Just like people, dogs have their ups and downs, although usually the causes are a lot less complicated than they are with humans.
Often an unhappy dog simply needs a basic need filled – she needs to eat, needs some attention, needs some exercise or needs to play a game. Dogs are smart, remember, so learning and games are a part of keeping them happy. Also, there are internal problems that can cause your dog to be unhappy – illness and disease, for example. Parasites like fleas and ticks can also cause distress. We’ll cover all of these factors here – what causes a dog to be unhappy, and what you can do to ensure that your dog is happy.
The Importance of Affection
Let’s talk first of all about your happy dog’s need for love and attention from you as her owner. Dogs in the wild naturally curl up and sleep together with their pack – they’re pack animals, so they’re used to “cuddling” together. That’s something you should be aware of as a basic factor that contributes to creating a happy dog.
But it’s not just the occasional pat on the head here and there. Sitting together with your dog can make a big difference (most owners do this anyway), and verbal attention and praise are also important.
You need to be aware of how you talk to your dog. Think about how it feels when you have a boss or superior who constantly talks to you in a harsh tone – after a while it starts to wear you down, doesn’t it? The same is true with your dog. You may be regularly leaning towards a harsh tone of voice when you talk to her, “telling her off” a lot. I’m not saying don’t tell her off if she misbehaves, but you need to balance that with giving her positive attention when she’s not misbehaving. When you tell her off once in a harsh voice she gets the idea that she did a bad thing – if you talk to her like that all the time, she’ll start to think she’s a bad dog.
Problems That Can Lead to Unhappiness
Alright, so if you’re wondering whether your dog is happy it’s probably because your dog currently seems to be unhappy. So let’s examine why this might be.
Dog Anxiety Causes: Sickness and Disease
Disease is probably the number one factor that causes a dog to be unhappy. Of course dogs can’t talk so they have no way of letting us know when they’re in pain, and if something is effecting them internally we really have no way of noticing the problem.
But many diseases make themselves known through changes in behavior. Sometimes a dog will become excessively tired and won’t want to exercise. Sometimes the dog will sleep a lot. Sometimes she will become aggressive in situations where she has never been aggressive in the past. These can all be signs she’s suffering from an internal injury or a disease which is causing her a lot of discomfort.
That’s why I’d recommend, if your dog has suddenly displayed a change in behavior from her normal happy dog personality, your first port of call should be the vet. They’ll be able to tell you if the change in attitude is due to something physical that requires treatment through medicine or surgery, or whether it’s something that can be dealt with through your own actions and changing your dog’s daily habits.
Dog Anxiety Causes: Lack of Exercise
Aside from medical problems, this is probably the biggest issue that leads to an unhappy dog – and the good thing here is that you have direct control over it. If your dog is unhappy because she isn’t getting enough exercise, the answer is simple: give her more!
Now of course, it’s not always that simple. For example, you may own a very high energy breed like a Jack Russell and you just can’t seem to find the time to give her the exercise she needs.
Sometimes we end up with a breed that has exercise requirements that don’t quite fit our lifestyle. This can be frustrating to owners, and often it even leads them to get rid of the dog altogether. You don’t have to resort to anything that drastic. There are other ways to boost a dog’s exercise levels without having to put in a huge amount of your own time and energy.
For example, make use of games like Fetch. Fetch is a great time saver over going for a walk, because you can get your dog to burn off a lot of energy in a shorter period of time without having to wear yourself out. When you go for a walk, your dog only gets about the same amount of exercise as you do, so it depends how far you’re comfortable walking. But when you’re standing in one spot and throwing an object for your dog to chase, she’s going to get a huge workout while you have to put very little energy in.
Now, I don’t recommend making this the only form of exercise you ever do with your dog. Throwing a ball around in your back yard every day isn’t enough for a dog, because then you’ll run into another problem: a dog isn’t happy if she’s cooped up at home all the time. Going for walks is not just about exercise. It’s also about allowing your dog to get out and explore, smells new smells, see new sights, and meet other dogs along the way. This is all healthy stuff and will help keep your dog happy.
Lack of Entertainment
This may seem like the same thing as lack of exercise, but it’s a little bit different. Dogs are playful creatures by nature, but they have their own way of playing. Anyone who owns two or more dogs will know that play-fighting is the norm for most dogs. It’s a form of exercise, but it’s also “fun.” In the wild play-fighting serves the role of keeping a dog in good physical shape and honing skills necessary for hunting.
Now, obviously we don’t want to turn our dogs into killing machines like wolves or wild dogs – but that need for play still exists, and it needs to be directed into something acceptable. That’s way you need to introduce games. You can do this with your dog from puppyhood – in fact, any early training you try to do with a new puppy should be done in the form of a game.
So what are somes games you can play to maintain a happy dog? Here are a few:
Tug of war – this is a pretty straightforward game that works well for some dogs. It’s especially good with little terriers. You can play it with a nylon toy or a rope toy – just give your dog one end and you pull on the other. That’s all there is to it. A couple of warnings with this one, though. First, if you have a small dog you may find she’s so keen to hold on you can lift her right off the ground while she’s hanging on to the other hand of the toy. Avoid doing this because it can damage her teeth and jaws. Also, be careful about letting your dog win these games too much. Dogs that naturally like to compete might start getting bossy if you let them win too many games because they see it as a sign of their dominance.
