Learning From My Minimalist Dog About Stuff

It happens every time.

Someone comes to the door. Honey pads over to her basket of toys and looks for just the right offering. She returns to the door to greet the visitor, now holding the precious toy in her mouth.

Honey the golden retriever waits by the front door.

As soon as someone rings the doorbell, I’m ready to grab a toy.

Honey always finds just the right item. She doesn’t worry that she doesn’t have enough toys to choose from. Or feel overwhelmed that she has too many.

I need to learn from my minimalist dog about having a healthy relationship to stuff.

Honey the golden retriever picks up a squeaky toy.

Yes, I think this squeaky will do nicely. I hope our company appreciates the care I put into finding just the right thing.

Drowning In A Sea Of Stuff

I feel totally overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I own. And that happened before I started thinking about selling almost everything I owned to move aboard a boat.

What should I keep? What should I get rid of? How do I get rid of things that aren’t good enough to sell or give away? What if I get rid of something I might need later?

I look around my office at the papers I need to file (or discard). I see the items usually kept in other parts of the house that need to be put away. And let’s not forget the stuff that needs to be repaired.

It’s all too much.

The crazy thing is that compared to the average American, I have very little stuff. A few things you won’t find at my house include a:

  • car (and all the resulting accessories)
  • television (no three remote controls here)
  • stereo
  • cell phone
  • iPod or other portable devices
  • video camera
  • dress or skirt (and someday I hope to add a bra to that list)

I don’t subscribe to magazines and am working to eliminate most snail mail. And still, it’s too much stuff.

Honey the golden retriever checks out the pantry.

I see at least 5 food bowls in that pantry, woman. That means you aren’t feeding me enough.

 Even Useful Stuff Needs A Place

Even things I find useful need to be stored and kept track of.

Is it overkill to have two leashes for Honey—my favorite leather one for every day and a hemp one for spending time in the water?

Sure, it’s useful to have extra beds, food bowls, harnesses, and leashes for visiting foster dogs. But most of the time, it’s just Honey around the house.

And although I curse my husband for wrapping up and saving the twine used to bale our Christmas tree at the lot, it’s fabulous to have that little piece of string just when you need it.

Those torn jeans are not good enough to give away. But where do I keep them until I find the time to make a tote bag and a tug toy out of them?

I wish I could think about stuff the way Honey does.

A Dog’s Relationship To Stuff

Dogs like stuff too. But they don’t worry about their stuff.

Honey loves Lambie even though he’s leaking stuffing from the wounds she has inflicted on him. She doesn’t worry that her favorite squeaky was made in China and is probably outgassing toxins. And to her, a leash is just a sign that she’s going outside for an adventure of some sort.

Honey's favorite gift is her stuffed lamb.

I love you Lambie

If Honey doesn’t have a toy close by, she picks up a stick off the ground. Or plays by wriggling on her back in the grass.

Perhaps part of the reason dogs worry less about stuff is because they’re better equipped to survive without it.

If someone dropped me far from my home with no money or belongings, I don’t know how well I’d do.

But Honey has everything she needs to survive on her own.

And no, I’m not talking about sharp teeth, a warm coat, long nails for digging, and sturdy pads on her feet. I’m talking about the floofy tail and the soft eyes she’d use to convince the first person she found to take her home for a delicious meal and cuddle time on the couch.

Honey the golden retriever with flowers.

I’m sad and alone. Don’t you want to take me home to feed me?

C’mon, you don’t actually think Honey would suddenly turn to hunting squirrels and walking miles over rough terrain looking for fresh water and a bramble patch to sleep under, did you?

The biggest reason dogs don’t worry about stuff is because they have something even more important to them than stuff. It’s us.

We Worry About Stuff Because We’re Insecure

When a dog guards a toy or growls at someone approaching his food bowl, we look for reasons.

Sometimes the dog didn’t learn better manners. After all, teaching a dog to respond calmly to such things is an important part of her socialization.

And other times, the dog may have lived in an environment where they didn’t feel secure that they’d have enough.

But a happy dog who has lived his life in a secure home relies on us more than worrying about stuff. We’re the source of every good thing a dog wants or needs.

Two years ago, I wrote about how our inability to trust the universe to take care of us can keep us from taking chances. It’s still true.

Hanging onto stuff, worrying about where to keep it, trying to get more are all ways we distract ourselves. We’re so worried about our stuff that we don’t take thoughtful actions in our lives.

I wonder what I could have done with every minute I’ve spent filing papers I never looked at again? Or what I could have made room for if I wasn’t filling closets and basement shelves with stuff I might need someday?

When we move aboard a sailboat next year, I’ll get to start again and redefine my relationship toward stuff.

I’ll still have to think about “will I need it someday?” because our lives might depend on having a spare part for a bilge pump or engine. But I won’t have 1300 feet of room to store stuff.

