his “flock” are upset, so any stress for Maddie = stress for Jack.
It’s a challenge. We have two mostly happy dogs, but it is perhaps a case where a little extra knowledge can make life more challenging. I think many pet owners would not notice the subtle stress signs, but I do and so I do my best to juggle what I can to bring joy to their days.
Gayle Hunter says
“there’s no pressure on them to be “obedient,” or on you to have “an obedient dog.” There is nothing to lose and everything to gain” – this is exactly why I do nosework with my dogs. They love it, it teaches both ends of the leash about communication and body language, it’s made a social butterfly out of my scared rez dog, because she has learned that odor obedience can overcome her fear, and the dogs have a blast. Maybe Willie should give it a try? Love this blog… lot’s to think about, and lots of love to give my 3.
For 2016 my Aussie got a brother, super intense 3 year old border collie. With some conflict of interest here… To what would make me happy, have a focused super fast agility dog and what would be a challenge for my dog reactive Aussie I took the challenge. My Aussie started to feel safe and I can tell she plays when he’s close and shares her bed with him. Gradually I started to see her Aussie smile when the BC goes crazy. They are so so different that all I’m used to faces a challenge which is good for me. Happy 2016 to all !
My 13-year-old Sheltie Kenzie loves taking walks, though at a much slower pace now, and I think she will be overjoyed if it ever snows here this winter. Even at her age, she loves, loves, loves the snow! Beyond that, any physical touching, petting, and sweet talk keeps her tail wagging. She’s a cuddler! My BC Seamus loves to play more than anything, and that means playing with me or someone else. He will play with toys on his own sometimes, but his body absolutely comes to life when I get on the floor to play with him or invite him to play soccer outside. He’s a worker , so he’s also gets much happiness from learning a new trick, practicing freestyle, etc., but just playing tops the list.
For Self-Actualization I would say it could possibly come from getting to make decisions. If we are on a leashed walk in my urban area, it may just be that the dog gets to pick which direction we go at a corner. Maybe something I can’t even perceive smells worth investigating to the dog in one direction and I was thinking of going in another. Another way to let the dog make the decision is to let the dog select the toy or even the game when we are playing. Thanks for another great post, there is a lot of food for thought as usual!
Self actualisation – do we go left or right? Stop to sniff for rabbits or run on to check for squirrels? Remind Mum that there is meant to be a treat each after a walk, persuade her onto the floor for a game, tell her it is too wet for a walk and I need to be carried to a suitable pee patch, remind her how wonderful an ear massage feels (by climbing up and licking her ears? Explain that there is a cat on my bed, or that it needs to be phlumphed, or that she has pulled all the quilt over so the bed is not very comfy? Remind her that it is not safe to jump from a slippy floor because it might hurt my back again? Show her (yet again) how very easy it is to find people you know by using your nose, and even to find the way home from strange places that way? I can do all of those! Sophy x
It’s easy to recognize what makes Ranger happiest. He was truly born to be a therapy dog. He loves meeting and interacting with people in any context but he seems to derive particular satisfaction from visiting people who really need his visit. During the Christmas holidays he had a couple weeks off from therapy dog work and we started joking that his ADD was acting up because it was so clear that he was suffering from a deficit of attention being paid to him. He needs lots of social stimulus to be happy and just his family can’t provide enough to satisfy him no matter how much he may love us. His happiness requires that he go places and meet people. Fortunately we’re back to his usual two or three visits a week and he’s not suffering so much from ADD.
It’s harder to define what makes Finna happy. If her life had begun differently I think she’d be happiest doing search and rescue but with her lack of socialization she’d only want to find strangers so she could chase them away and her knee problems mean she’s not really sound enough for the job anyway. She’d love to have a real job but the best we can do for her is training. She’s such a fast study that finding new things to teach her is a constant challenge. Recently we’ve started working seriously on her leash manners by taking her for a midnight (literally we go out about midnight when we’re unlikely to meet anyone else) walk all around the church next door. I didn’t set out to teach it but she now knows that “give me some slack” means to loop back toward me and stop pulling on the leash. I said this to her once early on when she was doing her best to drag me up the driveway and I’d planted myself so she couldn’t succeed. I said something like ‘Finna, you’ve got to give me some slack’ and she came part way back to me probably in response to her name but once she wasn’t trying to drag me I started moving forward. When she hit the end of the leash again and I stopped moving I repeated the request that she give me some slack and that’s all it took. Next time I said it as she was getting close to dragging me and she immediately looped back so I didn’t even have to stop. That kind of smarts is wonderful and terrible in equal measure. She learns so quickly that training feels like make work rather than a serious job. Of course the other key for her is things that she wants to learn. Her whole life would improve immensely if she’d learn that other people are not a threat but she has no desire at all to learn that. She prefers to bark and lunge and keep them at a distance. I just need to figure out how to make other people relevant to her while keeping her from practicing her bad behavior and keeping everyone safe. And so far I haven’t managed to do that. Sorry this has turned into a longer comment that I’d intended. I start typing about my beloved psycho bitch challenge and can’t stop. Now I’m trying to reframe the issue in terms of what can be done to make being in the presence of other people something that makes her happy. Thanks for the food for thought.
