Note: I originally wrote this article in 2017, and it appeared in a Newsletter by the Vancouver Island Animal Training Association. I also want to update that there’s a new, very exciting book available on this topic – Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy by Dr Zazie Todd. I’m really excited to read it, I already have it and am looking forward to gaining more knowledge!

Your Dogs Have Behaviour Problems – Are They Happy Anyway?

Do you worry about your dog’s happiness?

Owners of dogs with behaviour issues – fear, aggression, reactivity – are often concerned that their pets do not have good lives. They have discovered that their dog cannot do the same activities that other dogs do, or even that their current dog used to do.  Examples are going to the dog park, going camping, going hiking, going to doggy daycare or even going on leash walks! This contributes to the desire of many owners to “fix” their dog…to have them become “normal”, so they can do the things that “normal” dogs do.  

The “bad” news is that many dogs will never be “normal”…although I would question even what that exactly means.  The good news is that a great majority of dogs with behavioural issues can have very good, happy lives.  

I recently listened to a webinar by CAAB Chats (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists), where the hosts interviewed the authors of a new book called “The Science Behind a Happy Dog”.  

The webinar offered up a standard of animal welfare that is well known to many in the field: The Five Freedoms

Dogs with behaviour issues can still do many fun activities

The first three of these are, I believe, fairly obvious to most pet dog owners.  It’s widely agreed that dogs shouldn’t be sick, injured, suffering from malnutrition, or left out in harsh climates.  Yes, some people do subject their dogs to this, but for the people who are genuinely interested in the happiness of their pets, these are taken for granted.  

The other two are a bit more open to interpretation, particularly for the owners of dogs with behaviour issues, so I’d like to unpack them.  

Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour

I love talking about this aspect of dog ownership to people. Many of the behaviours that dogs do naturally are ones that humans tend to spend money having me change. However, I don’t believe in permanently suppressing behaviours that are enjoyable to dogs unless they are harmful or dangerous, and you can help your dog’s mental health by providing harmless outlets for their natural behaviours.  I categorize them as the following: 

  • Foraging/Scenting: Dogs and many other animals spend a great deal of their time hunting, scavenging or foraging for food – or they would if they were unowned.  Studies have shown that given a choice, many animals actually prefer to work for their food: this is called the contra-freeloading tendency. This includes the use of the nose, which is a great activity for almost any dog.  Play some scenting games, create a trail of kibble, or use food toys to help your dog explore their foraging instinct.  
  • Hunting/Pursuing: This can include most types of toy play (fetch, flirt poles), and physical exercise, as well as “legal” outlets for prey drive like the sport of lure coursing.  While I don’t condone allowing dogs to harass wildlife, I have been known to run with my dog on leash after bunnies we spot in the distance. 
Your dog will tell you what types of activities they love!
  • Chewing/Destroying: Many dogs *love* to destroy things, and having a good chew is a real workout for them as well!  There are almost endless options for safe and allowable chew items, from hard toys and stuffable toys like Kongs, to pet specific chews such as bully sticks, to meat items such as bones.  And for destroying, try allowing your dog to destroy a cheap thrift store stuffy (watch for small pieces such as eyes or styrofoam and ensure your dog doesn’t swallow any), or tape up some food inside a box and let them gnaw it out! 
  • Sleeping/Resting: we don’t always think about our dog’s sleep (we are mostly concerned with making sure they’re not bored!) but it’s so important for mental health that dogs get enough uninterrupted rest.  Consider having different areas for your dog to recline so they can adjust for temperature, surface or sun exposure. And if you have a busy household, ensure your dog has a safe place to retreat to where they can catch a nap in peace. 
  • Playing/Social Contact: this is definitely important to dogs, but perhaps not in the way you might think.  Dogs are essentially social creatures, however, this does not mean that dogs need to meet or interact with a parade of new dogs or people to be happy.  If your dog loves and trusts his family but is fearful of others, that’s OK. Or if your dog has a couple of dog friends but doesn’t mix well with strange dogs, that’s fine too.  By all means, behaviour modification to help your dog be more safe and comfortable in the world is an excellent thing to do! But I don’t believe that your dog needs to be a social butterfly in order to live a happy life. 

Freedom from Fear and Distress

Now we get into a potentially more controversial interpretation. I believe that as a dog guardian, you should abide by the following to prevent fear and distress:

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All behaviour issues can be treated without fear and pain
  • Address (manage/treat) any significant behavioural concerns such as separation anxiety or extreme fear. This may include using behavioural pharmaceuticals if that is the best and most humane way to alleviate distress.
  • Advocate for your dog to protect them in situations where another person may be causing your dog distress (animal professionals or members of the public alike!). And, of course, keep your dog safe from other animals. 
  • Ensure your dog is prepared for, and minimize the discomfort from, routine experiences such as vet visits, grooming visits, or car trips.  
  • Ensure that training or behaviour modification done with your dog is humane and not distressing.  If you are spending hours a day training your dog, but the training process is painful, scary, or unfair, this is not contributing to a good quality of life.  If your dog is going on hikes but must be controlled by a shock collar, are they really benefiting from that experience? Does your dog actually enjoy that “pack walk”, or are they just barely struggling through?  Does your dog like the dog park, or are they hiding under a bench or behind your legs the whole time? It can be really challenging to accept the idea that something you might be doing in an attempt to be a great pet owner may actually be causing distress, but it’s essential!
Happy dogs have owners who help them feel safe

If you have a dog with behaviour issues, and you worry that they are missing out, go ahead and compare their day-to-day with my interpretation of the Five Freedoms.  Chances are, your dog is pretty happy, even with the limitations of behaviour challenges! And if you have any concerns or want to improve any aspects, contact a qualified professional in your area to help you and your dog achieve the best life you can.