A Five-Senses Portrait of My Dog, Barnaby

In doing the research for my book Life in Five Senses, I tried a bunch of different exercises.

I went to Flavor University. I tried making a non-Newtonian fluid out of cornstarch. I went to “Dinners in the Dark” to eat a meal blindfolded.

One of my most enjoyable and thought-provoking exercises, however, was to write a “Five-Senses Portrait.”

I decided to make a five-senses portrait of my husband Jamie. Crafting that portrait helped me to focus on the concrete reality of Jamie’s presence and also on my favorite memories of him; it helped me to appreciate both the present and the past.

After reading my five-senses portrait of Jamie in my book draft, my editor said, “Gretchen, I think you should write a five-senses portrait of yourself, as part of your author bio for Life in Five Senses.” So I did! It appears at the end of the book.

Since that time, I’ve made several five-senses portraits.

Make a Five-Senses Portrait

With a five-senses portrait, we tap into each of our five senses to create a detailed portrait of a person, pet, place, or experience we love. It’s simple. For seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, list five favorite or notable associations. I’ve written my portraits by myself, but I’ve heard from many people who have created a five-senses portrait as a group activity.

Elizabeth and I talked about this idea in episode 387 of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and readers reported on many additional ways they’ve used this idea:

  • to preserve concrete details of a person who has died
  • to give someone a gift that shows how carefully they’ve been observed
  • to preserve memories of a beloved place or time—one family did a five-senses portrait of a camping trip; another family, of a cottage in Maine they visit each summer

My Five-Senses Portrait of Barnaby

In honor of my dog Barnaby’s eighth birthday, I decided to make a five-senses portrait of him. It’s a snapshot of my experience of him, right now.


  • His beloved Abominable Snowman toy that’s falling to pieces
  • His second-favorite Jumpy toy
  • His puppy tooth marks on the Fisher Price Tumble Tower that I’ve kept from my own childhood

  • His black fur that’s slowly turning gray
  • The red metal bucket that says “Good Dog” filled with his chew toys 


  • The polite, brief “Rrrrrf” sound he makes to point out that his water or food bowl is empty
  • His excited barking when he spots someone he knows on the street
  • The deep sigh of comfort he gives after he settles down on his favorite blanket
  • The sound of his nails clicking on a wood floor 
  • The thump his body makes when he jumps onto the chair in my office


  • The surprising smell of corn chips that sometimes hangs around him (from a harmless bacteria on his paws)
  • The plasticy smell of poop bags
  • The smell of wet fur when he comes inside after being out in the rain
  • The dusty odor of his dry dog food 
  • The smell that comes from a new Barkbox box


  • Bacon
  • Parmesan
  • Greenies
  • Whipped cream
  • His ability to detect a pill in a pill pocket


  • The warm feel of his fur
  • The pressure of his weight when he lies over my feet when we’re both taking a nap
  • His tiny puppy body squirming on my lap when I held him for the first time 
  • The feel of his leash in my hand as we go for our early-morning walk
  • The rough, chewed-up textures of the rawhides he leaves around the apartment

One advantage of the five-senses portrait is that while it’s creative and powerful, it’s easy to execute.

One feature of the new Five-Senses Journal is that it gives space for several five-senses portraits, as well as places to record daily impressions. (I’m really thrilled with this new journal! I’ve never seen anything like it.)

Let me know how you’ve adapted the idea of the five-senses portrait. It’s a surprisingly flexible and satisfying creative endeavor.



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