I’m all about choices for my dog this year. ‘My dog can be the boss’.
Some great blog posts on this on PPG and also a couple of trainers based in the UK, detailing how to set his up safely and effectively.
I agree with Kristin that just letting the dog have some autonomy on walks is a great step in this direction. Taking it one step further by choosing their food for the day, games they want to play and which treat they would prefer. With some people this may go down like a lead balloon depending on their philosophy and methodology, but to my mind it seems that this is the key for pet dogs to have more fulfilling lives.
Beth, I am so sorry to hear about Maddie. It sounds like you have had a huge adjustment to your routine. The only saving grace is that it’s not a painful disorder.
We’ve been advised by our vet that our mixed breed bitch (1/4 Pembroke Cirgi according to her Wisdom Pane) has early onset DM. Classic symptoms – rear end weakness, dragging feet occasionally. However, she’s still active and wants to go hiking with me.
Lynette Tatay says
Allowing my aussie to do what she wants within reason. I work a full time job outside the home and it is just she and I. We get up, she wants to play fetch until breakfast, so we do. Yes I multi-task………….. eat, rest, then more fetch until I go to work. By the time I leave for work she is exhausted and ready for me to go. I figure she listens to me, so why not let her do what she wants. Makes a happy content dog and eager to work with me when it’s time for classes.
Tina Pommer says
what a thoughtful inelligent article. I have practised what you describe for many years and the hardest part for me is finding that purpose and meaning for each dog. One loves agility and competitions, one loves herding and caring for things and helping the humans, one loves beeing free to run and sniff and chase little birds, one loves stealing toys and paper and nibbling them into little pieces. when a new dog comes, they seem lost untill they too find their purpose . . . and my purpose is to help them in their quest 🙂
My immediate, selfish response to this question was: Me, Me, Me. I make my dogs happy. Then I really had to stop and think about what actually does make them happy, are they getting those things, and how can I improve on their gross national happiness index? Good question.
Olive the scruffy terrier would have been a shy dog overcoming her anxiousness through the wonderful world of agility (casual not competition) if she were physically sound. She had the drive and the joy for it. She is not sound, and so her happiness comes from (in order of bliss): swimming; chasing the ball [slower and lower these days]; finding hidden treats inside and outside; popping the ball; cuddling; sleeping late. I want to try nose work with her this year; I think it might make us both happy.
Phoebe the laconic lab is harder to assign happiness to lately. Her HD is getting the best of her as she ages. Eating and licking anything make her happy, but play is no longer of interest, she won’t chase the ball anymore, and she always hated the water. She loves cuddling and the idea of a walk, and if we’re careful, a walk can make her happy, she has recently learned the joy of sleeping in.
One thing I try to keep in mind for both dogs is advice on Olive from our vet behaviorist a few years ago. She said to make sure I go outside and just be with Olive. We’re not doing anything, I’m not asking anything of her, there’s no where to go and nothing to do. Just be. It’s harder than you think but so worth doing. It makes us all happy.
Beth, so sorry to read about Maddie. It’s tough, I know, but she’s in good hands. It’s the heartbreak and honor of living with other beings.
Nic1, I’m sorry to hear about your girl. We went through quite a long phase where nail caps alone were enough to keep Maddie quite active; she was wearing her nails to the quick and the caps let her keep walking. I wish I found the right booties sooner. We use Pawz brand. They are like little balloons that go over the feet. Once you reach the stage where you are seeing sores on the tops of the feet, they can help keep pup active. Swimming is perfect but hard to find access to a doggie pool.