I guess I’ll have to trust the universe to provide what I need the way Honey depends on me today. And learn from my minimalist dog how to have a healthy relationship to stuff.

Honey the golden retriever aboard a sail boat.

I’ll have plenty of time to teach you how to be a zen dog when we move aboard the sailboat.

Your Turn: Do you feel comfortable with the stuff you surround yourself with? What kind of relationship does your dog have to his or her stuff?




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  1. I always feel like I have too much stuff, but luckily my mother was the anti-hoarder, so I’m good at purging and always feel better when I do. I still have clothes from 20 years ago and books I read in college, but those are things that have some sentimental value. Jack & Maggie? Jack is much like Honey – no toy is too disheveled. Maggi unfortunately never had any stuff, so she doesn’t really claim anything.

    • You’re lucky to have a good example in your family to keep you from accumulating too much stuff. I know that some things I’d love to get rid of I don’t because I figure it would upset my family if I did.

      Thinking of Jack and Honey, I wonder if there’s a market for used pet toys. I’d be happy to give Honey something that looks rough if it cost less than the price of a new toy.

  2. I feel like I have too much stuff, and the sad part is most of it’s stuff thats accumulated over 6 years since I moved into this house. Before that I had very little, now it’s so overwhelming. It just happens, creeps up, slowly turning your counters into “piles” and so on. Not that I’m messy, it’s just… stuff. My dog unfortunately is a resource guarder – we have worked and trained with her on it – she doesn’t growl at us at home anymore when we approach her food or toys, but she still growls at other dogs when they approach us. It’s something we continue to work on. I do often wonder why she developed that habit. We adopted her when she was about 4 months old – she bit me her first day home when I tried to get a bone away from her. Nature or nurture? I don’t know – we don’t really know her history. Thankfully she’s more secure around us and has a few simple toys that she loves. And it’s always so sweet that as soon as we start playing with a toy it suddenly becomes her favorite again, because, as you say they have us. They look to us.

    • I try to tell the students in my home buying classes that their stuff will expand fill the space in their new place. It sounds like you certainly found it to be the case.

      Glad to hear you’re working with your pup on the resource guarding. You may never know exactly why she feels the need to protect her food and stuff. But it’s always good to make her more comfortable.

  3. Theo is really rough with toys so usually within 20 minutes a plush toy is destroyed. He is also bad at sharing, the advantage of that is we don’t have dog toys everywhere. I have too much stuff for sentimental reasons, but I am not a shopper. The more I let stuff go, the easier it is. My husband and I differ in that he thinks it is okay to just throw usable stuff away. I have to rehome possessions by giving them to charity or individuals. I recently found out that clothes (and plush toys) that are too stained/ripped/whatever SHOULD be donated to charity. These clothes can be recycled and turned into new material.

    • I think some dogs love the act of destroying toys. Perhaps Theo is one?

      I sometimes put treats into a cardboard box and tape it up for Honey to destroy. It doesn’t take long to clean up the mess and she has a blast doing it.

      I can’t bear to toss out anything that has an ounce of life left in it. But finding the right place to send things is its own chore.

  4. When we moved from our one bedroom condo to our current single family home 15 years ago, we had acres of empty space everywhere. No furniture in the living room for 2 years, empty closets in the guest rooms, storage in the basement, and an empty attic over the garage. All these years later, those spaces are packed full, and I feel suffocated in stuff! I do a purge every year but obviously not a good one. I do let sentimental value get in my way (I’ve got my baby blanket from 1959 stuffed in a draw. I really need that! ) Books I can’t part with, knick-knacks in closets but I can’t part with them either, clothes I rarely wear but are too nice to let go (I do get rid of clothes quite often, but not some items for some reason). The list goes on and on. I tell myself I can get rid of it when I really need to, like at retirement for downsizing…..but still it is mainly just junk! John has similar problems because he feels everything is worth money, and it will sit in the house until he can sell it. He always thinks the stuff is worth way more than it is, so nothing sells! It has been bugging me a lot lately, so it is time for some closet clean-up!

    My dogs aren’t much into toys. They each have a favorite and new toys are sniffed and ignored for the most part. Most of my “dog stuff” is for me :-)

    • Yep, collecting “dog stuff” can be its own hoarding habit.

      IRL I teach classes for first home buyers. Many of them say a major reason they want to buy a home is to have more room. I try to tell them they’ll just fill up whatever space they have. But I guess that’s a lessons we can only learn for ourselves. :)

  5. Although it defies the laws of nature, I’m pretty sure my clothes and books reproduce themselves in the closets, drawers and shelves when no one is watching.

    • Maybe you need to set up a nanny cam in your closet. :)

      After moving tons of books into this house 14 years ago, I finally got a handle on things. I only keep books if I’m certain I’m going to reread them. If I can look up info online, reference books go as well. And before I buy a new book, I have to give one away first.

      Unfortunately, I live in a town with the 2nd largest used book sale in the country. It’s a constant temptation.

