Stop Asking If Your Dog Loves You – Good for the Dog; Good for You

Honey the Golden Retriever posing with an anti dog poop sign.

Do I refuse to poop here because I just don’t need to? Or am I being empathetic?

As Honey sleeps at my feet, I ask myself far too many questions:

  • is she happy living here?
  • does she know how much I love her?
  • does she love me back?
  • what would make her happier?
  • am I giving her a good life?

Luckily she just keeps on sleeping. But I’m making myself nuts.

The Difference Between Average and Good

Empathy separates the average dog person from the special dog person.

The average dog person loves her dog. She picks up a bag of kibble at the supermarket because she likes the ads and doesn’t really know what’s in it. She walks her dog sometimes, takes him to the vet when he’s feeling sick or needs shots, and buys him a soft bed to sleep on. She asks for recommendations for good boarding kennels before going on vacation.

Her training might be limited to making the dog walk through the door after her so he doesn’t become too dominant.

Her dog has a good life. And if we could empty shelters by homing every dog with an average dog person, most people (and dogs) would be very happy.

But the average dog person only occasionally, if at all, asks herself, “How does my dog feel about this?”

That kind of empathy belongs to the dog people who have fallen under the sway of  Suzanne Clothier, Patricia McConnell, Ian Dunbar, and Pat Miller.

The special dog person also cares for her dog every day. But she makes many of her choices based on  how she thinks her dog sees the world.

She tries to figure out if her dog would enjoy agility, having a canine playmate, or taking a long car trip. She wants to understand what her dog is thinking. She knows more about canine nutrition than human. And she’s always learning more about current research into how dogs experience the world.

A traumatized or challenging dog is very lucky to end up with an empathetic dog person. It may be the first time in his life someone has thought about how he feels and worked to heal his issues.

If only his person didn’t have to guard against too much empathy.

Empathy’s Crazy Cousin

Is it true that you can have too much of a good thing? Even empathy?

Perhaps. If it means you spend more time thinking about whether your dog is happy than in actually making him happy.

In my own life, my mind works faster than my emotions or my body. (If only it worked faster than my mouth, but that’s another post.)

It can take me as long as a week to recognize an emotion I’m feeling. And my body is always subject to inertia.

But once my mind gets going, it doesn’t take long for it to go spiraling down the rabbit hole. If my mind is centered on deciding if Honey is happy, you’d need a dozen terriers to drag it back to the surface.

What if I stopped asking myself about how Honey feels all the time and learned to live beside her with a still mind—trusting that my love for her will help me see what makes her happy and giving it freely? Y’know, by acting more like a dog.

Honey the Golden Retriever rolls in the snow at Ithaca falls.

Am I just cooling off and having fun? Or am I being empathetic because I know how cute you find me when I do this?

Dog Empathy

We love dogs for their responsiveness to us.

Although they don’t have minds that allow them to analyze how we’re feeling, they are remarkable at interpreting our body language and replying to us in their own ways.

Dogs stand by us when we’re sick. They stretch themselves to do scary things we think they’d never be capable of. And they shape their own behaviors to fit into our lives.

I think dogs are empathetic on a very basic level.

And I could learn a lot by being more like a dog—responding more and thinking less.

Trust the Love

I need to trust that my love for Honey shows through. And stop questioning myself (and her) all the time.

Maybe if I spent less time thinking, I could be more like Honey. Without the distractions of thinking all the time, I’d have more room to just respond to what Honey needs, the way she does for me.

It’s time to stop asking if Honey loves me. And just love her the best I can.

And that would be as good for Honey as it is for me.

I want to thank one of the most empathetic dog people I know, Kristine Tonks, for inspiring this post when she asked herself what her dog Shiva felt about physical affection. Kristine always gets me thinking, and not in a bad way. :)

How do you know when your dog is happy? 


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  1. These two have a great life, and I know they are happy. Torrey might want to walk, run and chase things all day every day, but she’s pretty content anyway.

  2. OMG, can I ever relate!! While I try hard to stay “in the moment”, my ego takes over on occasion — kinda like the cartoons where there’s a devil and an angel on the one shoulder and they try endlessly to push each other off to get to the person’s ear. But as for how to tell when the dogs are happy? With Callie & Shadow it’s easy — they just curl up on the floor next to my chair, or in a favorite spot in the house whether I’m close by or not. They are content and comfortable in the knowledge that hubby and I love them. They’ve been with us long enough to know. Ducky is growing up — transitioning from young puppy to adolescent — and realizing she REALLY is part of the family. She has her moments of insecurity, but she seems to understand we do love her. And she’s happiest when she’s playing/expending that turbo-charged energy.

    • Now that Ducky is settling into the house more, I bet you’ll also start reliving your early days with Callie and Shadow. That’s the gift a new dog can bring.

      Of course, it helps to give everyone time together while Ducky is working off some energy at day camp. :)

  3. Honey seems pretty happy to me!

    But, yeah, I know this feeling. A lot. With a fearful dog, you have to add another dimension, too, of balancing the short-term happiness with progress. Then progress itself becomes a nebulous thing–am I doing this for me or for the dog? Is long-term good worth this level of short-term misery? Etc.

