7 Things I Learned About Myself, from Getting a Dog.

As I may have mentioned, my family and I just got a new puppy — a cockapoo named Barnaby. He’s fourteen weeks old, and super sweet and delightful.

However, he is a dog, and even more so, he’s a puppy. I knew that his arrival in our household would mean big changes — and would also teach me a lot about myself.

So far, here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Getting up at 5:30 a.m. is very different from getting up at 6:00 a.m.

It’s just thirty minutes…but it feels like a much bigger gap. For years,  my day has started at 6:00, and I’m hoping that when Barnaby is a little older, I can move my wake-up time back to its usual spot. For now, he’s very eager to go out by 5:30.

2. New York City is an overwhelming place.

I’ve been here for so long that I take it for granted, but being with Barnaby has shown me how noisy and bustling it is. In some ways, that’s good; in some ways, that’s bad. I realize that sometimes I should sometimes make allowances for the overwhelming nature of the environment for myself, too.

3. It doesn’t do any good, and it may do harm, to vent my temper.

When I give a sharp “no” and move away from Barnaby in a deliberate way, to teach him not to nip, that’s good. When I speak sharply from impatience, because he’s had an accident or whatever, that will  confuse and upset him.  Calm, deliberate speech! Gosh, over the years, I’ve done a million things to curb my sharp tongue. I’ll be working on it my whole life, I’m sure.

4. It really helps to have an exact place for everything.

I really dislike having to look around for misplaced objects, and so everything related to Barnaby has its place — and I must say, everyone has been very good about putting things away in the right place. Looking for the certain kind of treat? The clean-up bags? The squeaky green toy? His record of vaccinations?  They all have their place.

5. Pets makes a home feel more alive.

When I was working on Happier at Home, I thought a lot about the experience of home, and what I could do to make my home more…homey. Well, even our betta fish add a serene presence, but having a dog snoozing on the floor at my feet as I type on my computer makes a very cozy and happy feeling.

6. Relationships are a key, perhaps the key to happiness.

Barnaby is a whole new relationship — intense, and different from human relationships.

7. For happiness, it’s just as important to give support as it is to get support.

Barnaby needs a lot of attention, a lot of time, and a fair amount of stuff. Having a dog is a big source of happiness, and giving to a dog is just as significant.

The funny thing? I knew all this before Barnaby arrived! To live a happier, healthier, more productive life, I’ve learned, is less about learning new things and more about putting the things we already know into action.

How about you? What are some things you’ve learned from your pets?

  • Penelope Schmitt

    My dog Nora (long departed now) taught me two things besides wonderful companionship and love: I have a hard enough time managing MYSELF without being ‘alpha’ to an animal, and I seriously lack patience. I love my kids’ dogs and enjoy my friends dogs temporarily.

  • maryvee

    We need to follow their example of unconditional love.

  • debbiedarline

    I have learned that pets are wonderful companions and much more in tune with the emotions of their humans than you would think. They also quickly adapt to the routines of their humans and sometimes mimic them. My five cats have access to dry food and water all of the time yet they still eat and drink when I do!

  • Molly

    Congratulations!! How exciting for you and your family. Our dog passed away over the summer, and we were very sad. I have gotten used to having a quieter house and not feeling like I have to get home to the dog, but I do look forward to when we have a dog again. They are the best!! Enjoy.

  • Sue LeBreton

    My dogs have all encouraged me to be more in the moment-to pause and sees hat they find interesting- and to find joy in the smallest moments.

  • Cyndi

    Dogs just want to be with you and have as much of your attention as they can get. Give give give give give all you can but set limits and have clear signals as to what those limits are. One day you will wish you had one more day, one more snuggle, one more toss of the toy.

    Puppies are really intense for the first few months. They will get into a bit of a routine at 3 months but will still be…..crazy. At 6 months the are pretty settled but still clearly puppies. At 2 they calm down quite a bit. The nippiness goes away!

  • You are so right. I found a kitten at my door one morning and took him in. Six weeks later another showed up and they have become best friends. They never leave each others side but they have brought so much joy to my life. One is friendly and love to wrap himself up in me and the other is shy and wants to stay away. Trying to win him over has been trying but every little progress makes me feel good.
    Cats are less demanding than dogs are and more independent.