  6. Bravo! You have me wanting to get rid of everything but a basket of toys and the couch! I feel more creative when there is no stuff hanging about. Maybe that’s why I think the best when I’m in the car with just my dogs.

    Zack brings offerings to the door whenever I come home and you’re right, it doesn’t matter what it is but it’s always perfect :->

    • If you clear your house of everything but toys and the couch, will you please send me a picture for inspiration? :)

      And yes, dogs always come up with the best gifts.

  7. Dogs just care about what we need, humans do love their stuff and they do worry about it. Having moved to Europe and back twice in the last 20 years, Mom has eliminated lots of stuff. Sometimes it is a gradual process, but things have narrowed down quite a bit.

    • Besides the move, many homes in Europe are much smaller than ours in the states. Sounds like your mom’s travels gave her a good sense of discipline.

  8. I love how you look at things, and are able to extrapolate from a seemingly innocent situation or event. Dogs really do have a good relationship with stuff – and I suspect it’s because they’re living in the moment. No past, no future to be concerned about. So maybe if we just focused more on the present, we wouldn’t be so chained to all of our stuff.

    I actually de-stuffed in the last couple of years…30 years in the same house, raising four kids, I had a lot of things to go through! I gave the kids whatever would be of use or sentimental value to them, then donated or tossed almost everything else. I’m “starting fresh”, and with a clean slate that includes only the basics. It feels good!!

    • “I love how you look at things, and are able to extrapolate from a seemingly innocent situation or event.” – What a diplomatic way to say I think weird. :)

      But a great point about how living in the present keeps us from getting too attached to stuff from our past. I’m glad your recent purge has you feeling good. I’m looking forward to my big sale next year as well.

      • LOL I absolutely did not mean to imply anything about “weird’! You have a knack for “seeing” what so many never notice. :)
        I think you’ll find your big sale very liberating. Cheers to your future adventures!

  9. My big boy is very possessive of his stuff. I am a minimalist by nature, perhaps holding my books in the highest regard.

    • Isn’t it amazing how books can turn even the most minimalist person into a collector? And even e-books doesn’t seem to be changing that.

  10. Compared to many people I know, I have relatively little “stuff.” But I do have a TV, a radio, and TWO cell phones (one for work).

    Learning to let go of things is a process. For me, I find I hold onto objects for sentimental reasons. So if logic is telling me this object is no longer needed, and my heart is telling me Don’t Let Go, then I put it aside in a special space for 6 months. Then I’ll re-evaluate, and see if it still needs to stay or go. Often that act of putting the object in that space frees me of the emotional ties to an item.

    Here in the US, we have been programmed to believe that stuff will make us feel better. If only I have the right furniture, or car, or tablet, I’ll be the envy of all my friends, which will make me happy. Except it never makes us happy, does it?

    • I like your 6 month plan. It’s true that putting things out-of-sight can create some much needed distance.

      And yet, stuff does make some people feel better in some circumstances. For example, programs that give luggage to foster kids because it feels so awful to tote your stuff to a new home in garbage bags.

      Maybe I’ll find it more helpful to remind myself that if I can keep my level of stuff down, I’m making more room on the planet for people who actually do need more stuff.

      Thanks, once again, for making me think some more. :)

  11. My bipeds used to hoard stuff in the loft, but had forgotten about most of it. They turned over a new leaf when they had to clear it out!

  12. There’s something really ‘freeing’ about getting rid of excess stuff you don’t use or want anymore. I feel like I can breathe easier and more open after a good clearing out of excess things. I have to admin that I feel really guilty sometimes when I have to throw away one of Haley’s favorite toys because its time has come. I usually wait until she’s outside, then I bury deep in the trash can so she won’t see or smell it, haha!

  13. Dogs focus on what they need in the moment, and don’t get wound up in circles worrying about their tennis balls accruing competitive levels of interest in toy savings. It’s not so much a frame of mind as it is a philosophy. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I think we are all guilty of keeping too much stuff. When I finally unpack at my place my intention is to do an unpack/massive clean out. However would you believe at the moment I am doing a brilliant job at finding reasons at to why this massive de-clutter should wait! However, to argue the other point when the ex and I moved in together I threw away a whole load of stuff, thinking I didn’t need it. All stuff that I hadn’t used the entire time we were together went to charity – only now we are not together and I genuinely need most of the stuff I chucked so I am starting the slow job of replacing!

  15. We “used to have” too much stuff, but now we don’t. Harley doesn’t really play with that many toys, he actually never really did. It was Leo soho was the toy fanatic. So I’ve learned to improvise when it comes to Harley’s entertainment. It’s a great way for us to hang out and have some fun too!

  16. Lori, I love this post, and how you relate people having too much stuff to a dog not needing all that to be happy. OMD! Honey is such a darling, offering up a toy to visitors! So much better than barking & charging the door, right?!
    Love & Biscuits,
    Cathy, Isis, & Phoebe
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them