Grass stains and dogs
Influence Positively Questionnaire - Andrea Arden

Can dogs be happy?

Dogs look like they can smile and their tail wagging seems to say something too. For those of us dog owners who clearly love our pets, we focus a lot on trying to understand, to decipher, what Fido is "saying". 

We want the best for these members of our pack. I know that at the end of the day my knowledge of Cleo, my adult rescue dog, is limited to what I can uncover on my own.  And because I care, I want to know if she is happy. 

Ever since I adopted her, feeling that I am doing a good job - that I'm making her life better than what it was - is important to me as a responsible canine guardian.  Therefore, even debatable emotional indicators such as a smile, I will take this superfluous information and hold it close.

This guest post is from Deborah Flick, of Boulder Dog, and helps us put into context these notions of whether our dogs are really happy and she discusses the question, what is a normal dog?


You will never have a ‘normal’ dog no matter how much counter-conditioning and desensitization you do. No matter how many hours of training you invest. At least that’s how I condensed Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s lecture on fearfulness and fear aggression.

“You can rehabilitate, but there is no cure. And, there is a tendency to relapse.”

Thanks. I needed that.

It’s not that I don’t know this, mind you. I just hate being reminded of it. It’s like my doctor telling me, “Now remember, no matter how carefully you avoid gluten, or how good you feel as a result, you still have celiac disease. All hell could break loose if you lighten up your vigilance, even just a little.”

Just like gluten seems to be in everything, frightening things turn up anywhere, anytime, and often unannounced. I’m constantly ‘on duty,’ assessing every situation for it’s likely rank (1-10) on Sadie’s ‘Scale of Scariness,’ or SOS, as I affectionately call it.

A couple seated at a table outside the Brewing Market, a local coffee house, quietly chatting? Easy. That was a ‘1’. Sadie, enjoyed greeting the seated humans, and even moved in closer for a back rub. Yeah!

A man sporting a flying saucer-like hat silhouetted against the blue sky, teetering down the trail with walking poles? Rank that perfect storm of triggers an ’8′, at least. 

Sometimes we hit the jackpot. We can go for days without encountering anything higher than a ‘3.’ No doubt this is partly due to luck, but it’s also a result of teamwork. Sadie and I are pretty good at avoiding or maneuvering our way through, say, a gauntlet of construction barriers, tractors and hardhats. Of course, it helped that the crew was eating lunch and the machinery was quiet.

Not long ago, after a few uneventful days, I lulled myself into thinking of Sadie as being a ‘normal’ dog.

Then WHACK! Like the succession of hail storms we’ve endured recently, Zeus hurled lightening bolts of scary things at us, one after the other. The guy in the flying-saucer hat was followed closely by a rickety plank in the wood bridge near the farmer’s market. Sadie hates, really hates, things wobbling under her feet. She freaked and escaped the evil bridge by pulling both of us into the path of an oncoming bicycle. Thankfully the bicyclist’s reflexes were superb. That episode was clearly a ‘9’.

A day later, Sadie was lying quietly by my side while I browsed dog magazines. Then, “Rrrroooffff, rrroooffff!” Sadie’s barrel-chested barking shattered the calm.

“Does she bite?” the startled woman whimpered.

“She never has,” I told her truthfully. “But, you really scared her. I think she felt threatened because you were crouching towards her tentatively and waving your hand in her face.” (I glimpsed this from the corner of my eye as soon as Sadie went off). Rank? ‘8.5.’

Of course I apologized, and, kindly, so did the would-be-head-petter who meant no harm.

The good news is that Sadie is recovering much faster than she used to from these high-ranking SOS episodes. She actually made up to the ‘crouching woman.’ As for me? Not so much.

There are times, like today, when I just feel exhausted at the prospect of getting suited up, so to speak, to ward off the scary things. To be totally ‘on’. What I want so badly–for Sadie to relax and enjoy life, and for me to lighten up and luxuriate in her enjoyment–seems hopelessly out of reach sometimes.



Occasionally when I cry out in desperation, the doggie gods shine their smiling faces on me. 

“Woof! Deborah! Stop twisting yourself up like a raw hide chew! Try writing a list of the things you do with Sadie that makes her really happy.”

Okay,” I agreed, not knowing what they were up to, but not being one to trifle with the doggie gods either.

1. Greeting the people she loves. I know Sadie is crazy happy when she does her ‘tippy toe, wiggle butt’ dance which she reserves for greeting the people she’s ‘head over tails’ in love with. Gigi, our trainer; Ira, her dad and my partner; Mama Kitty and Papa Carl, Sadie’s second mom and dad; Romeo’s (her best friend) moms, Shelly and Paige; Mary Lee and Colleen at PC’s Pantry, her favorite doggie gourmet shop. And, me, too.

2. Tracking squirrels. Her muzzle stretching upwards as if pulled by a thread, Sadie yelps gleefully as she tracks squirrels crisscrossing the canopy of trees in Mama Kitty’s beautiful yard and garden.

