Happy? Excited?


I’ve been watching dogs for a long time now.  I think observation is crucial for anyone who wants to work with canine behavioral issues.  Some dogs I’ve watched only briefly while others I have watched since they were born.  My yellow lab, Peck, was born into my waiting hands and I’ve been watching him ever since that moment.

One of the things that still intrigues me is the line between happiness and excitement.  Sometimes they look like the same emotion.  Other times there are well marked boundaries between them.

 An example of excitement for Peck would be when he sees me getting our stuff together for a walk.  His excitement is obvious, but there’s also a good measure of happiness thrown in too.

Another example that shows more happiness and less excitement would be when Peck approaches me for some petting.  Like most labs, he enjoys a good butt-scratch.  At these times his happiness is obvious but there isn’t the same wild excitement about him as there is when he’s anticipating a walk or a hunt or a training session.

Immediately after feeding is another time when my dogs show a good measure of happiness, wagging their tails, rubbing against my legs, licking my hands and face if I let them.  We could just call this submissive, food-seeking behavior, but I think it’s more a show of happiness in the form of gratitude.  Some of you may dismiss this notion as a gross anthropomorphism.  Maybe.

The reason I’m going on about the difference between happiness and excitement is because I see so many people who don’t seem to recognize any difference between these 2 emotions.  I’m sure you’ve seen it too.  One of the most common cases I see is when a person pets a dog roughly in a clear attempt to elicit an excited response from the dog.  Kids are great at this, especially young boys.  I often see young boys roughhousing with a dog and it’s easy to see they are both excited, but are they both really enjoying it?  Is this happiness?

Excitement and the hormones it releases also bear with them a measure of stress.  Hormone-fueled stress can have detrimental effects on humans and dogs alike.  It simply isn’t possible to avoid stress entirely, nor is it desirable.  On the other hand (paw), it can serve to make us better guardians and deepen our relationship with our dogs if we approach the dichotomy of excitement / happiness with a sharpened awareness rather than allowing things to “just happen”.

I’ve learned a lot just by trying to see the difference between happiness and excitement in my dogs.  Some of the stuff I’ve learned has made me a better handler and guardian.  Honestly, I’m not absolutely certain there is a clearly defined difference between happiness and excitement.  Maybe it’s kind of like comparing apples to apples.  But I know that looking for a difference increases my awareness and that has to be a good thing.

Try it!

5 thoughts on “Happy? Excited?

  1. My biggest problem since I ‘ had with Fred is to know when we are in public if she has to pee. She is a vocal dog. She is house broken, I did start walking her outside and told her to pee. I am hoping I can do it on command. Also learn the signs in public. We would go to obedience training , she was vocal and excited with the other dogs there. Being that she was in a shelter 1/4 her life she needed to be socialized. She has yet to pee in public. Except in inappropriate times. I would be in the park with her for 2 hours we were gone from the house for hours. She would hold it till we got home and pee a long time. I am hoping what we are doing now will help with this issue. She has passed the therapy dog training. Luckily she has not had an accident while visiting. Only during the obedience training. Which I believe a good part of it is me not recognizing her signals . Any suggestions?

    • If she’s having accidents because she’s holding her bladder for too long then I would assume she is afraid to pee outside of her normal routine/area. I think you are on the right track by attaching a word to the act of elimination. I do this by saying the word repeatedly while the dog is in the process of elimination. When she has finished, call her to you and reward the recall. Try making subtle changes in the area where she usually goes, maybe move a few feet in one direction or another, just far enough to be different, so she learns there is more than one specific area where she is allowed to eliminate wastes. Once again when she is finished, call her to you and reward the recall. Always use the word AS she is in the process of peeing. Once the association between the word and the act of elimination is firmly established, you can begin to use the word as a cue just before she is ready to pee. Keep this up for a week or ten days before trying to use the word as a cue in another place. Good Luck!

