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.