If you want to get a lot of attention, try walking a Corgi in a cart through a park on a nice day. She gets lots of smiles, tons of attention, and we have had perfect strangers come up to us just to thank us for giving her another lease on life with the cart, which blows my mind every time.
It has been a big adjustment, but Maddie has reminded us that all we know for sure is this very moment. It helps, perhaps, that she is 11. In Corgis, DM is blessedly a disease of old age. German Shepherds are not so fortunate….
Is there a distance from people where Finna can look at them and feel safe? If so, you can start from there, even if it’s a long two blocks. If that works, Finna can look at them and be rewarded, followed by a step closer, etc. It seems like a long long path but it can work.
This was a treat to read, particularly as just the other day I decided to revise my own New Year’s resolution from giving up sweets (life is too short), to finding more ways to make my dog happy! I love coming here to see so many kindred spirits.
Lorinda Behrman says
Our dog loves going work. We have a farm and we clean seed, so his job is to lay on the porch, which is elevated and bark at whoever comes in. If he is away from work, he gets bored, even with the frisbee and exercise. He is a border collie and decided that it was his job to be the boss.
My 2 cents. Dogs need to be “heard” to be happy. To have someone who understands what they are communicating to us. I joke when my vet looks at my two dogs then at me (who is overweight) and comments about what perfect shape they are in. I say “yes, all of THEIR emotional needs have been met.” This usually gets a chuckle. But I am serious. I have tried to read and learn everything I can on dog language. And I try very hard to listen to them.
Manuela Connatser says
My dogs are happy in different ways my shepherd wants to be with me to be happy, my other shepherd wants to lay in the bathroom to be happy and my husky likes to play with toys to be happy
I love this conversation. I tried to think about what I could do to make my dogs happy when I was so caught up in simply caring for them. I failed in many ways (starting with having a not very good mix of dogs – I compromised the safety of my little Rattie by adopting my late brother’s Giant Schnauzer). But I felt it was important to try and consider their happiness beyond keeping them well-fed and pain-free.
My Treeing Walker Coonhound, Will, came to me with just a little leash training, and a youth spent confined as an FDA trial animal. I worked very hard on training him, and it wasn’t easy – he (and I) had to take Intermediate Behavior at least twice before we passed. But what I eventually noticed was that once he had learned to do a couple of things I wanted him to do a light seemed to go off and I do believe he derived pleasure from learning – he had learned how to learn and he liked it.
About a year after I gave up on Agility classes for him we were walking down the sidewalk on the nearby hilly street when we came to the same sidewalk steps we always go down and he suddenly stopped and looked at me. Without thinking, and with zero hope, I said “Bottom”. Well darned if he didn’t put his paws down the three steps and stop at the bottom and look at me, a thing he NEVER did when I was trying to teach him in class. I treated him and that was that. For the rest of his life, until his back hurt so bad I had to carry him, he stopped at those steps and waited for me to say “Bottom!”. It made him happy.
Thanks for making me think of it.
My dog loves to learn new things, and she shines when she has the opportunity to work with me in front of an audience. Even though she never forgets that she is a guardian breed X and is ever watchful for any ‘threats’, Skye loves to do agility, and to show off her tricks and the many commands she has learned.
She’s 8 years old now, but I’ll never forget the first time we went to Puppy class shortly after I adopted her: as I let her out of the car when we got home, she gave me a look of such joy, as if to say that she didn’t know such a fascinating and exciting world existed before. So we keep busy with the agility and Nosework, and I am thinking of training us in Rally to give her another venue to learn and shine. I do wish I knew of a real job she could learn, besides the self-appointed ‘guardian of the house’. Too bad I can’t have a small herd of goats here in the city for her to guard — she would be in heaven!
Melissa Shapiro says
Your point that each dog is an individual and different activities and things make each one happy really described my 6-pack situation. Over the few years that we’ve had so many dogs, it’s become more and more obvious that addressing each one’s needs is very important. It’s just like taking care of children. There’s never a one size fits all solution for kids, whether it be choosing a preschool, a sport, or a musical instrument. It’s the same for the dogs.
The one thing where all my dogs are similar though is their delight in spending one on one time with me. They each prefer a different game or activity, but they know when it’s time for one at a time play with me out in the yard, and when each one is going to get a turn to go into a store, the bank, or the animal hospital (where I work so it’s social). One of my dog’s job is to be carried out to go get the mail. We just say, “Annie, job”, and she comes wiggling and wagging. Gina the lethal white Aussie is into her agility and tricks, and she loves to come spend the day riding around with me in the car.