      • thank you so much. When we were at obedience she pooped just before we did an agility move. I missed her signal to go because she is so vocal. I am hoping to avoid this again. Also the only time she peed in public was when we were at obedience and they were having it in the basement of their business. I am wondering if part of the problem was the excitement since this was early on in our relationship and I was using this training as part of her socialization. I am hoping we have gotten past it.. Will not know till the weather breaks which will allow me to take her to the park and test the command and see if she goes. Let’s hope. Thank you for your affirmation I hoped I was on the right track.

  2. I don’t think there is anything wrong with comparing apples to apples. After all there is a HUGE difference between a granny smith and a gala.

    Last night Leia alerted to a possum attempting to get into our chicken coop. I can tell instantly the difference between her “just to bark” yaps, her “Think you better look at this” bark and the “GET HERE NOW!!!!” bark. I’ll let you guess which one this one was.

    Devin can’t do this. He leaned out the door to tell Leia to $#@! up and I nearly knocked him off his feet pelting past to see what the emergency was. Big emergency. We saved all the chickens thanks to Leia. 🙂

    Leia was definitely excited, and happy in a “Something I can possibly maim and kill is near!” kind of way. You could say its her greatest passion in life. She was alive ,standing up as tall as she could, tail up and waving, and much to my pride, looking to me for instruction. I sort of wish I had a photo! Especially considering I recalled her from where she personally treed the possum. (How she did it without personal injury I don’t know.)

    She stretches up tall, runs around and waves her tail for leash walks also, but while its the same signals, it doesn’t have nearly the same power as when Leia was all lit up over the possum. (There’s also no machine-gun barking.)

    When she’s happy but not excited, she has a very specific way of approaching me for petting. It starts about 5 feet away with a looooooooooong stretch, and possibly a yawn. Then the back legs stretch. Then she’ll attempt to make eye contact and wait to see what I do.

    If I pat the couch next to me she puts her ears back, lowers her tail, rushes forward, and attempts to either kiss or get a belly rub. If I don’t, she’ll scrape her back feet and make little yaps until I make her “Down” or leave the room. Both are really disappointing in Leia Land.

    Yesterday she got to spend most of the day on the couch with me as I wasn’t feeling that awesome. Leia heaven.

    So here’s a challenge for you John: How many tail wags that are NOT due to happiness can you name? 😀

  3. Yeah… apples to apples for sure! Sometimes I think the discussion becomes more about how we define things, i.e. happiness or excitement than it is about the emotions themselves. Maybe what I’m trying to get at is more a self awareness about our intent when we interact with a dog. Are we trying to give the dog a happy experience or are we trying to elicit an excited response from the dog? This approach falls apart too because there is excited happiness and happy excitement.
    What I’m looking for in myself is an awareness of the dog’s level of arousal. I want that awareness so I can adapt and behave accordingly to help the dog be successful in whatever we’re attempting, be that obedience or the ‘possum intervention team. 🙂
    It sounds like you have similar experience with your pups and their happy solicitation of physical contact. Dog-world is a happier place when we humans are on the lookout for these moments and can provide the right interaction. Leia is lucky to have a guardian who is tuned in to her world!
    I’m sure you’re aware of the recent publicity surrounding a study that purports to have found that dogs wag more to the right when relaxed and friendly and wag more to the left when stressed or aggressive. I haven’t been able to replicate the experiments but it sounds like pure poo to me! I’ll probably flunk your wagging challenge but if I just speak about my dogs I can say that there is a nervous wag, an aggressive wag, females in heat have flagging that is a sort of wag, I guess. There’s a wag that is typical of food solicitation, ditto for solicitation of physical contact, “propellor-butt” (when they are running bird scent) see?… here again the difference between happiness and excitement starts to break down because I’m sure they are happy and excited to find the bird.
    I think if you watch you dog’s tail closely enough he will use it like we use a clicker. He is training you to do what he wants. 🙂
    My real reason for writing about this false dichotomy of happiness vs. excitement is that I see so many people getting their dogs all wound up as if they think that is what makes the dog happy. What I think is really happening in many case is that the human who is getting the dog cycled up feels gratified by the response from the dog, but the dog is left with nothing more than a dose of cortisol and adrenalin that may or may not get him into trouble.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s