Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Canine Contentment

How do we really know if our dogs are happy? A new book digs into the science of dog happiness

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

You probably know when your dog is happy. His face and body are relaxed, his expression is soft and there’s a good chance he’s wiggling his butt. But is there evidence to back up the idea that those behaviors are an expression of happiness?

More and more scientists are studying the emotions of dogs, including happiness, and coming to conclusions that back up what we think we know about canine joy. And writers are addressing what that research tells us about the emotional needs of dogs.

Inspired by her own dogs, Ghost and Bodger, Zazie Todd, author of the blog Companion Animal Psychology, took a deep dive into the science behind canine happiness. As a psychologist with a Ph.D. in social psychology, she wanted to study not only what makes dogs happy, but also how that knowledge applies to the “best friends” relationship between humans and dogs.

In her new book “Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy” (Greystone Books, out March 10), Todd explores how dogs look and act when they’re happy; how we know they’re happy; and ways to ensure happiness throughout life, from puppyhood to old age. Her goal is to share “what science tells us about dogs and what it means for their welfare.”

That’s important, because when our dogs are happy, we’re happy. Happy dogs are less likely to have behavior problems, and that means we are likely to have a better relationship with them, she says. “I wanted to look at the science and give people a better understanding of their dog, as well as tons of practical tips that they could use in everyday life in order to have a happier dog.”

Take sniffing. How many of us are frustrated on a daily basis by our dogs’ desire to thoroughly sniff a given spot on a walk before moving on -- and then doing it all over again a few feet later? I do nosework with my dogs because I know how much they love scenting out their surroundings, but that seemingly excessive sniffing on walks can still be annoying. Instead of being exasperated, try looking at it as taking your dog on a “sniffari,” Todd says.

Sniffing is how dogs get information about their environment. Letting them sniff is one of myriad ways we can enrich their lives. Other forms of enrichment include rotating toys so the dog always has something “new,” giving puzzle toys to stimulate the dog’s brain, teaching tricks, playing games such as tug or providing digging areas in the yard.

From body language to functional MRI (fMRI) studies, “Wag” deconstructs dog behavior and how it relates to our everyday interactions with them. Building on this foundation, Todd takes readers through getting a dog -- choosing the right one is a key underpinning of happiness in a human-canine relationship -- how dogs learn and what motivates them (often food, glorious food, but also toys or play), and how to make daily life -- playtime, grooming, veterinary visits, meals, bedtime -- pleasurable, not painful. Each chapter ends with tips on how to apply the science at home.

What will readers take away from the book? Todd hopes each will find something specific to their own dog.

“I have a checklist for a happy dog at the end of the book, and I think readers will be glad to find things that they’re already doing right,” she says. “And they will also be able to hopefully find some things that may be good to try to see if it will help make their dog happier.”

Q&A

Can pets catch or

spread new virus?

Q: I’m hearing a lot about how the new coronavirus may have “jumped” from bats or other animals to humans. Do I need to be concerned that my pets could catch it from other animals or that it could be passed between humans and pets? How can I safeguard my pets and myself?

A: Great questions! There are many different types of coronaviruses, some of which affect humans, and others that circulate among animals. The COVID-19 virus, as this particular one is known, is thought to have originated in bats, but so far it’s not clear whether there was an intermediary animal host.

Coronavirus infections can occur in cats and dogs, causing such illnesses as canine cough, sometimes called kennel cough. (It is more formally known as infectious tracheobronchitis complex, or ITB.) Other types of coronavirus can be serious or life-threatening to pets, but they are species-specific. In other words, they can be passed from cat to cat or dog to dog, but not, for instance, from dogs to cats or cats to humans.

In an article from the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University, associate professor Kate Creevy, DVM, says, “At this time, we do not believe humans can catch (any form of) coronavirus from their pet.”

Even though the COVID-19 virus originated from an animal, it spreads person-to-person. There’s no evidence that pets or other animals in the United States could be a source of infection, or that they could become infected through contact with a human who has the virus.

It’s always a good idea to avoid handling pets or other animals if you are sick, and to avoid petting or otherwise coming in contact with unknown or stray animals if you are traveling to another country. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Poodle is 10th to

win Westminster

-- A standard poodle named GCHP CH Stone Run Afternoon Tea, known as Siba, took best in show at the 144th annual Westminster Kennel Club show last month. She was the fifth standard poodle to strut out of the ring with the title. Standards are the largest of the three poodle varieties (the other two are toy -- the smallest -- and miniature). Miniature poodles have won the coveted title three times, and toy poodles twice. Poodles of any size are prized for their intelligence and versatility. If the stylized show coat puts you off, never fear: Your pet poodle will be perfectly happy and beautiful in a simple puppy cut trimmed the same length all over the body.

-- You can get pet health insurance for your dog or cat, but what about other pets? Until recently, people with birds, potbellied pigs, chameleons and other exotic animals were out of luck when it came to insurance coverage, but pet insurance provider Nationwide now has plans for those pets, too. It’s the only avian and exotic plan available in the United States, says Heidi Sirota, Nationwide’s chief pet officer, in a news release. Covered animals include chinchillas, goats, sugar gliders, iguanas, tortoises, and parrots and other birds. Not eligible are animals that are venomous, endangered or illegal to keep.

-- You probably have never seen this word in print, but a word for a small pet dog is “messan,” according to dictionary.com, which recently included it in a “word of the day” post. Messan, a noun, comes from the Scots Gaelic word “measan” and means “small dog.” It entered the English language in the late 15th century and generally refers to a dog favored by her people. It’s little-used in the 21st century -- but it is a valid Scrabble word! -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.