Another interesting observation I’ve been fortunate to witness is the relationships individual dogs have with the others, how these relationships change, and how I have influenced their behavior towards each other.
Thanks for the very insightful, thought provoking article.
Trish, applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to dogs has given me much food for thought. Thank you for that.
Starting at the top of the pyramid, I think self-actualization needs to be looked at from the dog’s perspective. For our dogs, it is difficult to imagine them displaying more “creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving” than when chasing (and maybe even catching) a critter or engaging in full-on play with fellow dogs. I suspect that many dogs feel most self-actualized when they are being dogs rather than trying to fit into human society.
Looking at things more simply, Red Dog seems to excel at taking joy in life. Of all the joyful things, one of her favorites is when we take a Frisbee golf road trip. We spend days together – no competition with the other dogs – and she relishes hours of rambling through woods and fields, splashing in creeks and ponds, searching for critters, meeting new people, and occasionally playing pell-mell with another dog.
Lower down Maslow’s pyramid, as the fearful Sammy feels safer she spends less time under the bed and more time interacting with us and playing comfortably with our other dogs. She has also started curling up to sleep in contact with the other dogs, occasionally even sleeping head-to-head rather than tail-to-tail. Feeling safer seems to enable the Sammy to enjoy her growing feeling of love/belonging.
Speaking of fears, we are working with the Sammy on her fear of the dog door; specifically the metallic “clunk” the flap makes wen the magnet engages and disengages. Over the summer we used a plastic shower curtain over the dog door, but for the winter we installed the flap because we are unwilling to tolerate a continuous cold breeze in the living room.
For now, we have a sock stuffed in the dog door to muffle the sound, and we are showering the Sammy with treats whenever she goes through the dog door on her own. She is making progress.
Beth, I found the Pawz booties and have just had to use occasionally so far. My girl is only 9 but symptoms do seem to be a bit sporadic at the minute. One day at a a time…
Did Maggie adjust well to her cart out and about and what does Jack think of her with wheels?
So sorry this has gone a bit off track a bit but Beth has been telling us all about living with her Corgis for years….I feel like I know Jack and Maddie, a bit like everyone else’s dogs too!
Tricia, you probably already know of this, but feeding according to the results of this test has really helped one of my dogs to stop itching. Thinking of Tootsie
I think my dog’s ideal life would be to accompany the garbage men during the day and be a junkyard dog at night. She loves scavenging for “food” and she loves chasing vermin. Since I am way too selfish to give her up to the garbage men or the junkyard, I try to keep her happy by hiding things for her, going for off-leash walks in the woods, and doing Agility, which she really loves. She likes activity and learning to do new things.
One thing I’ve wondered about is those Agility folks who control every aspect of their dogs’ lives. Their training is aimed at the dog getting all their joy from doing what the trainer asks of them. Everything of value and every “choice” is linked to the owner/trainer. There is zero freedom, but damn if those dogs don’t seem happy. Their freedom seems to be hijacked, but they have lots of interaction and reinforcement in their lives. It is a conundrum to me. How wonderful to have such a responsive dog, but is their seeming happiness legitimate? It makes me uncertain.
Annie R says
In 2015 I set the goal of taking my 10 year old dog to Cynosport. We got the needed two Qs in Performance Speed Jumping, and things looked pretty good when Chico started to be brilliant in practice but close-to-miserable and shut down in competition. He couldn’t weave; he was slow off the line; he went visiting ring crew and the judge for the first time in his career; it was not great for either of us. I changed my goal in April and 2015 became the year of Project Happy Dog. Short courses, lots of surprises; lots of jackpots for weaves in practice; shouting “cookies, cookies, cookies” after successful weaves and running off the course (apologies to any judges who were miffed). We worked through it, I learned to better keep his attention with games and treats while we wait for our turn, Chico dropped a couple pounds and is running better, and HAPPIER, at 11 than ever before.
Project Happy Dog is one of the best investments I ever made in my relationship with my dog; the pay offs in the ring are a great bonus.
Minnesota Mary says
I have found that my own happiness quotient impacts my dogs’ happiness. When I’m under a lot of stress at work or have some other conflict in my life, they are first to pick up on that and always try to comfort me or engage me in play. If my stress goes on too long, they begin to be visibly less happy.
