The Puppiness Project – Don’t Let Bad Stuff Distract You From Joy

Gretchen Rubin wrote in The Happiness Project about the year she spent “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy.” The Puppiness Project is my attempt to learn the same from Honey, my Golden Retriever.

Honey Can’t Teach Everything.

Dogs connect us to something outside ourselves.

Golden Retriever running with ball i her mouth

Having trouble seeing me because I ran so far away? Look closely for the beautiful, blond speck in the distance.

Sure, dogs can be self-serving and manipulative just like people. But they don’t have a human intellect that gets in the way of experiencing the world as it is. That’s why I often look to Honey for reminders on how to “get out of my head.”

Unfortunately, Honey is as bad at some things as I am. One sad point of agreement is that Honey can be so frightened of something that it wipes out any joy she’d normally experience. She, like me, can let one bad thing in a sea of good things take her entire attention.

Honey is afraid of things that move unexpectedly. It’s why we’ve had a hard time getting her used to riding in our Doggy Ride bicycle trailer.

No matter how much she loves her food, Honey’s leery of eating near the Doggy Ride. Even when it’s on a kickstand and sitting still in the living room. We’re going slow. But it’s a challenge.

The fear removes any positive emotion Honey usually experiences in our company or while eating yummies.

Pam Chews Her Cud.

One bad lesson I’ve learned from animals is to ruminate. If something negative happens I can chew it over and over again without letting go.

Golden Retriever with a ball in her mouth

Don't blink. I'm so fast I'll be on top of you in a blink.

Recently I got some kindly-worded, constructive criticism. It was so gentle and kind I hesitate to label it with the “bad stuff” in my title—but hey, it’s hard to understand feelings. I knew it wasn’t rational to let it make me feel so bad about myself. And I think hope I was smart enough to take the criticism seriously and figure out if or how I should change myself to answer it.

But I just couldn’t keep from feeling bad—for several days.

I ended up channeling Honey. But not in a good way. I focused so much on one negative feeling that I wasn’t able to appreciate the many joys that were surrounding me on all sides.

I was like the Golden Retriever who lost her appetite when her treat slid too close to a propped up golf bag that just might fall.

Honey and Pam Seek a Solution.

Since trying to talk myself out of feeling bad didn’t work, I adopted a three-prong attack:

  • Avoid – I stayed away from reminders of the criticism for a while.
  • Distract – I concentrated on unrelated tasks.
  • Reset – I planned an activity that took my mind entirely away from my obsession—playing fetch in the park.

And it worked.

Golden Retriever with ball in her mouth

Here I come.

Some things are powerful enough to take our minds away from minor discomforts. They are usually done outdoors, with our bodies, and don’t involve computers, televisions, or phones. Playing fetch with Mike and Honey did that.

What takes Honey out of herself is using her nose.

Just feeding Honey in or near her cart isn’t different enough to keep her from being scared. But if we play simple nosework games, Honey’s focus intensifies. In the joy of the game, Honey doesn’t notice that the object of her search is behind the tire of the cart or even inside.

I have to get up off my butt and away from the computer to get out of my head. Honey needs to use her nose.

We Can Learn From Our Dogs; Our Dogs Can Learn From Us.

The Puppiness Project is about learning from Honey to be a happier person. But in a relationship, we learn from each other.

In that spirit, I’m announcing a challenge tomorrow to celebrate Train Your Dog Month, sponsored by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

Golden Retriever

Hurry up and throw it. I'm waiting.

You’ll have the entire month of January to strengthen the relationship with your dog while meeting the challenge. Plus you’ll get a chance to win a donation to your favorite animal welfare organization.

Don’t miss out. Stop back tomorrow to get all the details.

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Join the fun at the Monday Mischief blog hop. Hop on…


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  1. Well stated Pamela! I wonder if being afraid of things that move unexpectedly is a Golden thing as Luna is the exact same way.

    • I haven’t seen this behavior in other Goldens. Interesting that Luna does the same thing.

      I always assumed it was because Honey is a “dog” and stuff blew over on our porch one too many times. :)

      Whatever the reason, I hope we can make her more comfortable.

  2. Yes they are excellent teachers, if we can only stop long enough to really listen.

    I’m looking forward to learning more about the challenge…though I have to wonder, strengthen my relationship with which dog? Every time I resign myself to working really hard on one aspect of training for one of my long-term pet project foster/foster-failures, I get a good application for that dog and am forced to contemplate letting go! Maybe that’s the thing to work on, if I’m going to stay in this fostering business …:)

    • I’m writing up the guidelines for the challenge now. But I was thinking of foster families as well. You’ll see tomorrow what I mean.

  3. Criticism, even with the best of intentions and gently expressed, is tough. I love the idea that you and Honey can “gt out of your heads” together. The more I hear you share about it, the more I am intrigued by nose work. I want to start playing some fun nosework games with Kolchak. With his highly developed sense of smell and “driven by food to the exclusion of all else” nature, I think it might be a good fit for us.” I can’t wait to learn more about your challenge!

    • I would strongly encourage you to try simple nosework games with Kol (and Felix). One of the best dogs in our class was a pug. She surprised and blew us all away with her awesome sniffing abilities. :)

      Kol with his beagleness would probably blow Sophie right out of the park!

      I’ve set up the nosework instructions here on the blog so you can print them out as an attractive PDF. Why not do that today and see if it’s something you can fit into a rainy, miserable day?

