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How to make your dog happy

You have heard it said, that the dog is man’s best friend and that he would do anything to make you happy; however, have you ever asked yourself how you could return the favor? In this article, I will share some tips so that your pet will be happy with his life.

Before getting into the subject, let’s learn about dogs emotions. Thanks to recent scientific studies you will be able to understand how their brain works, and you will be surprised to discover that the world of canine emotions is not very different from that of humans.

How do dogs feel emotions?

Dogs, just like human beings, feel emotions such as joy, sadness, anger and fear, easily identifiable by their body language. Like claiming that dogs lack emotions, when we see the happiness they experience every time one comes home, the fun they feel when they play, or the great sadness after the death of their owner.

Dogs, like people, have a pleasure center in the brain that provides them with pleasant sensations. Neuro-hormones associated with happiness, such as dopamine and oxytocin, are shared by all mammalian animals. The gestures of affection and the looks are some of the behaviors that are regulated by oxytocin, called the love hormone. It is known to produce an immediate feeling of personal satisfaction and also to promote the emotional bond between parents and descendants, which helps to ensure the continuity of the species. Knowing about this vital function, Japanese researchers Nagasawa, Kikusui, Onaka and Ohta (2009), from the University of Azabu (Japan), studied the role of this hormone in the human-dog interspecies link.

To carry out this study, they invited 55 owners with their respective dogs. Two groups were formed: experimental interaction and experimental control.

In the first group, the owners interacted normally with their dogs for a period of 30 minutes, while in the experimental control group the owners did not look at their dogs directly when they interacted with them.

The owners of the first group were in turn divided into 2: those who received longer looks from their dogs (LL) and those who received shorter looks (SL). The oxytocin levels were higher in LL than in SL after the experimental interaction, although this did not happen after the experimental control situation.

The researchers concluded that human-dog interactions, especially those initiated by the dog’s gaze, could increase the levels of oxytocin in the owners’ urine, and that these were related to attachment behaviors.

Nagasawa et al. (2015) reworked their previous research, making the experiment more complex. They took urine samples before and 30 minutes after interactions took place between human-dog and human-wolf raised by humans.

They analyzed the interactions: 1) gaze of the owner, 2) gaze of the dog, and 3) touching the dog. The owners were again divided into 2 groups: LL = 21 and SL = 9. They made comparisons between dog-human, wolf-human interactions (11), and oxytocin levels. A greater increase in oxytocin levels was observed in the LL group than in the SL group. The duration of the dog’s gaze and of contact with the dog explained the increase in oxytocin concentrations both in owners and dogs.

The wolves did not show reciprocal eye contact with their owners and the looks that were made did not cause changes in the owners’ or the wolves´ oxytocin levels, possibly because wolves do not use their gaze as a type of social communication with humans.

These findings indicate that oxytocin not only plays a vital role in human socialization, but also plays an important role in the personality of the dog, promoting dog-human communication and the development of affective relationships.

The third study comes from the neuroscientist Gregory Berns, from Emory University (Atlanta), leader of The Dog Project, a pioneering research program carried out in 2014 that consisted of detecting the areas of the brain that were activated by the reward signal. Berns and his collaborators trained 12 dogs to enter a magnetic resonance imaging scanner on a voluntary basis and remain still for 30 seconds, allowing them to leave the study if they did not want to be in the scanner, just like any human voluntary. Due to the fact that these machines emit loud hums, ear protectors were used in order to reduce the noise level thus avoiding any stress that noise might cause them.  They were not anesthetized, because if they had been, they would not have been able to experience or express any emotion. 

The research focused on the caudate nucleus that is located near the center of the brain, between the brainstem and the cortex. The caudate nucleus is rich in dopamine receptors (neurotransmitters involved in the sensation of pleasure); it is a structure common to all brains, especially mammals that link rewards and motivation with an action. When this structure is activated in dogs, the interpretation can be made that they are experiencing positive emotions by anticipating that something good or something they like is going to happen. This is completely analogous to what happens in human brains under the same conditions, Berns explains.

Dr. Gregory Berns and Callie, a 2-year-old mixed breed that he adopted when she was 9 months old. He trained her to go into the scanner and to wear hearing protection

Image courtesy of: Dr. Gregory Berns

To carry out this research, the dogs were trained to respond to signals from their owners: one associated with a special treat and the other with the absence of a treat.

Image A: Callie in the training apparatus, a replica of the MRI scanner coil. The required behavior was to place her chin on a wooden board and not move.

Image B: left hand facing up indicated a hot dog treat.

Image courtesy of: Dr. Gregory Berns

It was observed that the caudate nucleus of the brain was significantly more active when manual signals of a reward were made compared to the manual signal of no reward. This suggests that dogs experience positive emotions when they anticipate something good to happen, in this case food.   Berns stated: ¨Many of the things that activate the caudate in humans, which are related to positive emotions, also activate the caudate in dogs. Neuroscientists call this functional homology, and it could be an indicator of canine emotions¨.