    • Andrea

      Good luck in your cat “taming” endeavor! I started out with two cats with similar temperaments about 14 years ago and slowly over time, the more independent of the two has become a very loving, snuggly cat. So nice. 🙂

  • Your1Friend

    What a nice article! Thank you!

  • Stephanie

    Dear Gretchen, I really enjoyed reading your newsletter (I always do!). This time there were so many feelings involved in your text, that I also already felt when our little sunshine Elvis (a Coton de Tulear) moved in. Yes, one day Barnaby will sleep longer (I promise!), sometimes it’s me who has to wake up Elvis for a walk.
    I’m allowed to take Elvis with me to my job, and he is so calming and friendly that even when customers are angry on the phone (we have an internet business with a lot of work at the phone) he’s the one who makes us smile again. We never enjoyed sunshine so much since we have Elvis. My husband and I take many walks together (we were couch potatoes before we got him five and a half year ago) and for us this is the time to speak to each other. That’s such a better quality of talking than at home between things we still have to do or things we want to do.

    Elvis makes me smile so much, and since I have him I feel so much better prepared for children 😉 I know, you can’t compare dogs and kids, but after having a dog I know what it’s lke to assume responsibility.

    I’m sorry for my bad English – I’m German, but I loved reading all your books!

  • Peggy McMillan

    I have seen the stars and watched the seasons change much more, as we have to be outside early in the morning!

    • DonnaS

      I so agree with this. I really appreciate the beauty of nature so much more since we got our dog a year ago.

  • MaggieRose59

    I think it would be hard for me to say just what I have learned from having pets as I have never been without at least a dog and a cat my entire life and only very briefly without horses. My childhood chores were taking care of the animals though and I was taught very young that you don’t eat or sleep until you see that your animals are fed and comfortable.
    Dog advice from the Groomer: Be sure you get Barnaby to a groomer VERY soon! He has a long life of being groomed ahead of him and it pays to start young. They get used to the process very quickly at 12 weeks, at 6 months…not so much! I have had customers wait until almost 1 year old because the dog didn’t “look” like it needed a haircut. You don’t even have to get a real haircut if you like the way he looks. That’s not really the point. It’s getting them used to the bath, the dryers and the buzz of the clippers while they are still babies.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      NO KIDDING! My dog had to be anesthetized to be groomed, because she went wild at the groomers, and had to be taken to the vet and knocked out to be still. DONT DELAY

      • ceduke

        Indeed, my folks have a cockapoo who never got used to grooming (they adopted him as an older adult), and they have to pay what I call an “a*****e fee” at the groomer’s because he is so difficult. Their groomer is a kind, patient saint of a woman who takes her time with him and does a wonderful job, and she more than earns her extra fee plus tip. 🙂

  • Mimi Gregor

    I have parrots, and they have taught me to make healthy choices with my food. Since part of their diet is “people food”, I make sure that what we eat is healthful because they will get some of it, too. It’s a win-win situation. Also, they like to have an apple every night before bedtime. Since they can only eat a small slice apiece, and apples oxidize once they are cut, I share the rest of the apple with them. I have noticed since I’ve been doing this, that my teeth no longer get plaque on them. That makes it so much easier at the dentist’s!

  • Jen Johnson

    One lesson I’ve learned is not to judge a book by its cover. We have two dogs, both the same breed, but extremely opposite in personality. One is high energy and loves to play ball, the other is a couch potato and loves to be pet. Despite the breed profile reading the same from every source, all dogs are individuals. I think the same applies to people too.

  • hoink_hoink

    I read your posts religiously and this one came at a very hard time. I am saying goodbye to my best friend Peanut, a beagle border collie mix, this Thursday afternoon. I got her at just 6 weeks old when I was 17 and she has been through every life experience with me the last 16 years. A dog is much more then just a companion, they become a piece of your soul. My Peanut has seen me through bad breakups, college, adulthood, sobriety, and finding my true love and getting married. So hold your puppies tight, spoil them, and cry to them. Give them too much love and talk to them just like any person even if it does make you look crazy. Because they are an intense amazing relationship.

