Can Dogs Fake Being Happy?

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Introduction

Do you envy your dog?

Dogs have a knack for living in the moment. One of the many delightful things about dogs is how they seem to be happy even when mundane things happen. Take when you come home from work as an example.  The dog runs to greet you, tail wagging so hard it's a blur. If tail-wagging is a measure of being in a good mood, then dogs seem to have found the secret of eternal happiness. Or have they?

People are relatively poor at interpreting the way dogs communicate with us. When a dog's tail wags, their owner leaps to the conclusion that the dog is happy. However, this isn't always the case, because wagging the tail can be an appeasement sign or a 'peace offering', depending on how high or low the tail is held and the speed of the wag

Signs a Dog is Faking Happiness

Dogs communicate with us using body language. The problem is that we are often poor at reading subtle signs. Take the tail wag as an example. The average owner sees a wagging tail and translates this as the dog being happy. But this isn't necessarily true and it can be dangerous to interpret the tail wag in this way. 

For example, a dog that holds their tail low and wags stiffly in a slow rhythm may be signaling aggression and an intention to bite if pressed. On the other hand, a tail clamped between the back legs with the tip whipping to-and-fro is often a sign of submission, signaling the dog isn't a threat. 

So how do you know if the dog is happy or 'faking it'?

The answer is to interpret their behavior in light of the bigger picture. Don't just focus in on the tail, but look at the position of the ears, if the head is held high or low, the body shape, the angle of the tail and the speed of wag. 

For example, your dog may be faking happiness if, in addition to wagging, they slink toward you across the floor, head held low, with a low tail carriage that wags slowly. They are offering the wagging tail as a sign of appeasement, rather than because they are happy...which is how we tend to read things. In this scenario the dog may well have chewed your favorite shoes and be trying to avoid a telling off.

Body Language

It's important to put all the dog's body language into context before assuming the dog is happy. Signs that the dog is actually faking it include:
  • Shaking
  • Cowering
  • Panting
  • Wag tail

Other Signs

In addition,  you might see:
  • Drawing back the lips
  • Low head carriage
  • Licking lips
  • Slinking along the floor
  • Rolling over

The History of Dogs Faking Happiness

The history of dogs faking happiness is the inverse of our understanding of canine body language. For centuries, dogs have been much misunderstood. Proof of this is the overwhelming popularity of dominance-based obedience training, which aims to subdue the dog and teach them who's boss. 

Dominance theory was deeply flawed because it was based on wrong interpretations of wolf pack social activity. The observations that wolves vi to the alpha wolf and use aggression to assert this, were based on wolves kept in captivity. Those wolves were unrelated and kept in confined conditions, immediately placing them under huge stress. These wolves were unfamiliar to each other and perceived a need to fight for the resources available... from which dominance theory was born. 

In fact, feral wolves have a family structure to their society, with adult wolves acting as 'parents' to raise the next generation and co-operation between successive generations of wolf cubs. 

In parallel to this quantum change of thinking about dog psychology, behavioral scientists paid more attention to dog body language and what subtle gestures mean. A good example of this is the importance of the tail in canine communication. Dogs react differently to dog models with their tails held in different positions. However, the human interpretation tends to be a simplified one, of a waggy tail is a happy tail. In dog terms, that wag may not be happiness at all and may be something akin to fear, anxiety, or aggression, depending on the circumstances. 

The Science of Dogs Faking Happiness

Happiness is a wagging tail...only this isn't always the case. The tail is a means of communication and one that is not well understood at that. It's only in recent years that behavioral scientists are beginning to appreciate just how important the angle and speed of wag are, in reading the dog's mood. 

To make matters worse, some dogs will show other appeasement signs, such as drawing back the lips in a grin. However, far from being a sign the dog is happy ( interpreting things through the lens of human body language) drawn back lips can be a form of doggy apology or, if the canine teeth are fully barred, a sign of aggression ahead of a bite. 

In short, a wagging, grinning dog may be happy or they may be 'faking it' because we humans put a spin on their body language that isn't appropriate. 

Training a Dog to Fake Happiness

This is an easy trick to teach. All you need is a grasp of reward-based training methods, a treat the dog loves, and a good sense of timing. The idea is a simple one: Show the dog a treat or praise them so that their tail wags. Mark the wag with an enthusiastic "Yes" or the click of a clicker, and then reward them with the treat. The aim is to reward the dog for wagging their tail and put it on cue so that they wag on command. 

Breaking things down a little, find a treat your dog loves and will beg for. Focus solely on their tail, so don't get distracted if the dog sits, spins around, or jumps up. You want to only praise a wagging tail. As soon as you see the tail spring into action, say "Yes" excitedly, and give the treat. 

Keep repeating this. Pretty quickly the dog learns that wagging their tail is the magic trick that earns them the goodies. You'll know when this happens because the dog starts frantically wagging as soon as they see the treat. Once this happens, use a cue word such as "Wag" or "Happy", praise them and give the treat. 

Keep practicing. Before long, the dog will offer frantic wags in anticipation of getting a scrumptious treat. 

How to React to a Dog Faking Happiness:

  • If you are unsure what emotion a dog is exhibiting, be cautious.
  • If the dog is submissive, reassure them.
  • If the dog is aggressive, do not challenge them.