    • You’re right about the added complications of having a fearful dog.

      But having Silas come to you at such a young age, you’re dealing with a particularly challenging situation. I hope you take it as encouragement that he’s come so far given his rough start in life.

  4. When I see my dogs smile, I feel good about the life I have given them! Am I crazy for thinking my dogs smile???

    • Some people swear that an open mouth showing teeth is a dog smile. Honey doesn’t do that much so I hope her relaxed ears and floofy tail are her version of a smile or I’d really start to worry. :)

  5. Easy peasy – the butt wiggle & tail wag. So long as their rear ends keep moving in those positive manners, I know I’m doing something right!

    • I once read about a study that found that dogs wag more to the right when they like someone. You might have fun checking out the direction of that wag too. :)

  6. I think Honey know she’s loved and is pretty happy about that:-)

  7. I’m guessing that you are thinking all those thoughts while at the same time acting on them, so no worries! I love trying to understand my dogs and try to give them what they need, as best I can. I just wish I would stop feeling so guilty every time I leave them alone for a few hours! Are they really as unhappy about that as I imagine?!

    • I suspect they are as unhappy as they look but that it only lasts long enough for you to get to the end of your drive way. Then, when you come back, their joy more than makes up for any unhappiness at seeing you leave.

      You might enjoy my book review at A Traveler’s Library today about a man who so hated leaving his dog behind he took her to Europe so they could go more places together in pet-friendly cities: Can you relate? I can.

      BTW, you might want to stop back. Julie Blackwelder replied to your comment but didn’t use the reply feature so you wouldn’t see it.

  8. Happy and contented we think Honey is. Oh yes and we think that is indeed a very cute picture. Have a marvelous Monday.
    Best wishes Molly

  9. the Felix makes me question myself ALL THE TIME. When he first came home, he was 100%, no question MY dog. He was terrified of Avery (and all men.) Over time we did a lot of work with him to build up his trust in the Daddy and feel more confident. We did too good a job, IMHO. Felix is not whole-heartedly the Daddy’s dog leaving me constantly wondering and searching for things to earn him back. We could both benefit from me letting go.

  10. Julie Blackwelder says:

    Peggy Frezon, I doubt they are as unhappy about you leaving as you imagine. Dogs live very much in the moment. Generally, unless they have extreme separation anxiety they look at the closed door for a moment and then go find something to do, likely take a nap, or go sleep on the forbidden spot because you are not there to correct them, or find a place that smells like you and contentedly chew on a toy. There are numerous videos of what dogs do when the owners are gone, watch a few and put your mind at ease. (My favorite is the GSDs that are admonished as the owners go out the door, and immediately do exactly the forbidden thing as soon as the door closes.)

    • Good advice, Julie. I wonder if some people take sick comfort from thinking their dog is pining for them all day instead of just going back to their important jobs: eating, sleeping, and barking at squirrels out the window.

    • Thank you for your reply! It would be fun to put a video camera in here and see what they’re up to when we’re gone! One of my dogs has a bit more separation anxiety than the other. Even when someone else is home, when I’m gone she usually lies by the door and waits.
      I’ll go look up the GSD video!

  11. First, Gizmo & I say Thank You for his Frosty Paws package…it arrived today safe & sound.

    Your post reminded me of two that I’ve read recently…One was from Kristin, but not the one you mentioned…I thought of her post on SuperDog Syndrome I also thought of the post titled Overcautious that I read on another favorite blog, My Imperfect Dog Both of these dealt with the question “Do I worry too much” in a thought-provoking way.

    I admit this is not a question I ask myself. I know Gizmo enjoys his life and though he’d prefer more outings & more long hikes, but generally he’s fine. He has a happy outlook on life and to any observer is content as long as he’s included in daily activities, whether they are exciting adventures or just neighborhood walks

    • Yes, those are both two other great posts from two of my favorite bloggers.

      I also wonder if the worrying is different with a dog dealing with issues. I know I worried much more with the neurotic Agatha and Christie than I do with Honey. Managing a frightened or reactive dog puts someone on high alert. And I think the worry continues long after some of the problems are dealt with.

      It’s a subject I’ve been rolling around in my brain for a while.

      Gizmo has a good life. Of course he’s happy. :)

      Thanks for letting me know the package arrived safely. I hope Gizmo enjoys the treat. Quick note–the package tells you to dump the treats into a bowl. I find dogs eat them so fast they can get sick. I prefer to let Honey lick them out herself on a clean floor. It takes longer and she enjoys chasing the container around.

  12. What a lovely, thought-provoking post. (And thanks for the link love!)

    I often wonder if my guys are happy or if I’m just anthropomorphizing happiness. There are things that I think make them happy – ice cream, rolling in the grass on a sunny day, getting scratched in that exact spot – because their faces show what I interpret to be pure joy. But who knows? The best we can do is try to find the things that seem to make them happy and do that for them! Because, of course, they deserve it!