Tag – another pretty simple game. Chase your dog around until you catch her, then turn around and run away. This is a good one to play in the back yard if you want to get a workout and exercise your dog at the same time, but you don’t want to go for a huge walk.
Fetch – I already touched on this one above. Great for wearing your dog out when you’re not in the mood for a workout yourself. The only real drawback with Fetch is that some dogs won’t naturally retrieve a toy when you throw it, so you have to actually train them to play the game. Sometimes that’s simple, but some dogs take a while to “get it.”
Kickball – this is pretty much the same as Fetch, but with a ball you kick instead of a toy you throw around.
Treasure hunt – this is a creative game that provides fun and a bit of a brain teaser for your dog at the same time. You take a treat (it should be something the dog can sniff out easily) and hold it in front of her so she can smell it. Then tell her to sit and stay, and hide the treat somewhere out of her sight. Then say, “Okay, find the treat!” and let her sniff it out. All dogs are very focused on their sense of smell, but this is a particularly good game for dogs like Beagles who have been bred to emphasize their smelling abilities.
Keeping The Mind Working
Okay, so now we’ve covered lack of exercise and lack of entertainment as causes for unhappiness in a dog, but there’s another one: lack of stimulation for the brain. Dogs are smart creatures and they need ongoing encouragement to learn and develop their brains. A dog who isn’t challenged in this respect will end up becoming bored and restless, and this may come out in the form of bad behavior like chewing up your furniture or clothing.
So how do you keep your dog’s mind active and challenged? Well, creative games that require your dog to think, like the Treasure Hunt game described above, are one way to do it. Another way is through training. Basic training is a good start, but once you’ve taught your dog a handful of basic commands, you can’t stop there. This is what most owners do: they teach their dog “sit,” “stay,” “come” and a few other commands, then they stop. Those are the only commands they ever use. The stimulation the dog got while learning those commands isn’t carried on.
To really keep your dog happy and stimulated, you need to keep training going and introduce new commands and tricks as she masters the old ones. This is when you can start really having some fun, teaching complicated tricks to your dog and even getting into organized sports like Agility, or entering your dog in obedience competitons. Of course you don’t have to go that far though. Just teaching lots of tricks and commands within the comfort of your own home is more than enough. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on this – just a few minutes a day makes a big difference.
How to Create a Happy Dog
So far we’ve covered problems that lead to an unhappy dog and looked at ways to fix those problems. Now let’s talk about some active steps you can take to improve your dog’s happiness. You can do all these things to improve your dog’s quality of life even if she doesn’t seem unhappy at all.
Anyone who has seen the movie “Supersize Me” understands the effects a bad diet can have on your mood and overall health. In this documentary, Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month – and his health and well-being deteriorated rapidly. It’s no different for your dog. If you’re feeding your dog the same, low-nutrition food every day, she’s not going to be feeling her best and won’t reach a high level of happiness.
Exercise and Games
The other thing that needs to be said on this point is that exercise needs to be done on a regular basis. Just taking your dog for a walk now and then isn’t enough. Most breeds need to be walked once a day, and some higher energy breeds will require two long walks a day (or some other equivalent form of exercise).
Obviously playing games doesn’t need to be scheduled, but again it needs to happen regularly – not just now and then – to have any real effect on your dog’s overall mood and well-being.
If you’re not doing basic obedience training with your dog regularly, you should start doing it as soon as you get a chance. Just teaching basic commands has so many advantages. First, it provides the mental stimulation that we’ve already talked about. But making sure your dog is well trained has many other knock-on benefits for her happiness (and yours!). For instance, an overall level of obedience training will generally help to reduce problem behaviors in your dog. That means less conflict between you and your dog, because she won’t be doing things wrong as often. We all know that when our dog displays a chronic problem behavior, it becomes easy to get mad at her every time she does it and that can end up affecting how we feel. Your dog can tell when you’re mad at her.
If your dog is well-behaved, it’s also perfectly alright to spoil her from time to time with treats. I usually do this as a part of training, so it’s a reward for doing something right. If you just give her treats for no reason (feeding table scraps is a classic example of this) she will come to expect those treats and might even become bossy about getting them from you (begging at the table, for instance).
A warning needs to be made here, though – if you’re having a lot of problems with your dog’s behavior and she doesn’t see you as her “pack leader,” giving special treats might not be the best idea. You shouldn’t sacrifice your leadership and authority in your quest to create a happy dog.
Playing with Other Dogs
This is one very important factor to a dog’s happiness that you may not have thought of. As much as a dog may come to love her human family, she still needs to interact with other dogs on a fairly regular basis to be really happy. If you happen to own more than one dog and they get along well, you can already see this in action. If you don’t, you can take your dog down to a local off-lead dog park (as long as she can be trusted to come when called and won’t be aggressive to other dogs) or try to walk her in an area where lots of other people walk their dogs. Alternatively just meet up with a friend who has a dog, or find a local club for your breed and meet other dog owners that way. All this will contribute to a healthier, happy dog.
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