Unfortunately I’ve had a run of serious physical injuries, changes at work (reorganizations and frequent layoffs which I’ve survived, but whew! the stress.) and family illnesses. I make it a point to have a friend take a “family” portrait of me and my dogs every year. As I compare them the past three years, the dogs’ smiles have disappeared.
My resolution is the same as yours Trisha. I’m going to do what I need to do this year to make myself happy and to bring happiness back to my dogs.
Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written message. I needed it!
This is an interesting conversation. I’ve been thinking about it on and off for years, as I have always had dogs and always work full time, sometimes long hours. I knew they adjust and sleep all day and when I’m home, we play, or train, or go take long walks. Weekends were spent at dog shows, usually obedience competitions, but both my current dogs are retired as as giant breeds at 9.5 yrs and 7.5 yrs, slowing down.
My personal dilemma is when a giant breed dog either from arthritis and age, or from injury is no longer very mobile. It’s an unfortunate fact that I will elect to release them earlier than I might have to if he weighed 50 or 60 lbs instead of 180 or 190 lbs.
So, since one of my 2 is currently quite invalid and restricted to a bed in the family room in front of the glass door so he can see outside. With a harness and much help, short steps outside to eat and eliminate and in nice weather, lay in the grass to watch birds, squirrels, and his favorite bunny that comes in to visit, is the limit of his existence.
My other dog seems to sense this and will lay next to him on his bed or rest his head on his back and they occasionally play shark face.
So, it’s not a question of when do I put him down, I know that day will come, but as I am keeping him relatively pain free, and the inability to walk has been a gradual decline which he seems to have adjusted to, what is his quality of life and enjoyment? Is there more I can do for him, or do we accept that this is enough?
For the dogs I interact with at the shelter, I think it’s possible to climb the pyramid up to level 4, but settling in at 2 is really where all the challenge is. So many of these young guys and gals are simultaneously bored, overstimulated, and frightened that getting them to calm down, enjoy human touch, and perceive their environment in a more positive way is challenge enough. With the high drive dogs I interact with I don’t focus exclusively on default behaviors or even “adoptability” in a direct sense. I try not to worry about their outcomes, though it’s hard. I instead try to use touch, allow them to express preferences, and, of course, work and play. I tell them that I like them and say it with conviction (which is easy, because I do!). I’ve learned that giving up on goals (even if it’s just getting a harness on them) is one of the best ways to stay present with a homeless dog, and my goal in 2016 is to continue observing, consoling, and entertaining these animals.
As for my own somewhat troubled dog, the best strategy for happiness in 2016 appears to be “more of the same”. More time with his trusted friends (he has a great human posse, complete with some excellent trainers and handlers), more safe, low-stress walks, more toy play, more goofing off, more snuggling. The nice thing about having a “difficult” dog is that I don’t have to worry about turning his life into an extended field trip. He is fine where he is at, happier than ever, really. I wish similar experiences on my peers who struggle with troubled dogs, because I know how hard it can be, and I’m really fortunate that Cecil has worked out so well. (caveat: high-drama vet visit coming up in a few months).
Lane, this isn’t nearly as impressive, but one of my fondest memories of my sweet Duchess is her last agility class. She toddled out on the field and I tried to direct her to the tunnel, but she diverted to the BIG a-frame and started her way up. Her trainer and I looked at each other like, “OK, why not?” and supported her all the way over. Everyone cheered, and she went and rested under a tree.
@Lacey, We use BAT with Finna all the time but the heart of the matter is she doesn’t want to learn to deal with other people. She has her world arranged the way she likes it so why should she change anything. On our walks at the church every night I can tell she’s investigating the scent of all the people that were there. My hope is that she’s learning something about people as a result and that that will help.
Finna’s a piece of work there’s no denying that. She doesn’t like it when my husband has anything in his hands and expresses her displeasure by barking at him. Last night as he was cooking supper she sat quietly in the kitchen not reacting to anything he picked up and he rewarded her intermittently with tiny pieces of the ham he was putting in the soup. Then when all the ingredients were in the pot he put the lid on it and picked up his glass of water to go sit and watch TV until the soup was done. As soon as he put his hand on the glass she started barking her displeasure. This, mind you, was the same glass he’d been drinking from all along as he was cooking. The problem for her was that now there were no more tasty snacks in the offing so being polite was no longer relevant. I’ll give her credit though, if I ever figure out how to make good behavior relevant to her all the time I’ll be a genius trainer.
LisaW, thank you for your kind thoughts.
