Is Your Dog Truly Happy, or Just Out of Control?

Happy Dog

By Lynn Stockwell

If you are the type of person who, like me, spends a lot of time on video sites watching various trainers work their magic, you’ll probably notice that most of them allow comments. These comments can range from “Great job with that dog, keep up the good work” to “Why not use [other training tool], you’re being abusive” or even, my personal favorite, “That dog doesn’t look happy.”

I would like to know, here and now, what exactly is a “happy” dog and how does that come out in training from another person’s point of view?

The reason I bring up this specific type of comment (compliment?) is because usually it is followed by a few nitpicky observations about stress yawns, tongue flicks, raised paws, non-wagging tails and how they contribute to the overall abuse of the dog in question by placing him under an undue amount of stress.

I’ll lay it on the line using my not-unfamiliar wordage I chose in my last post:

Anyone who tells you that learning and proofing commands should be completely stress-free has never trained dogs to the point where you want them giving you advice on how to work YOURS.

I have a few notions of why a dog in training would not look happy. The dog is learning through mistakes and successes. Not only is the trainer attempting to set the dog up for success, but the dog might also be trying out behaviors with the trainer that have previous resulted in no consequence, or at least not ones that motivated the dog to cease the misbehaviors. The dog is learning that it must listen and follow, not call the shots and lead. (NB: Nowhere in here am I talking about “Dominance,” as any untrained and unmannered dog is accustomed to making its humans do just what it wants and when; said humans are just not aways aware they have been so well-trained!)

The unfortunate truth is that, sometimes, a dog learning new behaviors along with the idea that it must focus and listen, is that the dog’s body language changes: it is learning to concentrate, focus and learn. Its tail position may become slightly lower to the horizontal (never tucked in fear). It attempts to keep visual contact with the handler while trying to hear or even glance all that is going on around it, since it is not yet used to focusing in one place for so long (leading to a strained appearance as ears go back and eyes struggle to stay focused yet check out everything else around it). The stress the dog places upon itself is more than enough to make it yawn; of course, it is learning new rules and manners. The dog is accustomed to doing things other than focusing and learning, and the conflict between the brain that is learning and the behavior to which it is so accustomed is part of what creates the need for the dog to yawn to relieve that stress.

And, of course, the fact that the dog is learning a new behavior, or proofing one already learned, is stressful as well.

I do not consider a training session worth its salt unless I get at least one stress yawn out of the dog. If I notice more, I take into account many other factors that indicate the dog is under too much stress before deciding to back off or even stop the session.

Think of how anesthesia techs monitor their patients: keeping patients under anesthesia and observing them for signs of waking up in the middle of a procedure is a multi-pronged approach. The heart rate might remain steady, but the respirations-per-minute could increase. Respirations might stay rock-solid, but the heart rate might suddenly spike. Jaw tone is also a factor (how hard is it to open the jaws, usually more difficult the more awake the patient gets) as well as blink reflex (someone under anesthesia will have not blink when the corner of the eyelid is touched). Relying on just one of these parameters is not going to be helpful at all, and turning up the anesthetic gas on a patient just because one thing changed might be putting that patient in danger of going too deep, or it could be as simple as an unnecessary waste of gas because the patient is still sufficiently under.

In the same manner, it is counterproductive for people to nitpick for signs of “stress” in training when they all come together to make a big picture. Dogs flick their tongues without being under stress, or at least all mine have done so, and many times. Ears go back and body posture changes regularly without the dog being placed under stress by a trainer. Yawns occur in a completely relaxed dog, as well as one that is tired, keeping in mind that there is a vast difference between tired yawns and stress yawns.

After all, most dog people seem to understand that a wagging tail does not always indicate a happy dog, by observing the signals it is putting out.

Simply put, these people have nothing better to do with their time than pick apart dog behavior rather than looking at the whole picture, including what problems the dog is having in terms of behavior, what results are being achieved, and how those results appear over the long-term.

I like to use the example of my math lessons in middle school. I had switched to a new school and was a bit behind in the curriculum there. The lesson in question was fractions. I could add them easily and subtract, finding a common denominator, as long as I didn’t have to carry any tens over. The moment I had to find a way to take 3 7/8 from 8 3/8, I froze.

There were some pretty dramatic moments during those times that involved lots of tears, but through the work and patience of my parents and teachers, I learned how to subtract fractions like nobody’s business. I was a fraction-carrying MACHINE. (Not so much now, since long-term results were not really stressed in this situation, and I haven’t touched fractions for a long time other than to add up halves and quarters of pills to fill prescriptions).

But it was stressful as all get-out to get there.

Am I saying that training should involve theoretical temper-tantrums and high-running emotions on everyone’s part in order to teach the dog an obedience concept? Of course not—otherwise, we would be envisioning classes of frustrated owners, dogs feeding off that frustration, and most likely something involving chaos of some degree.

I’m just noting that all learning involves stress of some type. Too much stress pushes the dog too hard or too fast, while not enough doesn’t help teach or enforce the lesson. A good trainer will find a happy medium that produces a thinking dog during the session. As the relationship between the owner and the dog grows through regular training and socialization, I cannot imagine how anyone could see anything less than happiness in either of them.

