You are the Secret to Your Pet's Happiness

If you want a happy pet, you should pay attention to how you interact with them.

A bearded man cuddles and kisses a relaxed cat
Photo: Veera/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD

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I think every dog and cat guardian wants to have a happy dog or cat. But have you ever stopped to think about how the things you do affect your pet’s happiness?

Since we spend so much time with our pets and are responsible for providing everything they need, it makes sense that our interactions with them can have a big impact.

The important role of human-animal interactions is considered in a research paper that was published last year. The paper updates the Five Domains model of animal welfare. This framework tells us that as well as minimizing negative and harmful experiences, we need to make sure animals have positive experiences too.  

The scientists single out some examples of human-animal interactions that are likely to cause positive or negative emotions in animals. I’m going to focus here on what the paper says about interactions between pets and people.

It's worth considering how your own everyday interactions with your dog or cat fall into these categories. Hopefully it's all good, but it's easy to accidentally do something that stresses your pet.

Interactions with you that your pet won’t like

There are several examples of interactions that people have with pets that are likely to cause negative emotions in the pet. Obviously, it’s better for your pet to avoid these kinds of interactions when possible. 

One category of interactions that is likely to cause negative emotions is interactions with “persons whose current actions are directly unpleasant, threatening, and/or noxious”. People who use aversive training methods (which include leash corrections, alpha rolls, shock and prong collars) are listed in this group. Also included in this section are those who neglect, mistreat, or abuse animals. 

Animals can remember things, so people who have previously done things that are aversive are also likely to cause negative emotions in the pet. This would include people who have previously used aversive training methods, and this category also includes unskilled trainers, unskilled animal handlers, and people who are deliberately cruel to animals.

Of course, people can accidentally cause harm too. Examples of this kind of interaction include things the owner thinks are affectionate but which the pet finds stressful or threatening. Perhaps one example is a hug for a dog who doesn’t like it (many dogs don’t like to be hugged). While the person thinks this will be a pleasant event for both, the dog is actually unhappy or stressed about it. This is a reminder to always pay attention to your pet and try to be affectionate on their terms (see how to pet cats and dogs and how can I tell if my dog is afraid).  

Other examples of when people might cause harm without meaning to include being away for a long time, not seeking veterinary treatment when needed, or delaying a decision about euthanasia when an animal is already suffering.

Some of these interactions, especially those in the training category, could be accomplished in other ways. For example if you use positive reinforcement in training instead of punishment, that might turn it into a good experience for your pet instead. Which brings us to the other category of interactions discussed in the paper.

Interactions with you that your pet will enjoy

Simply being with you may be a positive experience for your pet. If your pet enjoys your company and feels safe with you, just being together can make them happy. Perhaps this applies to you too, when you are with your pet! It’s a reminder that you don’t necessarily have to be doing something all the time with your pet in order to enjoy each other’s company.

But of course, doing things together that are fun is a positive experience for your pet. So whether it’s playing a game, getting some exercise, or doing some training, this too can lead to positive emotions.

Giving your pet pleasant things, from foods they like to positive reinforcement in a training session, is another way to provide positive experiences.

Sometimes it helps to provide a variety of activities, foods, or training reinforcements. For example, dogs typically like variety in the foods used as a reward in training, and knowing the best dog training treats can help a lot.  

 And if you have a good relationship with your pet, your presence can help them to cope with something that would otherwise make them stressed or fearful. 

How to interact with your pet

So it’s worth thinking about how you interact with your pet. Here are a few tips:

  • If you’ve been using punishment on your pet, stop.
  • Use positive reinforcement to train your pet (see seven reasons to use reward-based dog training methods).  
  • Make time for fun e.g. play tug with your dog or play with a wand toy with your cat.
  • Spend time with your pet doing things you both enjoy, whether it’s taking your dog (or cat) for a walk or sitting companionably on the sofa.
  • Pay attention when petting them so that you know they appreciate it, and stop before it's too much
  • Have a routine for your pet, but include some variety e.g. in the form of enrichment activities.

I have only considered a small part of the paper here, but it is open access so you can read it online. The scientists also made a diagram explaining the model for Horses and People magazine.  

If you’d like to know more about how to have a happier pet, check out my books Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy.

And if you have a reactive or fearful dog, you'll love my new book, Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog which is available for pre-order now. Karen Fine DVM, author of the NYT-bestseller The Other Family Doctor, says “Bark! should be required reading for every veterinarian and anyone who loves an anxious, fearful, or reactive dog.”


Mellor, D. J., Beausoleil, N. J., Littlewood, K. E., McLean, A. N., McGreevy, P. D., Jones, B., & Wilkins, C. (2020). The 2020 five domains model: including human–animal interactions in assessments of animal welfare. Animals, 10(10), 1870. 

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