  4. I’m in and looking forward to your challenge.

    I must say though that I’m sorry you were hurt by whoever conferred this criticism on you. Even well-meaning criticism can sting. Being a lot like you in that respect, I can drive myself to panic attacks without a harsh word having been said because I can’t. stop. my. head.

    That’s where Bella comes in. It’s impossible to be angry, hurt, obsessed when you’re playing with a dog. Good for you for working past it.

  5. i ruminate too. with some [perceived] slights, i can ruminate till i hyperventilate and palpitate. it’s true, i’m not making it up or just trying to use big words now that i know this is A Blog for Smart People ;p yogic breathing and wishing the person well [in my head] works for me.

    strangely, i don’t hold grudges. though they seem related somehow.

    i’ll have to check out your challenge. it sounds challenging. [i’m sorry about the way this comment is turning out. the words are running away from me today.]

    END NOW. your friend and ex-stalker – The Typist.

  6. I’m also a ruminator. Drives me crazy how much I can ruminate over one thing. Like you, a gently worded criticism will stay with me for a long time. I like your 3-pronged approach to moving past it. I had forgotten until you mentioned it, but I also find that getting out and walking with the dogs helps me. When I’m moving I can think beyond the initial issue or criticism, but when I just sit and ruminate it stays and spins around and around in my head ad nauseum. I have also found nosework games work well with my dogs, or in Jasper’s case, getting a tennis ball.

    How appropriate that you have introduced a dog training challenge. I decided that I would be doing the same with my dogs for the next 30 days. Maybe the two will coincide? :)

  7. Wildly interesting post! I don’t know if Bocci has learned from me, but a dog’s boundless and consistent joy is wonderful trait to emulate-I’m trying!

  8. Wow, this was a great post. I ruminate too, way too much. I wish I didn’t but I do.
    Like you said, going outside for a nice long walk with the boys helps a great deal, it just takes me to another place!

  9. Your distraction/avoidance/different activity techniques sound very helpful. When fear gets hold of me, distraction is one technique I try to help. I am blessed/cursed with a strong imagination and sometimes that makes me afraid of situations which I think could be in some way dangerous. But that imagination can also help me relax and get my mind off thinking of it as a dangerous situation. I guess I could imagine being a happy carefree golden retriever!

  10. I can definitely see myself in some of that! I think what helps me is walking away from it for a while and immersing myself in something else that will keep me busy. It’s easier said than done a lot of the time, though.

    I am really curious about tomorrow’s challenge!

  11. Like a dog with bone! I do the exact same thing with things I think are bad or can’t seem to stop focusing on the negative about something. I find it easy to feel trapped without any way out. Like I have no say so what is going on in my head.

    I run with the dogs. I should do it more, but I when I do, these are the times I usually let them lead me, especially Brut. We help each other break the chains.

    Sorry to hear that you had a hard time with the criticism and I understand how that can be. I’m glad you found a way with Honey and Mike to help you through. :) Again another thing I know very well…well not with Mike and Honey, of course! That would be kind of strange, wouldn’t it!!

    Smile Pamela, you are loved. :)

  12. Isn’t it funny how we’re all scared of things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense?

    I’m scared of flapping clothes, but it’s ok if Mum flaps them, just not if anyone else flaps them!! I’m working on this with my family, just like you are, cos I don’t like to look like a little scardy cat hiding behind Mum’s leg!!

    Way to go Honey in continuing to show us all the way,

    Your pal Snoopy :)

  13. This is a tough one for me too. I remember the incredibly trite advice I was given back in high school: remember the compliments, forget the insults. It isn’t all that easy, I gotta say. I’ve written a lot about courage myself as I am a self-confessed coward. Easily intimidated, it’s incredibly difficult for me to face confrontation or handle criticism, even when it’s kindly meant. It’s why I am so stunned by my dog who doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. Even when she is afraid, she doesn’t back away from conquering those fears. She blows my mind.

    I think this is such a great idea for a challenge! I can’t wait to check it out. I am also impressed you have found a way to fight the evil demons of censure. Hopefully it makes it much easier for you in the future!

  14. Feeling bad and ruminating on seems to be a popular activity and I’m definitely part of the club. I hope that, with practice, we can train our minds to stop playing these “bad” events over and over and get out of the rut more quickly. I’m looking forward to the challenge – we’re stationary this month so it should work out great for me.

  15. I’m a ruminator too and while my memory is not good about most things, I find an insult, critisism or slight very hard to forget:( And I dwell on what I should have said or should have done (or not said or done) etc for weeks, months even. It’s a sad way to live. I’m very sorry you were upset but I like your remedy and I’m going to try and remember it! Everything improves when the kids smile at or with me.

  16. Another ruminator here (seems like there are quite a few of us in the comments). I tend to dwell on things and have a hard time letting things go… they just fester and continue to bother me. I’ve been trying to work on it and sometimes I have to sit down and be firm with myself and tell myself to move on. It doesn’t always work… in fact, I was just sitting here stewing on some things when I clicked on your post. I like your idea for counteracting this tendency… maybe I can put it into practice!

  17. Well, I don’t ruminate; I just roll…..right into the fetal position! 😉 (oh my, that was bad – sorry, I felt like I needed to break up the mood) I think what you have here are a bunch of highly sensitive geniuses (minus me, the genius part, that is).

    I agree that distraction is good, and I like GLP’s breathing and wishing well idea. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with downright rude criticism than the nice kind. It’s hard to wish an unfortunate case of ringworm (or other fungus) on a considerate person.

    I will be going now.

    p.s. will look forward to reading about the challenges – I have commitment issues.