    • Lundyn Baxandall

      I agree!! I never understood how people were so attached to their dogs until we got one… now I get it! He’s my buddy, now I can’t imagine life without him! We always have chats and cuddles and I take him everywhere. I can’t imagine saying goodbye to him, I’m so sorry for your loss!

    • Melissa Schauble

      I am so sorry. We lost my golden retriever last month. I cry every day. It does get better with time. But you will never forget them. :(. Many hugs!

      • gretchenrubin

        Very, very sorry to hear about your loss.

  • Judy

    Wonderful being able to watch as your and your newly extended family grow together. It’s my belief that item #5 is, and will continue to be, the most important reason on your list for why you made the right decision. Happiness always!

  • HL

    This is a sweet post. A suggestion about getting back to a 6am wakeup time, which comes from our morning experience with babies: Can you deliberately wait 5 minutes at a time, or 10 minutes, so that he gets trained to wake up later, and keep moving back the time week by week until it reaches 6am?

    • gretchenrubin

      I just decided to do this, this morning!

  • Julie Rogier

    Yes your post rings true. We can learn much from our four-legged companions! A few years back, after we adopted our shelter pub “Ethel” I reflected on the lessons she provided to those of us that work in teams… see it at: http://rogiercommunications.com/2011/10/5-tips-for-work-teams-lessons-from-ethel-the-dog/

  • Fabienne Morris

    I got my two little cats – Pepper and Olive – a year ago. More than anything they’ve taught me about unconditional love. It’s somewhat of a cliché to say that animals don’t judge, whereas humans generally do/can’t help it, but I find it so gratifying that the cats really couldn’t care less if I’m dolled up for a night out or sitting on the sofa in pyjamas with unwashed hair. Their gaze is always the same. They just see ME. On a more practical level, they’ve helped establish more routine in my day-to-day life: they need feeding, brushing etc. at the same time every day (whether I like it or not!) and this enforced structure is actually quite helpful. They’re also models of mindfulness… they can stare out of the window, entranced by passers by, for hours, and are much more in tune with all their senses. Finally, when they were still kittens and waking us up at ungodly hours with sad meowing and scratching at the door, I had a very useful glimpse into what my partner might be like as a father! 😉

  • Wendy

    I saw an email about dogs and love one time and it said that we people need to remember that we (their family) are their only friends and that they need and crave our attention. That is part of why they are so happy to see us when we come back to them. It gave me a new perspective if I was in a hurry to just spend the extra moment. You get the love back in spades.

    Also my husband and I have a joke about walks. I am more likely to take the longer walk and let our dog do what he wants. My line for this is it isn’t your walk it’s his.

    Love him to death-have a great day!

  • RFBriggs

    Having our dog Buddy has made all of us laugh more. Simple as that. He is funny every single day.

    Also, having someone around to give 100% unconditional love is like nothing else in the world. Buddy has no baggage! when one of us comes through the door from the garage, we get every kind of warm greeting imaginable, and there is nothing like it.

  • Tracey B

    One more book suggestion from Tim Ferriss: “Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training.” How to train Barnaby with a clicker. Author Karen Pryor applies her dolphin-training techniques to dogs.

  • Barbie

    Brandy and Sasha, the frisky poodles, walk with me every morning rain or shine, sun or snow or ice or whatever. We walk in our neighborhood which is as far different from NYC as a neighborhood full of houses could be. They see the same things day after day and every day they treat the walk as a brand new experience. Every person they see is brand new and exciting. Getting leashed up is as a exciting as boarding an airplane to an exotic location. They have taught me consistency and appreciation of every moment of my life. My word for 2015 is “now” and they remind me of how special it is right now.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    The 5:00 to 5:30 a.m. ‘hello, it’s morning’ alarm must be universal with dogs. The thing is, dogs often think with their stomachs and likely Barnaby’s longing for the breakfast buffet to be opened is behind it all. Our dogs have awakened me faithfully before 5:30 a.m. over the years. The day I don’t have a nose-in-the-face and paw-on-the-shoulder wakeup call will be a sad one. I love the ritual now.

  • John P. Daly

    People drop a lot of stuff that is gross and irresistible to puppies.

  • Hayley Baxter

    I also have a cockapoo (Rafferty) and it was very much a case of putting what I already knew into action. I knew I needed some purpose and a reason to keep going after my husband died and he was exactly what I expected. I found something to get up for (yes too early), someone to talk to when I got home and something to cuddle up with when life was a little too overwhelming. I always say that Rafferty saved me.