3. Playing fetch-the-tennis-ball. Sadie screams as our car approaches the ball field, especially when Romeo is with us. It sounds like she’s in excruciating pain, but really they’re cries of ‘antici-pa-pa-pa-tion.’

And, run? This poodle runs full out to fetch the ball and just as fast to bring it back to me. No trotting to the ball and slowly sauntering back like Romeo, Mr. Cool. Sadie’s enthusiasm is 100%.

4. Splashing after the frisbee in Boulder Reservoir. “Are you ready?” I ask. Sadie sits and unswervingly focuses her attention on me. Her tail twitches rapidly across the sand. Sometimes an excited bark escapes. “Am I ready? Are you crazy? Throw the frisbee, already!”

5. Off-leash hikes. Sadie lives for long, off-leash hikes with Romeo on cool, better still, cold, snowy days. She pounces Romeo, “ruff, ruff, ruff” (he’s very tolerant of her), as they bound across the open fields, their poodle bums and tails bobbing in unison. She sparkles with pure joy.

6. A raw meaty bone. Need I say more?

7. McGuckins! McGuckins is a locally owned, everything-you-ever-needed hardware store, and it’s doggie central. Ask any Boulder dog and their tails will tell you that McGuckin’s rocks. All of the sales people wear green vests (easily identified by canine and human customers alike) with pockets full of treats.

Sadie, being Sadie, used to shy away from the clerks. But, now she confidently trots up to a ‘green vest’, looks straight into the clerk’s eyes, and wags her tail. “Treat, please.” Yes!

Such behavior might seem rude to some of you. I know it does to a friend of mine who would never permit her dog to beg. But, as Debbie Jacobs, author of, points out, fearful dogs are entitled to a FDL, Fearful Dog License. I make sure Sadie enjoys the full benefit of hers.

8. Hide n’ seek. “Sadie. ‘Wait.’” Sadie ‘waits’ as I distribute kibble in nooks and crannies throughout the house. When I return, her eyes are bright and her ears forward. She’s ‘waiting’, and ready to leap when she hears “’Release’, ‘go find it!’” Off she goes, kicking up her hind legs as she forages from room to room, floor to floor. 

9. Boxes! Ever since puppyhood I’ve been making cardboard boxes into puzzle toys for Sadie. Into the boxes I place eviscerated plush toys that I have re-filled with crumpled old cloth napkins containing a smattering of treats. Sometimes, like Russian dolls, I fit boxes within boxes, closing each one by tucking the four flaps one under the other

“Sadie,” I call. “‘Boxes!’” She dives into the cardboard, pushing her muzzle into the opening at the center of the four tucked flaps. Sometimes she grabs one of the flaps in her teeth and shakes the box until it flings open and stuffed toys and smaller boxes fly about the room. Then, a rip roaring good time ensues as she shreds the napkins and devours the goodies.

10. Clicker behavior-shaping games. Sadie is limited only by my skill, which, when it comes to shaping new behaviors, is minimal. Nonetheless, she lights up and bounces when she sees the clicker and treats come out.

Lately we’ve been working on a “wobbly board” of my own devising. Sadie, as I mentioned, prefers the ground beneath her feet to not move. So, for fun and to build confidence, we started gradually with the 3′x4′ particle board flat on the floor. Click n’ treat for one paw. Then two. Then three. Then four. Then for walking around on the board.

Next I put a towel under the board to give it a slight wobble. Back to clicking n’ treating for one paw, then two and so on. Now, hoisted on a folded towel, the board rocks, rather like a see-saw, nearly four inches off the ground, depending where she steps. Click n’ treat, treat, treat! That’s huge for both of us!

11. Spending the afternoon with Romeo at his house, ear wrestling and playing ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ around the cedar tree. 

I could go on, but I think I’m getting the point. Thank you doggie gods!

I need to see the bigger picture. Yes, there’s the unpredictable big world out there that we need to learn to navigate using my best counter-conditioning and desensitization skills. And, yes, vigilance is required.

But, life should be fun too, especially for a fearful dog! (What a concept! Sadie and I both think too much and take life way too seriously!)

Nick Dodman did say in the lecture I mentioned earlier that fearful dogs need exercise. It’s helps them to chill out. I want to add that I think they need to have fun too. Lot’s of fun! Sadie needs as many endorphin delivery systems as we can devise. She deserves as much joy juice flowing through her furry brain and body as she can manage.

So now I’m thinking, Okay, every day we do at least three things that makes Sadie really happy. More, if we can.

You see where I’m headed with this. I can’t help but blow it on the vigilance front from time to time, life being unpredictable and all. But, in the “good times department”? I can be a great mom.

“Sadie, girl! What would make you really happy today?”

“Visit Mama Kitty and scurry after squirrels in her garden? You got it!”

“Take a hike with Romeo? You’re on.”

“And after dinner? Boxes! You bet.”

Deborah writes a heartfelt blog about life with her 3 year-old standard poodle. Sadie is shy and fearful dog, and Deborah writes with a unique gentleness about the lessons she’s learning in “Sadie’s School for Hapless Humans.” Deborah doesn’t post every day, but what she writes is powerful.

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