As for trained dogs, I have absolutely no idea why they would not look happy. With what do these people take issue: the one-command performance reliability? The immediate response to commands or signals? The intense focus a dog being worked gives its handler, rather than worrying about what’s going on with the rest of the world? The knowledge that they can go out in public and behave themselves in any situation because they have confidence instilled through training? The truth that they have a deep, lasting relationship with the people that own them?

Or are these people simply spouting off a knee-jerk, conditioned response to the tool of choice the dog might be wearing, insinuating that the dog is only responding out of fear that said tool will be used to produce maximum pain and torture should the dog not comply?

What might happen to their arguments if the dog were to be shown working without any tools and showing the same results as if it was wearing them?

The “This dog doesn’t look happy” argument falls to pieces when there is no tool to villify, and people who seem to know everything about training as long as no aversives are used all of a sudden fall apart when asked to identify the dog who WAS trained with them–becuse they can’t tell. The dog is truly happy!

To these people, a “happy” dog is one that shows no self-restraint, no discipline. A “happy” dog is one that blithely makes its own decision to run off and interact with other dogs and people, sometimes to the desperation of its owner who is dragged along helplessly with no other option but to admonish “He’s friendly, he just wants to sniff and play!” A “happy” dog jumps on people because it is excited to see them. A “happy” dog might bully other dogs in an attempt to get them to play, provoking an aggressive response that might cause issues in future training. A “happy” dog, to a sadly growing portion of the population, also overweight or obese, because to these people, food is love. And love is “happy.”

If that’s the case, then by all means, call me out on having an unhappy dog. She has self-discipline, the ability to make choices that shows she knows between right and wrong, she listens to me the first time I tell her to do something (even in the face of distraction), and we have a mutual respect and trust that transcends the physical connection required by law in public places. She is healthy, conditioned, and an appropriate weight. She does not jump on people, stays off the furniture without question unless invited, carries and chews only her own toys while leaving our belongings alone, can run off-leash in the unfenced yard (no Invisible Fence necessary here!), and thoroughly enjoys her job as a therapy dog at a local hospital. All this with AND without (usually without) the training tools I’ve chosen to teach her these concepts!

If only other dogs could be as (un)happy as her!

3 thoughts on “Is Your Dog Truly Happy, or Just Out of Control?”

  1. Lynn,

    Thank you for this article. How long is your training session usually last? It is often an issue to keep them concentrated during training session. I simply start cutting training session short, since attention is often lacking while other distractions around.
    I’m really curious to find out if dog yawn only can attribute to stress. Would dogs have similar yawning causes as been bored or tired?


    1. Hi Dmitry.

      When first starting out, training sessions last about 10 minutes, or evne less if I’m just working toward a particular goal I know that dog can reach. They’re increased to 15 as the dog’s mind becomes accustomed to work and focus, and if I really want a marathon session (and I know the dog is mentally ready for it), I’ll go for 20 or until I see the dog’s brain fizzling out.

      Kind of the same way you can teach children, but there’s a point where they just can’t concentrate anymore–so end on a positive note for everyone and stop the session.

      As for the yawning, they do it for a variety of reasons just like we do. During times of stress, it’s often used as a calming signal: “If I yawn, then we can all relax and get along.” During a training session, I believe it also tells me the dog is thinking. Believe it or not, I’ve had dogs yawn just while out on walks at heel: the instinct to run and chase things is overpowered by obedience control and self-restraint…which makes the dog yawn. I am only holding the leash. The key is to figure out if you’re putting that dog under TOO much stress and pushing it too fast, or if you’re just wasting time during the training session without moving forward. Neither one is conducive to success–you need to find the medium that will push your dog that little bit to LEARN, show that he has learned, and then call things a success for that session.

  2. I love this article. I take training in animals SO seriously because it is so important to the mental health and physical well being of the animal, and human. I have “friends” that have multiple dogs that aren’t trained, have food guarding behaviors, are poorly groomed, over weight, overly hyper dogs. These dogs are not happy. They’re a wreak. They have no pack leader which makes them anxious and behave poorly. Yet, my dog does exactly what she is told to do when she is told to do it. She comes to me without a leash, no matter what the distraction. (Even mid chase after a squirrel.) Furthermore, these people with dogs that eliminate all over the house and have no formal training, have the nerve to tell me that I’m mean to my dog for making her listen. Well, when my dog comes back when I call her to avoid her getting hit by a car or biting someone, theirs are going to be hauled off the pound or 6 feet under. If your dog isn’t trained and you’re badmouthing someone who’s dog is trained, its because you’re lazy and jealous of someone else’s hard work and dedication to raise a good canine citizen. People say they want to treat their pets like children, well guess what? If you were a parent you would discipline your kids because you love them right? Well its the same thing with an animal. If you’re not willing to put the work in to raise them right, you have no business with one, in my opinion. Loved your article. I’ve been wanting someone else to say this for a long time. I thought I was going crazy for wanting to train my dog.

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