Nic1, Maddie has adapted fairly well. After trying various positive luring methods to get her moving steadily and having it not work so well, what finally worked was taking her to a big safe open area and just walking off and letting her decide if she wanted to stand there by her lonesome or move it along. I feared that the longer she took thinking about whether or not the cart was ok, the less likely she was to be good with it, so I went against my normal approach and used that not-quite-so-positive method. On a 1-10 scale, I’d give her about a 7. She can maneuver well enough outside to go on wooded trails and manage some hills, but she isn’t clever enough around obstacles to use it in the house (we do leave her in it to eat her supper after walks). And for some reason (wish I could read her mind), when we put her in it she acts like she has no idea what to do EVERY time. And every time I have to walk off and promise her treats and she gives a giant lurch like she’s trying to pull a heavy load, but then once she’s moving she’s fine.
Jack is fine with it for the most part (he’s met dogs and people in wheelchairs before). However, Maddie will waltz up next to him and knock him in the back of his hind legs with the wheels. He is smart enough to avoid her, BUT he is definitely top dog in our little household pack and it goes against the order of things for him to give her priority access. So he sometimes finds that a little upsetting and will bark and run circles.
Other than that he’s been fabulous about the change of routine. I am so proud of both of them. I am, not for the first time, so grateful for their stable personalities. And Maddie adores being held, handled, and carried which has helped tremendously.
I think of self-actualisation as perhaps being best equipped to obtain access to reinforcers and control your life. One of my dogs used to stick close when off leash and rarely give us any trouble. It was nice, but eventually we realised that he had terrible coping and problem-solving skills. If there was an obstacle between us and him while out walking with him, he would not try to solve this problem. He would sit down and whine until someone came to rescue him. The longer we waited, the more distressed he got. We did a lot of work with him. We worked on his body awareness and balance, on improving his persistence and resilience, and on spatial problem-solving. After about 12 months of this, he had blossomed into a dramatically different dog. He was brimming with joy. He knew what his body could do, which led to him taking more risks, which led to more access to exciting and interesting and sometimes delightfully delicious or stinky things. He was much more comfortable with the idea that if he just kept trying, everything would work out, which meant that he was a lot easier to shape, and less distressed if faced with a problem. Because he was easier to train, he got more of it, and started learning things we never thought he would be able to do. Lots of little successes under his belt.
So, he’s a more challenging dog to live with, now, because the world is full of potential for him, when it used to be he was just too risk averse to venture much. He is motivated to explore and climb and scramble. He goes looking for engaging things in the environment if we are not engaging him, so it’s a bit more work to manage him off leash. But he is SO much happier. I think maybe this is self-actualisation. He finds joy in his life because he is not afraid to go looking for it. He solves problems because he is confident enough that he will get a positive outcome that he will try and keep trying. He is plugged in to his environment because it is engaging and rewarding. He is an active participant driven by exciting possibilities rather than a passive bystander bound by fear.
Jackie D says
What makes mine really happy?
Twix, when my other dog Lucy plays with him. Getting her was I think the best thing we ever did to improve his life. The other thing is clicker training, he adores that, it shines out of him.
Lucy, what makes her happiest is looking for things, preferably game but catnip toys are good too. That whole sniffer dog spaniel thing is very strong in her. The other greatest thing is ball games.
They both like bones, and I find them a very useful distraction on occasion, but I am not sure it makes them truly happy, because there is a certain amount of anxiety around them, Twix in case Lucy takes his away, and Lucy in case I take hers away.
Melissa – You have described our Sammy exactly. When she was more fearful she was much easier to take on off-leash walks, because she was always right behind me and I could concentrate my attention on whatever trouble Red Dog was about to get into. Now that the Sammy is more confident, I have to keep an eye on her, too.
Clearly the Sammy is much happier, and that is what is most important. Recently she has started playing with tennis balls at the dog park, as long as there are no other dogs around. It brings me great joy to see her pouncing on a tennis ball and prancing about with a ball in her mouth, just like a “reall” dog.