  • Audrea

    That is so sweet!! Of course you are learning something from this! Ha! If anyone is a great puppy-parent it would be you!

  • Traci Paris

    I just finished reading a great book and thought you would enjoy it, Gretchen. It called “The Art of Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. The author takes a walk on an ordinary NYC block with different experts on geology, urban wildlife, typography, sight, sound, etc. The last chapter the author takes her dog around the block and it is an interesting meditation of the dog’s perception of the world. It might make the walks with Barnaby deeper and richer.

    Maria at Brainpickings has a great overview of the book: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/12/on-looking-eleven-walks-with-expert-eyes/

    • gretchenrubin

      Sounds terrific!

  • Ben

    I love your podcast and books and have been recommending them. One thing I wanted to point out from your most recent podcast: “backslash” = “” which isn’t part of any website address while “forward slash” or “slash” = “/” which is used in website addresses. Sorry for the nitpicky note. Just thought you should know since you do such a great job with everything else I figured you’d want to know.

  • Becky Pearce

    Oh he looks so much like my black cockapoo (Kipper). Enjoy!! Those first few puppy months are full on, it does get easier – honest.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s nice to hear. We’re having a lot of fun – but it is true that it’s a lot of work.

      • Tara

        I would not have survived the first few months of puppy hood without a little help. We found a great dog walker to take our puppy out twice a week so I could have a break and a doggie daycare when I needed a whole day break. At first I felt guilty, but it was wonderful for him. He comes home from Doggie Daycare exhausted from playing with his friends all day and our dog walker is also a fantastic trainer so it’s a win/win! It saved my sanity! After about six months it got a lot easier!

  • Lundyn Baxandall

    I’ve learned a couple things from my pup (a year old rescued pit bull named Rynx).
    1. LOOSEN UP! My house is never completely tidy anymore (thanks, shedding, drooling dog) but it’s okay. I would take the feeling of coming home to my babe after a long day then coming home to a clean, empty house.
    2. Don’t judge a book by its cover. I knew this before, but realize it more than ever now that I love something so fiercely. When I say I have a pit bull (and a RESCUE one, to feed the fire!) the first thing out of everyones mouth is how mean they are, how I better be careful, don’t let him around kids, blah blah blah. No. NO. Come to my house and have Rynx cuddle you, give you kisses, sit on your lap and play with you THEN you can judge how mean and scary he is.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great things to think about!

  • Melissa Schauble

    Just started listening in and have a 13 week old golden puppy. He has been bringing us a lot of happiness…and early mornings, extra walks outside, middle night wake ups and playtime. We lost our 11 yr old golden last month and the past 2.5 weeks have been quite the adjustment.

  • Aajaxx

    I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a dog, and this article is nudging me a bit closer I think (except maybe for the part about getting up at 5:30). It seems like a huge commitment to someone who never even wanted kids.

  • Donne Davis

    I’m not a dog lover but my granddaughters sure are. Their parents had dogs before they had babies. So I’ve learned to appreciate the pleasures of dogs. Recently, they got a new puppy after their 13-year old dog passed away. I was taking care of my granddaughters while their parents were gone and we had to leave the new puppy in her crate for about 90 minutes while we did some errands. When we came back, the puppy was so happy to see us she couldn’t stop squealing with joy and relief. It was the first time I truly understood what it feels like to be appreciated by a beloved pet.

  • KeLa

    I rescued my Lemon and White Beagle almost 4 years ago, and at the time I was not ready for it. She was 9 and came with some seriously bad habits and I’d really never had an animal before so I had worse ones. She has changed my life. I used to get so upset and cry every time she shred my garbage (which was 3-4 times per week at first), ate my purses to get the gum and chapstick, or ate something random and puked it back up on my floor. Of course there’s a “but” in here, she’s funny and sweet and a little adventurer just like I’ve become. I packed her up and left the person I was with and since then we’ve had an extraordinary life. Even though she’s a dog, she was a big part the reason I left someone who was unhealthy for me. She has protected me through everything and so as her 13th birthday approaches on October 10th, I will be spoiling her rotten! Meet Dizzy.

