6 Ways to Fill Your Dog's Life With Joy

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

happy dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are ways to improve your dog’s quality of life from average to exceptional
  • Give your dog the opportunity to make choices about what to eat, where to walk and what to play with
  • Engaging in K9 nose work or agility training, as well as obedience and trick training, can also keep your dog mentally and physically stimulated while adding joy to his life
  • Give your dog a wide variety of fresh foods, including raw recreational bones
  • The more you understand your dog’s methods of communication, the more you’ll be able to respond to his needs and wants — and ultimately the happier he’ll be

Considering all the joy your dog brings to your life, it's only natural to want to return the favor. But what does it take to make your dog happy? Aside from the essentials — healthy food, a cozy, safe place to live and sleep, outdoor exercise and your regular affection — there are ways to improve your dog's quality of life from average to exceptional. And really, every dog deserves the latter!

Let Your Dog Make Choices

If you spend the majority of time with your dog telling him what to do — where to go, when it's time to play and eat, where to sleep and when to go outside — you're not alone, but this can be frustrating for dogs, who become liberated when allowed to make choices. This can entail letting your dog roam free in a safe space, choosing where to explore next or giving him the option of sleeping on his bed or the couch.

You can even give your dog choices with his food. In my interview with Isla Fishburn, Ph.D., a holistic dog behaviorist, she explained how she keeps a wicker basket in her kitchen full of fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, melon, broccoli, cauliflower, plums and pears, as well as another container with nuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.

The baskets are accessible to her dogs, who are allowed to choose what to eat, when they want it. Obviously you have to put safety first (self-foraging won't work for all dogs) but as much as possible, the goal is to try to let your dog do the decision making for his own life.

Because many dogs aren't accustomed to this much freedom, you may need to teach him the concept of making choices initially. Pat Miller, training editor for Whole Dog Journal, offered this "You Pick" exercise for doing just that:1

  1. Hold a high-value treat in one hand, and a lower-value treat in the other.
  2. Show both treats to your dog in your open hands. He can sniff, but don't allow him to eat them.
  3. Close your fists, say "You Pick!" and offer both to your dog, palms up, about 6 inches apart.
  4. When he "picks" one hand by sniffing it first, open your fist and let him eat that treat.
  5. Repeat, using various value treats, making sure the higher value treat is not always in the same hand.
  6. When your dog indicates that he understands the game by his prompt eagerness to pick a hand, generalize it by holding two of his toys and letting him pick one. (Then play with him with that toy as the reinforcer for his choice.)
  7. Generalize even further by looking for opportunities to ask him to pick — which way on the hike, which food bowl, perhaps even which collar and leash he'd like to wear. Start offering him verbal choices — 'Up on the sofa, or on the floor? You pick!' 'Inside or outside? You pick!'
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Engage Your Dog in Play

If you believe your dog is uninterested in toys and games, it could be because you haven't tried to engage him recently, or not in a way that excites him. Offer your dog a variety of toys made from natural materials, but only one or two at a time. Leave them out for a day or two, then rotate them out with new toys.

Research published in Animal Cognition found that dogs preferred to sniff or pick up a novel toy instead of ones they'd already played with in 38 out of 50 cases,2 so simply swapping out toys is one way to pique your dog's interest. Beyond that, make time to play games with your dog, such as fetch, Frisbee and tug-of-war. Other games you can try include turning on a sprinkler or bubble blower.

Depending on your dog's personality, engaging in K9 nose work or agility training, as well as obedience and trick training, can also keep your dog mentally and physically stimulated while adding joy to his life (and yours).

Provide a Variety of Foods, Including Raw Recreational Bones

Food can be a source of joy for your dog, but avoid falling into the trap of feeding your dog junk food, including poor-quality treats. Instead, give him a wide variety of fresh foods, including alternating treats for interest. You'd be bored (and lacking in nutrients) if you ate the same thing every day, and the same goes for your dog.

In addition to fruits and veggies (in moderation), consider preparing homemade treats out of your dog's favorite ingredients. Raw recreational bones — big chunks of beef, bison or other large land mammal femur, knee or hipbones filled with marrow — are also highly recommended for most healthy dogs.

Most dogs love to gnaw on them, and in addition to the mental stimulation, the chewing will give your dog's jaw a workout and help clean his teeth. There are rules when providing any type of chews or bones, so make sure you match the type of chew to your dog's size, personality and health status.

Give Your Dog a Chance to Sniff

Dogs explore via their noses, and not ever allowing them to stop to sniff while on a walk can be a very frustrating experience. Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, even goes so far as to say, "Not allowing dogs to sniff can be seen as a form of sensory deprivation that robs them of vital information they need to navigate their surroundings."3

At least once a day, make a point to let your dog do the leading, sniffing everything to his heart's content. You can even teach your dog which outings are for exercise and which are for exploring and sniffing by reserving a special leash or harness for each purpose.

Learn to Speak His Language

The more you understand your dog's methods of communication, the more you'll be able to respond to his needs and wants — and ultimately the happier he'll be. For instance, if you dog is showing signs of fear, stress or shyness, such as yawning or licking his lips, it's up to you to protect him from whatever is triggering this fear. You can't do that unless you can read his signals.

Also try to think like your dog, anticipating situations that may not be favorable. The jingling of tags is one example that bothers many dogs, which you can circumvent by taping the tags together.4 On the other hand, try to give your dog opportunities to do the things that make him happy, whether that be riding in the car, snuggling on your lap, getting a belly rub or going for a hike. If you're not sure when your dog is happy, here are 10 signs to watch for.

Make a point to be kind when you speak to your dog as well. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans have revealed that the reward center (the region of the brain that processes enjoyable sensations) of dogs' brains was strongly triggered by praise — but only when the praise was spoken in an encouraging, upbeat tone.5

Interestingly, the dogs in the study interpreted not only the tone in which the words were said but also seemed to know the difference between positive and neutral words.

Give Your Dog Love and Affection

Ultimately, your dog will likely be overjoyed if you give him back even a fraction of the love and affection he shows you. Take time to get to know your dog as an individual and respond to his personality, offering him his favorite toys, routes for walks and treats.

If you have more than one dog, this will probably be different for each one — one dog may love to sleep at your feet while another wants to stretch out on your lap. By understanding what makes your dog unique, you can develop a deeper bond that will increase the joy in both of your lives at the same time.