Why Dogs’ Happiness Matters

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Understanding pet dogs—who they are and why they behave the way they do—is also central to giving dogs a happy life. This idea was highlighted by Dr. Sam Gaines, head of the Companion Animals Department at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the UK. “A lot of the problems that we see or hear about,” she said, “wouldn’t necessarily come to light if people had a much better understanding of the dog that they’ve actually got in their house. For example, people go and impulse-purchase a puppy without doing any research, and then suddenly end up with this little creature in their house which they have no or very little understanding about, which then means it’s very difficult for them to provide for their welfare needs.”

And unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation too, which means people’s folk knowledge about dogs is often wrong. Gaines said, “In an ideal world what I would really like to do . . . is sort of like wipe the slate clean when it comes to [what people know about] dogs. Like in Men in Black they press that pen and every memory or anything associated disappears, and you can then give them a new knowledge and understanding of what a dog is.”

One of the great things about canine science is that researchers are investigating topics that are important for the everyday lives of dogs. However long you have known dogs, there is something new and exciting to learn.

The Needs of the Individual Dog

Just like people, every dog is an individual. Some dogs are sociable and friendly; they love to meet new people and other dogs, and so we should try to give them more of these experiences. On the other hand, some dogs are shy and timid and would hate to be forced to meet other people and dogs every day. That’s okay, because the important thing is that we recognize the needs of the dog we have and cater to them.

Individual differences were apparent with [my dogs] Ghost and Bodger. While Ghost was calm, sometimes aloof with other people, Bodger is desperate to become their friend. Having learned that sitting is required before he is patted, he secretly waits for just the right moment to leap up and lick the unsuspecting person on the face. And while Ghost was always so happy to meet other dogs, Bodger is choosy about who is allowed in his space.

There are two sides to considering the needs of an individual dog. The first is to do with minimizing experiences the dog finds negative, such as preventing situations where the dog is fearful (which may include avoiding the situation, teaching the dog to like the situation instead, and/or using medication under the guidance of a veterinarian). The second is to do with knowing what that particular dog enjoys. Do they love to play fetch or do they prefer to go for a swim? Do they love agility class or do they prefer to mooch about on a forest trail? It’s up to us to know what our dog likes and give them the opportunities to experience it.

The Importance of the Human–Animal Bond

When we get a dog, we imagine a long, beautiful friendship, kind of like a canine equivalent of walking off into the sunset to live happily ever after. But although we think of dogs as our best friends, the relationship often breaks down. We know that:

  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says 670,000 dogs are euthanized every year in American shelters because they do not have a home.
  • The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior says behavior problems are the leading cause of death in dogs under 3 years old in the US.17 In the UK, behavioral issues are responsible for 14.7 percent of deaths in dogs under three (compared with 14.5% from gastrointestinal issues and 12.7% from accidents involving cars) according to the Veterinary Journal.
  • The American Humane Association found 10 percent of newly adopted dogs and cats in the US are no longer in the new home six months later (either returned to the shelter, lost, dead, or given to someone else), while the BBC reports 19 percent of people in the UK who buy a puppy no longer have them two years later.

Clearly, for many people who start out with high hopes for a relationship with a dog, things go badly wrong. In part, this may be due to a lack of preparation. Between 18 and 39 percent of dog owners do no research at all before getting a dog. Of course other issues, such as a lack of pet-friendly rental housing or people becoming sick and no longer being able to care for their pet, may also play a role. Helping to prevent relationships with our pets from breaking down will make us happier as well as our dogs.

I think we all want to make our dogs happy, even if along the way we show it in different ways and sometimes do the wrong thing. We love to see a happy look on our dog’s face, and let’s face it, the bounding, bouncing joy of a dog is enough to make us happy too. As guardians, we are responsible for everything in our dog’s life, and it’s an understatement to say we are important from our dog’s perspective. This book is not just about your dog—it’s about you and your dog, the human–canine partnership, and what canine happiness means.

This is an excerpt from Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy by Zazie Todd, with a foreword by Dr. Marty Becker, reprinted with permission. Wag is published by Greystone Books.

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