  • Jen

    Dogs are just a ball of love in a fur coat. I never had one until I was in my 40’s and now I have 2. What took me so long??? I fall in love every day with them! Congrats.

  • Lori Robinett

    I love this post. You’re spot on about a dog making a house more alive. I can’t imagine having an empty home ever again. Your post reminded me of one I wrote about our yellow lab as our time together grew way too short. http://lorilrobinett.com/?p=799

  • Wendy Deyell

    Happier is exactly what my home is now that I have Billy! I live alone so adopting him from a shelter 9 months ago completely changed my life — for the better. I can’t believe I’ve been able to exist without this kind of unreserved love for so many years. I’m his third guardian in his short life and he’s had some tough patches. So my job was to make sure he knew that he could trust me implicitly. Because of the dedication I put into the first few months, we have an exceptionally strong connection. I never listen to music or talk on the phone when I’m walking him because it’s important time together, when I need to be attentive to what’s going on with him — and time for me to let my subconscious mind come up with ideas. I believe we were meant to find each other when we did. My life (and my Facebook page!) is so much richer for having Billy in it!

  • Susie

    Hi, congrats on your puppy! Animals have enriched my life in so many ways. They teach us things. For example, an animal who is getting older, and arthritic, needs special care and meds, but when they are cared for, they remain just as happy as before…not depressed, anxious, or in denial. They are always in the moment, and the moment is usually good!!

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  • Karen’s Child

    We got a new puppy after our very old Bernese cross had to be put down, and we stuck with a Berner cross pup who has quickly taught us that it’s really great that we didn’t decide to have children late in life because–Wow!–we just don’t have the energy we used to!

    We’re also re-learning that material objects are just that, only material objects. If they get chewed up, they can usually be replaced, and if they can’t, they just aren’t as important as a living, loving being.

  • Anahata

    I feel strongly about point #7. As a single person, having one or more
    pets has always forced me to think of something besides myself. It’s
    never, ever just me. There’s always at least one other being who is
    totally dependent on me, so I have to think beyond myself.
    much less happy thing that pets teach you: how to deal with the decline
    and death of someone you love very much, I’ve been through it around a
    dozen times, and I can still barely handle it….

  • Rachel

    The most amusing thing I’ve observed in this whole dog debate is that all the arguments could be applied to kids too! It seems like the debaters have given more thought to whether or not to have a dog than many people give to having a baby 🙂

  • They will comfort you in bad times (and in good!); they are loyal and never lie; they have taught me to live in the moment (a work in progress).

  • zo

    My dog taught me how impatient and unscientific and inconsiderate I can be. He’s fearful of urban environment, to the point he can’t function. The poor thing tried so hard to tell me that he couldn’t do it, and I would just get frustrated by him. Since then, I’ve read a lot on learning theories, and spoke with some veterinary behavior scientists. I realized what I was hoping for was never going to happen with the way I was doing it, and that some things were just never going to happen, period.

    As soon as I stopped imposing on him my own personal agenda (“I’m going to walk around in the city for miles and miles with this cute pup!”), and focused on finding out what he enjoyed (walking miles and miles in nature parks) and enjoying those activities with him, we both became much happier.

    He also reminded me of the time I first moved to this country. I spoke very little English. I understood nobody.The occasional success in understanding people and being understood made me so excited and happy. My dog and I are and always will be in that state, because we will never have mutual verbal communication. And the guessing game and the occasional successes still make me so happy.

    Enjoy the pup! And thank you for all the happiness tips you share with us.

  • Jenniefer

    Our cocker spaniel Diggy teaches me soo many things and reminds me everyday how important they are. Everyone is different – don’t treat every one the same, get to know and understand them. Diggy has a separate special relationship with each family member. I love watching him at work, My heart swells with love and happiness when I see him look out the window when he hears my car apull up nd when I open the door he’s sprinting down the stairs , his ears flapping! I sit and chill more because of him too

  • Love it.

    Several years ago, when I first read The Happiness Project, I wrote a feature for two years called The Puppiness Project which featured everything I learned from having a dog.

    Hopefully you’re flattered by the homage. It was one of my most popular features. http://www.somethingwagging.com/tag/the-puppiness-project/

    I hope you learn many years of lessons from Barnaby.