To me, this progress seems like a move from Safety to Love/Belonging, maybe with a little Esteem thrown in, but my Canine Mind Meld is on the fritz so who knows. 🙂
To Laura re the Comfort Cap: Oh my, poor thing. It sounds to me from what you write that your dog is quite happy with the addition of the cap. I think it’s a great solution for some dogs (sometimes I wonder if I should wear one myself so that I am not so easily distracted…?). If you and your dog are happy together, I wouldn’t consider rehoming him… you just need to find a great way to answer people who make comments. Hmmmm… how about “Ah, well, the cap. Actually, my dog is a Wonder Dog whose eyes can turn anyone he looks like into stone. Or a rotten tomato, depending on his mood. But I can take it off if you’d like…”. Or, perhaps more practical: “You are so sweet to ask! It’s called a comfort cap and he can see through it quite well, but without it he gets nervous. He adores meeting people and I adore him, so this is our perfect solution. Isn’t it cool?! I wish more people would try it…”. Would that work? (Most important: compliment people for asking, starts the conversation out on a good note. For the stares? Argh, harder. Perhaps remembering the line “What other people think of me is none of my business.” ???
To Chris from Boise: Congratulations on all your successes in 2015. We’re all cheering you on!
To Sarah re my work with Maggie. I’ll be following an amended version of Feisty Fido, emphasizing both back up (always did it, but didn’t realize until a few years ago how important that was) and reinforcing with food or play. I’ll keep you all posted on how it’s going. Unlike Chris, I have to admit I didn’t do as much with Maggie and NonBC’s (she went to many trials and clinics last summer and is quite comfortable around BCs) as I had planned. Or should have. I’ve already started this year, it’s wonderful to watch dogs learn to relax around ‘strangers.’
To Karen, who asked if Tootsie has been exposed to new carpet or couch. Great question. We have both, although have had them since late summer. Couch is one of the few with no fire retardant, rug is wool. I suspect this isn’t the cause in this case, but I wouldn’t eliminate it as a possibility either. Great question, thanks for asking. I’ll keep you posted.
To Beth: Like many others, I’m sending my care and concern for Maddie. I too feel like I know some of the dogs in the group. From Kat’s Finna, to Beth’s Maddie, to Bruce’s Red Dog (sorry for all the dogs I feel I know that I’m skipping), I’ve grown to care about them all. Sloppy kisses to them all (except the ones who would hate it–Finna, I promise I won’t try…)
To Laura about the comfort cap: if it were me,I think I’d cheerfully explain that it works sort of like blinders on a horse and keeps him from being alarmed by things he sees to the side. Not entirely true, but this way it gives people something to compare it to that they already know and accept.
What a great topic, and how good to remember that happiness comes in so many forms, for our dogs as well as ourselves. It’s worth remembering, too, as I constantly have to remind myself, that not only does happiness (and self-actualization, loving this part of the discussion) look different from one dog or person to another, but it can even look different at different stages of life.
My dogs still love the snow, and they still love their rambles, and they still seem happiest of all when we’re all hiking together, but at their ages, they feel the cold and the stress on their joints much more than they used to. There was a time when Otis would rather lose his left ear than skip his walk, no matter the conditions, which is why he and Sandy have an almost comical level of cold weather gear (coats, liners, snoods- I drew the line at booties, but mostly because I would have had to special-order them for Otis the Great Dane).
But early this week, as I rose to armor myself for the first bitter morning of the season (4F), I looked at Sandy, who had come down and promptly curled up on the couch, and the distinct absence of Otis, still snuggled deep in his blankets upstairs, the picture of blissful repose, and I laughed and said, “ok, pumpkins, we can take the day. ” We stayed in and happily luxuriated in our warm house in a way we could never have done five years ago.
Even now, Otis and Sandy were bouncing and ready the next day, a positively balmy 8F morning- and happiness once again looked like galloping through the snow, eyes shining. If they don’t gallop quite as fast or for quite as long as once they did, and if happiness sometimes requires a bit of a break now and then, well, who’s really counting?
I wanted to check
Home in, even if it’s a bit late, and say how sorry I am to hear about Maddie, but how glad I am that she and Jack are coping so well. They are so lucky to have each other (and you!).
Dang it, autocorrects! I tried to write “chime in” -too quick on the trigger 🙂
I have a herding dog, a mutt with shepherd, kelpie, cattle dog, etc., who would love to do some herding. How could he do that? I have no sheep and do not know where there would be some. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.
Chris from Boise says
Louise: I googled Bay Area Herding Classes and several possibilities popped up. For example, Border Collie Rescue of Northern California shows a training page with all kinds of Bay Area classes – herding and others – run by different groups.
We lack sheep as well, so our border collies herd exercise balls. It’s a sport called Treibball, and it’s a lot of fun.
Have fun with whatever activities your dog loves to do!