Is Your Dog Happy? There's 1 Way To Tell — And No, It's Not A Wagging Tail

Considering how much our furry friends offer us, how can we ensure they’re as content as they can be?
"Am I Doing It Wrong?" co-host Noah Michelson's dog Jumanji aka Jumi
Courtesy of Benji Jones
"Am I Doing It Wrong?" co-host Noah Michelson's dog Jumanji aka Jumi

Dogs are just the best, aren’t they?

Though it’s impossible to quantify the joy they constantly inject into our lives, studies have shown owning a pooch can reduce our loneliness, diminish our stress and anxiety, and even help us live longer.

Considering how much our furry friends offer us, how can we ensure they’re as content as they can be? And since they obviously can’t tell us how they’re feeling, how do we know if we’re succeeding? Do supposedly telltale signs like a wagging tail or giving us kisses really mean they’re happy?

That’s what we — Raj Punjabi and Noah Michelson, the co-hosts of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast — aimed to find out when we recently chatted with Dr. Emily Levine, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and the owner of Animal Behavior Clinic of New Jersey.

Levine told us that, no, tail wagging doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is happy.

“We have to look at more than the actual wag. You have to look at the rest of the dog’s body — you can’t just look at one body part to tell what they’re feeling because there are dogs who will, quote, ‘happily aggress.’”

She added that different wags might signal different things.

“If it’s fast and loose versus stiff and rhythmical, the direction it goes more toward — all of that can be varied emotions,” she said.

That’s because a wagging tail simply means the dog is aroused in some way. In order to determine if that arousal is positive or negative, Levine advised we look at the dog’s overall body language and the context in which we’re observing it.

“I usually just tell people if you want to guarantee this means the dog is happy, their whole butt is going back and forth, side to side. That — they’re happy.”

She also suggested we look for “the happy face.”

“They sort of have their mouth halfway open with their tongue hanging out... and they just have loose body language.”

What about dog kisses?

“Dogs can lick your face for different reasons,” Levine said. “Sometimes they’re just super excited to see you — it’s their greeting. I read and hear a lot of people say “kiss to dismiss’ — like [the dog] is just saying, ‘Please go away’ or ‘Don’t move further,’ but I don’t know that we know that. It’s a theory — I think more science has to be done on that, but licking can certainly be done as a positive thing, and I’m sure there are times when it can be not so positive. I think we have a lot to learn on that.”

Ultimately, she believes the best thing a dog owner can do is learn to read their pet’s body language.

“They’re constantly telling us how they feel. We just have to learn how to read it. We’re not born knowing that — no dog owner should feel guilty about not knowing how to read their dog. But there are lots of resources — body language videos and other resources — where you can learn how they are communicating.”

We also chatted about what you should know about petting your dog, the two different kinds of walks every dog owner should be taking and much more.

After you’ve had a listen to the full episode above or wherever you get your podcasts, subscribe to “Am I Doing It Wrong?” so you don’t miss a single episode, including our investigations of the ins and outs of tipping, how to score the best deals on airline tickets, how to apologize or vanquish your credit card debt, how to find love online or overcome anxiety, online shopping, tips for taking care of your teeth, pooping like a pro, secrets to booking and staying in a hotel, how to deal with an angry person, and more.

Need some help with something you’ve been doing wrong? Email us at AmIDoingItWrong@HuffPost.com, and we might investigate the topic in an upcoming episode.

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