    • I think your boys show how happy they are by trying to experience things that bring them the most joy–like spending time with you. :)

  13. I know my dogs are happy the same way they know I am happy, honestly. It’s all in the body language. The relaxed, contented gaze or the excited, enthusiastic response to the idea of going some place are both signs for me. None of our dogs shows their happiness in the same way, but I’ve learned to read them and what they’re saying. Reading dogs and people is one of my favorite things to study!

    • You have a great lab for reading different body language in the house of greyhounds and shepherds.

      I’m struggling a big with understanding my foster beagle because her body language is so different from Honey’s loose, floppy style.

      I can imagine that Bunny’s expressions are much different from Morgans, just like yours are from your husbands.

  14. Interesting post that comes at a great time for me. Last week my husband and I had a discussion about me being too overprotective of the dogs. He told me that I had to let the dogs be dogs. It really got me thinking.

    • And yet it’s a balancing act, isn’t it? Letting dogs be dogs also means letting them roam freely because that’s what many of them like to do. And, obviously, we’re not going to expose them to that kind of danger.

      Did you ever read Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door? It raised all kinds of questions for me about what it means to let a dog be a dog.

  15. I can totally relate to this post. For the past 3 months, while I prepare to move all I can think is…”Is Maggie going to be upset that we’re moving away from her friends” It’s crazy but it actually keeps me up at night. I think she’ll get mad at me for moving!

    • Maggie will probably stress a little with the move, just like you will. It’s natural.

      But the good news is that she’s going with you. And, in the end, you’re “home” to her. :)

      So get some sleep. You’ll need it.

  16. Great post. And I think you summed it up beautifully with: “It’s time to stop asking if Honey loves me. And just love her the best I can.” In my house, happy (often joyous) dogs break down like this: Cody – the backyard squirrel chase; Murphy – riding with me and visiting with people, especially kids; Nani – sunning herself in the backyard while chewing on a stick; Tootsie – tug of war; Shay – observing her world from her “dog chair” (at almost 12, comfort is a big deal for her). Just typing this made me smile. Thanks!

    • Isn’t it amazing how if someone asks what makes your dogs happy you just know?

      I don’t think I could answer the question nearly as well for my husband. :)

  17. I think you’re asking the wrong thing. From my perspective, dogs are mostly happy all the time. It’s just what we are! We find joy wherever we are. You humans need to accept that. Your last bit got it right. Just chill out and trust. That’s what we dogs do!

    • You are so right that this is one of those areas where dogs are so much smarter than humans. That’s why it’s so much easier to read to a dog than it is to read to a person. :)

  18. You are very right. I have a large tendency to over-analyze every ear flicker (which is pretty much what my entire blog showcases :-P) and worry constantly about whether my dog is getting all of her needs met to the point that if she were a human I am sure I would drive her insane with all my pestering. I’ve done this in other relationships as well, but that’s another story…

    Sometimes it’s okay to take things at face value. Dogs don’t worry about whether or not we really like them in our hearts, it’s our actions that do the talking. That should be enough for us as well.

    • Hmmm, you’ve done it again, Kristine. You’ve started me working on a post about how we work out our needs and feelings about other people in our care for our dogs.

      The older I get, the more I appreciate the word “enough.” Or as Mary Poppins said, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

      So yes, I think it’s enough to care for our dogs without worrying all the time about their feelings. But then again, I’m the person who is shocked to find only 25% of the population suffers from depression. You mean there are people who don’t dread life? :)

  19. I don’t over analyse what dogs do anymore. I used to, in my dog crazy youth. These days, I’m more keen to just live beside them and let them be dogs. They’re not perfect, unconditionally loving dalai lamas, they’re just dogs. There are even morose, grouchy ones. I know because I live with one :)

    I also find we often interpret a dog’s actions in human terms. Loyalty, happiness, that sort of thing. Isn’t it possible they do things not because they want to please us or make us proud, but because that’s just what they do as dogs? What do you think? Am I being old and crabby again, or do I have a point?

    I might have gone off topic. This is what happens when you stop blogging for a week! Apologies X

    • If you’re old and crabby then I am too. After all, I wrote that my dog is a self-serving bitch:

      But like most things I write about, this really doesn’t have near as much to do with dogs as it does with humans. The fact that I ask the question in my insecurity says loads about me and nearly nothing about Honey.

      If a dog is a mirror for our quirks and insecurities, being able to live happily by Georgia’s side allowing her to be who she is without asking freaky questions is a sign of your own enlightenment. I hope to get there soon myself. :)

  20. These types of questions about our dogs are always going through our minds! I think it’s partially due to the fact that we don’t have children (and we are currently thinking about children) and maybe we are questioning our parenting skills. Or maybe it’s just because we both love our dogs so much. :)

    • Humans ask questions. Maybe that’s what it means to be human.

      If you and your husband join the parents brigade, I’ll be fascinated to see if you transfer any skills from caring for Luna and Penny to raising a human peanut. :)

  21. Less time thinking… I need to figure out how to do that too!