Every day, we do a lot for our dogs: we walk them, feed them, fill their water bowls, groom them, schedule vet visits and give medication … the list goes on. So, it’s natural to feel that we’ve ticked all the dog-duty boxes. However, it isn’t always about doing more, but rather, about making what we do more satisfying and joy-filled for our dogs. By focusing our awareness on our dogs’ experiences, it’s possible to find simple ways to make them happier without working harder, and there are a lot of ways to accomplish just that.
1. Make life an adventure
Many dogs love outings to new places, so instead of taking the same walk every day, consider what your dog likes and find places that match his interests. A new swimming hole, an unexplored hiking trail or even walking in a new neighborhood add fun and interest to your dog’s life. Any unfamiliar place will be full of new smells, and that’s a pleasure for many dogs. (It’s a bonus if your dog loves car rides, because new adventures often involve taking a drive.)
2. Let them make choices
Most dogs love the freedom to make their own decisions. Safety concerns—not to mention laws and common sense—keep us from simply opening our doors and letting our dogs loose to do whatever they want. While I’m certainly not recommending being reckless, if there are places your dog can safely be off-leash, by all means take advantage of them. Allow your dog to choose where to run and how fast, whether to roll or frolic, what to smell and for how long.
When that’s not possible, give him choices on some of your walks. Let him choose the route, the pace and what is worthy of extensive sniffing. Just like us, dogs like the chance to do what they want to do—to explore and to roam—and facilitating that is a great kindness.
3. Play, play and then play some more
I cannot emphasize enough how much play can add to canine happiness. If dogs could talk, many of them would probably say that play time is the best part of the day. When dogs play, they are having fun, which is often the most direct route to happiness. In addition to the obvious fun, play also provides mental and physical exercise and socializing opportunities, and leads to feelings of success as well as enhanced cooperation. Plus, it’s a great boredom-buster.
If your dog loves to play in certain ways, indulge him in that kind of fun, and if he doesn’t, explore ways to interest him. Many dogs learn to love play if we teach them to be interested in toys. Of course, not all dogs take to toys, but many will learn to love them with a little help. If you’re absolutely convinced that your dog has no interest in play, I urge you to explore chase games before you close the book on the subject. Many people find that if they teach their dogs how to play and entice them with just the right kind of games, dogs who seemed uninterested turn out to be playful after all.
4. Make toys and chews a priority
Enriching objects and activities prevent canine boredom while providing mental exercise. Chewing is a very natural activity for dogs, and they often take a “more is better” approach. I know from my own household accounting just how expensive it can be to supply new chewables, but still, I encourage people to budget for them. Remember that dogs are using those toys, not ruining them. If your dog tends to pull the stuffing out of fleece toys, consider buying him toys without stuffing.
Since chew items are meant to be used up, it’s worth paying attention to how much bang for your buck you get with the various options, and choose more durable items if they appeal to your dogs. Real bones, rawhides (if your dog can safely handle them), antlers, sweet potato or yak milk chews and bully sticks are all options. Of course, you’ll want to monitor your dog’s chewing to be sure he’s not swallowing the pieces or otherwise harming himself. Always check with your veterinarian about what is safe for your particular dog, and what is good, rather than harmful, for his teeth.
5. Learn more about them
The more you understand dogs, the easier it is to avoid misreading them and to successfully communicate with them. Brush up on dog body language or learn more about cognition, training and behavior. Adding to your dog knowledge will help you to clear up any confusion between the two of you or to figure out what he wants. It’s especially helpful to be able to recognize signs that your dog is stressed, nervous, scared or uncomfortable so you can alleviate the situation by changing the context, or removing him from it.
6. Vary their food
There’s plenty of debate about what constitutes the healthiest diet for dogs. However, few disagree on the value of varying a dog’s food. If your dog can tolerate change in his diet, mixing things up a bit and adding fresh food will bring him serious joy. This applies to treats as well; when I’m training, I often change up the treats. (You know your dog; if GI issues require him to eat the same thing on a regular basis, this suggestion doesn’t apply.)
7. Protect them from what they dislike.
Some dogs love having a horde of children around them, but other dogs are miserable in that situation. Whether your dog objects to the ceiling fan, the sound of the kettle boiling, the doorbell or the cat eating his food, there are usually ways to avoid minor domestic irritations.
If your dog objects to being barked at through the fence by a neighbor’s dog while on a walk, take another route. Or maybe your dog hates having his matted fur dealt with; make time each day to brush him so the mats don’t form in the first place. Many dogs are irritated by the constant jingling of their tags; tape the tags together or stow them in a tag-silencing pouch. Every dog is different, but if you figure out that something bothers your dog, find a way to shield him from it.
8. Keep on training
Nobody is ever done training a dog, and certainly not after one or two eight-week sessions. Training involves so much more than teaching basic manners and skills, and it’s a process that can yield ongoing benefits. Dogs who are well trained can be given more freedom, have more opportunities to socialize and are able to go more places. They are less likely to become frustrated and confused if they know what you want them to do.
Other rewards include relationship-building, fun, increased self esteem for your dog and more pleasant visits to the vet; a well-trained dog can be examined and treated with less stress because he knows how to respond to requests and requires less (if any) physical manipulation.
9. Learn to rub the right way
I’m always charmed by dogs’ contented sighs when they’re being rubbed in exactly the right spot. Many dogs love to have their hips, neck, chest and the area just above their tail gently massaged. Read about or watch a how-to video on canine massage or TTouch techniques and put your new skills to use—your dog will thank you for it.
10. Accept them for who they are
There's great happiness in being loved as you are rather than being pressured to be what you’re not. That’s as true for dogs as it is for people. So, if your dog loves to snuggle, let him, even if you’re feeling a tad warm at the moment. Similarly, if your dog prefers his own space, don’t force him into cuddle time that only you enjoy.
If he loves tug but is quickly bored by retrieving, accept that you have a dog who’s not interested in endless games of fetch. If he thinks he’s part cat when he’s near water and wants no part of that wetness, let go of your plans to spend Saturdays in the lake together.
He is who he is, and there’s no more profound way to increase your dog’s happiness quotient than to let go of attempts to change him, and to love him—just as he is.