Surely that’s what we all want? A relaxed and happy dog? Many people think about obedience as being a desirable trait, but ultimately, if our dog is relaxed and happy, then we won’t be needing to get them to “obey” as they wouldn’t be causing any trouble in the first place. They will be a joy to live with, and they will have the same feelings about us!
How to know if you have a relaxed and happy dog
Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean that your dog is wagging its tail all the time, or that you have to be frequently playing with him/her or regularly walking them and giving them lots of interactions with other dogs. This is the classic humanisation of what a happy dog should be doing. A dog which is always wagging its tail is in a heightened state, which means that it isn’t relaxed. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t happy, but the wagging tail isn’t a good measure, as they can also wag their tails when they are feeling stressed or full of adrenalin and overwhelmed.
The puppy pictured above looked very happy and relaxed to me, she was trotting along a beach in India in a calm state, minding her own business, looking around with a little curiousity (rather than anxiety/fear as we so often see in the UK). I had to take a photo as it’s so rare to see a dog out and about in such a relaxed state. There was a key difference – this pup wasn’t there with a human…
What makes it difficult for dogs to be happy and relaxed…?
The answer is very simply, “us”. We all too often interact with our dogs in a way that they don’t understand and that makes it very difficult for them to be relaxed, because they are wondering what they are meant to be doing – they then end up exhibiting hyperactive behaviour. We also put them into situations that they wouldn’t choose to be in themselves, and then get cross with them if they react badly to it. I’m talking about walking dogs here and the pulling/poor recall/aggression problems many owners face. The dogs in India are treated very differently, even when they have owners, they are allowed to come and go as they please, rather than being “walked”. This means that they are able to choose to only go into areas that they are comfortable with, and avoid ones that they aren’t so sure about. They can also choose to join forces with other dogs that they trust for easy communication and safety in numbers. And if they don’t think it’s very safe somewhere, then they just don’t go.
But we can’t let dogs come and go as they please in the UK!
Agreed; our dangerous roads, dog nappers, and dog laws prevent us from having dogs as pets that we allow to come and go as they please (like they still did in the 60s, and like cats still do now), so unfortunately, us all adopting the approach that they have towards dogs in India is out of the question. But we can find a better balance than is currently the “norm” in the UK.
Many of you will be reading this and thinking “But my dog LOVES going for a walk, I know this because he/she gets so excited when we are getting ready to go out” – the problem here is the wagging tail phenomenon. What looks like excitement to us, is actually an adrenalin rush. Think… you’re just about to get out of a car in a bad neighbourhood, how you might feel…? Can you be 100% sure that your dog is excited, rather than pumped up ready for whatever may happen?
How to get the balance
If you are committed to having a happy and relaxed dog, then you must be committed to learning to communicated using your dog’s natural language. This is a body language, and behaviour in specific situations. They may be able to learn word associations, but it’s much easier for them to understand us if we communicate with them in a way they understand. It’s best to do this once they are already relaxed, so the key to having a happy and relaxed dog, is to allow them to relax before trying to do anything with them.
By waiting for a dog to relax (like Rupee above) we know that we have taken any adrenaline/anxiety out of the situation, so then when we want to walk them/play with them, we are doing it as a reward for relaxed behaviour, rather than an extension of stressed behaviour, which then is difficult for them to enjoy. If at any point they appear to get worked up, or overexcited, you simply stop interacting with them, and allow them to work out for themselves that they can go and relax again.
This is a very simply way of looking at things. If you want to get more into the nitty gritty, or have specific concerns about your own dog, then please post a comment below, or get in touch privately. I provide in home dog behaviour consultations in Essex and the surrounding counties (East London, Kent, Suffolk) and I would be happy to help. You can also read “The Dog Listener” by Jan Fennell, which is available via my shop.