Following in Berns’ footsteps, a team from Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest recently applied the same technique to determine whether dogs also processed the tone of voice in the same way as people. This study included 22 people and 11 dogs, both exposed to 3 types of sounds to compare the results between humans and dogs: human vocalizations, dog vocalizations and non-vocal environmental sounds, as well as a silent base. The analysis revealed that the auditory cortex (the region of the brain responsible for processing sounds) of humans and dogs responded in the same way.

This means that, when faced with a moan, a laugh or a cry, the reaction of the dog is analogous to that of the human, which would help us to understand why the bond between the owner and dog is so strong, and how they can be in tune with their feelings and different moods.

One last piece of research I’d like to share about dog emotions was published in May 2012 in the Animal Cognition review, conducted by psychologists Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of Goldsmiths College London, Department of Psychology.  It dealt with the ability of dogs to empathize when their owner or a stranger when they felt sad or were in a difficult emotional situation. In the study, 18 dogs of different breeds and ages participated, and each was exposed to different situations, where the owner or the stranger: 1) chatted casually, 2) pretended to cry, or 3) hummed.

Of the 18 dogs, 15 approached when they were crying, while 6 did so while they were humming. What caught the attention of the researchers was that the dogs not only approached their owner to comfort him when he cried, but they did the same with strangers with whom they did not have any emotional bond. The dogs approached the person who was crying regardless of their identity. Therefore, “they responded to emotion and not to their own needs, suggesting an empathetic comfort-offering behavior,” according to Jennifer Mayor.

Recommendations on how to make your dog happy

It is not hard to do.  I will explain several simple guidelines that will help you achieve this goal.

Provide your pet with a balanced and healthy diet: poor nutrition can keep your dog in a constant bad mood. The best food for him will depend on his age, health and level of energy. Should you decide on commercial food, make sure it is high-end, never generic from supermarkets. If you prefer natural and homemade food, it is best to consult a veterinary nutritionist for a personalized diet. Be sure to supply fresh, clean water on a daily basis.

Keep your dog active: your dog needs to release energy, and daily walks are the best way to do so.  If possible, take him to the park, to the beach or on an outing, all of which are good options where they can interact with new locations, smells and visual stimuli. If your dog barks excessively, destroys household objects, furniture, clothes or has behavioral problems, it may be an indication of a lack of physical exercise.

Don´t forget to make sure his vaccinations are up to date before taking him out for walks on the street.

Give him love: hug him and try to make him feel that he is an important part of your life. Dogs love to be petted, especially by the person for whom they have the greatest affection. The release of oxytocin is beneficial, both for your dog’s health and your own.

Offer massages: massages have several benefits for dogs, including the relaxation they cause.

Get him an animal companion: if you can afford it, this might be the best gift. Being home alone all day may create boredom in your pet which may lead to depression.  The company of another dog or cat helps decrease any feeling of loneliness.

Organize outings with other dogs or people: there is nothing like the interaction with beings of our own species. Take him for walks with other dogs, coordinate play days with his pet friends, or join other animal-loving groups. If your dog is shy or fearful, introduce him to just a few dogs until he becomes more comfortable and confident.

Learn what your dog likes and pamper him with it: find out what amuses him, for example, playing ball, going to the beach or walking.   Also, this is a good way to establish a strong and trusting bond between the two of you.

Buy him toys periodically: you know the feeling. After a while, we all ended up getting used to the same games when we were kids, and dogs are no exception. If you buy new toys on a regular basis, he will have something new to play with every day. 

Use positive reinforcement instead of punishment: compliment him, pet him, or offer him a favorite treat when he deserves it. Never hit or abuse him psychologically as punishment, because he will get scared and develop an anxious and insecure personality, which will affect his happiness. Treat him with love and respect, just like you would like to be treated.

How can you tell if your dog is happy?

Watch his body language, because there are obvious signs that will tell you what he is feeling.   It is not difficult to understand them and they will let you know if your pet is happy or sad. 

His eyes are calm: he blinks gently and sometimes his eyes seem to narrow. His gaze conveys tranquility.

Relaxed mouth: it is slightly open, as if it were smiling. A dog panting excessively when it is not hot or has not done any kind of exercise is usually a sign of stress.

Relaxed eyes and mouth

Image courtesy of: Pixabay

Moves his tail: it moves from side to side, along with the whole body.  Short-tailed dogs will move the beginning of the tail along with the back of the back.

Unwrinkled forehead: dogs, like people, can express concern with a frown. A relaxed forehead reflects calm.

Image courtesy of: Pixabay

Low shoulders and raised hindquarters: they are offering a clear invitation to play.

Low shoulders and raised hindquarters

Image courtesy of: Pixabay

Conclusion: Your pet´s happiness is directly linked to the way you take care of him and how you treat him, so it is important that before you decide to adopt an animal, make sure that you have the time and availability of caring for him. If you want him to be happy, you must take care of his physical health, create an entertaining atmosphere for him at home and include him in your daily plans.