Want to make your dog happy? Here are five key things your dog wants you to know. 

woman and dog on balcony
Picture of Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

In many ways, dogs are just like us. They need a comfortable place to live, tasty food and good company to feel happy.  But in other ways, dogs are very different from us. And it is only natural to give dogs what we think is important, based on our values, needs and beliefs. After all, that’s all we’ve got. But…

The magic happens when you stop thinking of what you need and start thinking of what your dog needs.

Here I want to discuss a few common misconceptions about dog needs. If you want to better understand your dog and make them happy, read on!

high five girl and dog

Your dog wants you to understand that it is not natural for them to have unfamiliar dogs in your home.

Dogs are descended from wolves and are attached to their own territory and everything in it. They like to defend what is theirs, and are not so keen on welcoming strangers into their homes. Dogs do not understand that the dogs and people we invite into our home, for example for a play date, will also leave.

For some dogs, this can cause stress because they don’t know what is going to happen and they struggle to handle the situation. These dogs will often try to set the rules of the game and show the newcomers who’s the boss.

Want to learn more about dog aggression? Check out this post.

Your dog wants you to understand that dogs’ needs for rest and relaxation are different from our own.

We are always busy. After a long day at work or school, we like to chill and watch TV when we finally get home.

Dogs, on the other hand, are at home most of the time so they would much rather go outside and exercise than sit on the couch or basket. Therefore, dogs often need more change and exercise once you are home. So make sure you give them enough opportunities for activity.  And no, letting your dog run around in the yard for a while doesn’t count!

Dogs have a great need for exercise and following their doggie heart, especially outdoors. If this need is not adequately met, then an inner frustration slowly builds, which can eventually manifest itself in problem behaviour.

All dogs are different of course, and have different needs for rest and relaxation. Always take into account the needs of your dog. But in general, our dogs don’t get enough exercise and mental stimulation.

If your dog really does get a lot of exercise (i.e. a lot of walking) but he still can’t rest or relax, then maybe the need for mental stimulation isn’t being adequately met. Or vice versa.

Often we have our dogs on a leash while walking, and want them to walk “nicely” with us. But if you have too high expectations (your dog must always walk properly and is given little room to explore on his own) – and she may very well walk nicely, because that’s what you taught her to do – then this unfulfilled need may start to manifest itself when you get home.

Labrador dog
Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay

Your dog wants you to understand that they will not only go to people or dogs if they want to play.

It sometimes seems strange when a dog walks up to another dog or person, but then suddenly starts growling. These dogs are curious and want to see who they meet. They are looking for information and not interaction. 

It can also be that a dog likes strangers in general, but then suddenly becomes anxious and overwhelmed when meeting them. If this happens, call your dog away after a few seconds. It is best to introduce your dog to new people and dogs slowly and gradually. Let your dog set the pace and don’t force anything.

Your dog wants you to understand that they don’t always choose what is good for them.

I am all for giving control and offering choices to dogs. By giving your dog control over their environment, and allowing them to avoid other dogs/people/objects, they can better deal with their emotions. In this way, they discover the world at their own pace.

But does this mean that you should always let your dog choose? Well, no. Dogs are just like people. Unfortunately, they do not always choose what is good for them. If there is always tasty food right in front of them, most dogs will just keep eating it.

Or maybe your dog doesn’t feel like going for a walk. Many dogs are lazy by nature, they really are just like people! Especially after all that good food… a relaxing snooze is a great thing.

Many dogs these days are overweight, or even obese. Dogs choose what they feel like doing in the moment, and not what is good for them in the long run. We know that a lot of exercise is good for dogs. And also that there is a link between too little exercise, a poor diet and behavioural problems.

And yes, of course your dog likes his food/candy/biscuits, and is disappointed when he doesn’t get more. But does this mean you should always let your dog have his way?

No, it is your responsibility to lead your dog down the right path. Setting boundaries is an important part of this. It will not make your dog less happy if you say no for a change. Just the opposite. You are doing what is right for her in the long run, even if she doesn’t understand. And of course, she knows very well that you love her.

So don’t be afraid to set boundaries and take responsibility. In the end, this is what is best for you and your dog.

Your dog wants you to understand that exuberant behaviour does not always mean that they are happy.

It may be that a dog is using excessive friendliness as a way of reducing anxiety when meeting another dog or person.

A dog that wants to play shows the typical play bow. If your dog seems to want to play or is very enthusiastic, but you do not see a play bow, then ask yourself what exactly is going on.

Also, exuberant behaviour of your dog is not always appreciated by others. You may sometimes be surprised to find that owners of other dogs are less than happy when they are greeted like this by your dog. What is friendly and happy for one dog is very different for another. Some dogs prefer calm greetings and like to keep their distance. 

Always give your dog the space to walk away or avoid another dog if they want to. By giving your dog control over their situation, you can prevent a lot of problems later on. 

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