What Makes Your Dog So Happy To See You?

Few things can lift your mood more than coming home to a happy dog. If you’ve been gone for an hour or all day, your welcome greeting will likely be over the top exuberance. Have you ever wondered why happy dogs behave as though it is a miraculous event that owners came home?

Black and white dog smiling.
Photo by Kat Jayne

Descended from the Pack

Domesticated dogs descend from wolves. Wolves are social animals that coexist in packs. When the members of the pack are separated the returning members are greeted the rest of the pack with sniffing and face licking. When pet owners return home, their happy dogs eagerly and thoroughly lick faces, and the sniffers shift into overdrive. They want to know where you’ve been, what you’ve had to eat and how you’re feeling.

The Rewards of the Return

As social creatures, dogs dislike the unnatural feeling of being left home alone. At worst, some dogs become so uneasy when faced with isolation that they suffer from separation anxiety. At best, your dog likely experiences feelings of boredom while you are away.

Your dog knows that when you are home they’ll receive affection and have playtime. They know you’ll take them for a walk or give them a treat. When you are away, there is little to stimulate your dog’s joie de vivre. They quickly learn to associate your scent, the sound of your voice and other markers of your presence as the reward for enduring those periods of separation. By returning, so does the promise of some fun and social bonding that was missed in your absence. This reward response manifests as your dog’s euphoric pouncing, licking, tail wagging and vocalizing when you walk through the door. Find out more about dogs and human relationships here!

Momentary Emotions

Dogs can be trained to perform desired behaviors for the rest of their lives, and they can remember certain events that they experienced or specific people that they have previously met. When it comes to emotions, however, even confident and loving dogs live in the moment. This is why your dog greets you so emphatically each and every time you return home. It does not matter that you have never failed to return home. It is what is happening right now that is important to your dog. While you are gone, your dog is not so happy. As soon as you come home, your dog is thrilled. If you leave again the next day, the cycle replays. Your dog’s emotions reflect only the present moment.

Respond Appropriately

When your dog is fawning over you as though your return is the most wonderful thing it has ever experienced, it is tempting to return the enthusiastic affection. This is especially true if you have had a trying day and are craving some love and appreciation. If you immediately shower your dog with equal excitement or treats, you are reinforcing the behavior. This could contribute to the development of separation anxiety for your dog. Instead, allow your dog to greet you, but wait until your dog has calmed down before rewarding with praises and treats.