The Puppiness Project – Some Dogs Let You Make Mistakes, Some Dogs Don’t

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.

Does your dog let you make mistakes?

If you’ve been responsible for several dogs in your life, you probably smiled knowingly when you read the title. But for those of you on your first dog, let me explain.

My first dog never let me make mistakes

Mixed breed dogs Agatha and Christie

You wouldn't figure such sweet girls could be such trouble, would you?

My first dogs as adults were Agatha and Christie. Agatha was the instigator so I’ll talk about her.

Agatha never allowed me to make mistakes. If someone spilled their drink on the couch and I didn’t clean it cleaner than new, Agatha and her sister Christie would chew the upholstery to smithereens in their attempt to remove every molecule of flavor.

If I left a few training treats in my coat pocket, Agatha would chew into the pocket from the outside of my coat. I think of Agatha to this day whenever I put my keys in my pocket just to have them fall through to the floor.

Oh, and one time I was foolish enough to leave a loaf of bread on top of my refrigerator. The best I can figure is that sixteen year old Agatha, nearly blind from cataracts and entirely deaf, jumped from the floor to a chair, from the chair to the table, and from the table to the top of the fridge.

In our sixteen years together, Agatha left a swath of destruction–the reminder of all my mistakes.

Honey lets me make mistakes all the time

At an office picnic, my boss recently complimented me on how well Honey behaved. I told him I couldn’t take credit for it; she was just an easy dog. He replied kindly that it must have been good family values.

Honey the Golden Retriever

You better not try to take my snack ball. Now that would be a mistake.

But it’s true. I don’t feel I can take credit for Honey. It’s not that she’s well-trained. She’s just a sweet, mild, and easy dog.

  • Honey probably had two accidents in the house from the moment she came home.
  • A baby can bat her in the face and pull on her fur without her showing any reaction at all.
  • Honey has never once jumped on the counter looking for yummies.

Honey is a dog that lets me make mistakes.

  • If I forget and leave treats in my pocket or purse, they’ll still be there when I get home.
  • When a crazy work schedule keeps me from taking her on a long walk, she’ll be content with a couple of games of tug before heading off for a nap.
  • And when her Kong Wobbler gets caught under a piece of furniture, she’ll cry a little, but I’ll still have a piece of furniture when I came home.

The lessons two dogs can teach about making mistakes

If you have a dog who never allows you to make a mistake, you have to learn how to forgive yourself for constantly making mistakes. And keep trying, but know that your dog may not be cut out to be a model canine citizen. It makes him no less lovable.

If you have a dog with whom you can make mistakes and still have it turn out all right, you need to remain humble and not take credit for things that have nothing to do with you. Just enjoy her while you have her.

And know that your next dog will probably make you pay for every mistake you make.


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  1. First I want to say Happy Birthday Pamela, I hope you had a very enjoyable day!

    Delilah doesn’t let me make any mistakes, while Sampson will allow them.

    When people tell me what a good boy he is, I say we got lucky, He’s just a good dog.

    I wish Delilah let me make mistakes.

  2. I assume Shiva falls into the “takes advantage of every mistake I make category.” Like Agatha she has ruined many of my jacket pockets and not only can we not trust her with a loaf of bread on top of the refrigerator, we can’t trust her with a piece of dry cracker in the back of a locked closet. (That is one of my favourite Agatha stories. If only we should all be as lucky to have dogs as determined as she was into their golden years.)

    But, Shiva is also incredibly forgiving. If I make a mistake with her, such as hesitating too long when deciding whether or not to let her greet the little dog on the sidewalk, she will let me know immediately. And she always, always bounces back. Even though I had no idea what I was doing two years ago and unfortunately took advice from some poor sources, the worst that happened was that she remained her crazy, unruly self. She never shut down, she never held a grudge – not even after my horrible attempts at leash corrections. She simply waited for me to get it right. Shiva may be a stickler for perfection, but she is an incredibly patient teacher.

  3. And happy birthday to you! :-)

  4. Thanks for this reminder!! I have both in my home…. Spike is the model of canine citizenship. Always the gentleman, sweet, lovely, never stealing food or treats even if they are tempting. I can’t take credit for that; I can only take credit for rescuing him and giving him the time and space to heal from 5 months in a shelter and become truly himself. He is now the easy dog. Sophie, not so much. From the day she arrived, she has been a flurry of catching my mistakes and now her littlest sister Murphy is much the same. What Sophie might miss, Murphy catches. I’ve learned to let go and laugh and just keep on. I wouldn’t trade any of them, easy or difficult for the world!

    Thanks again!

    Jen and the Black Dog Crew

  5. Your last line cracked me up and then horrified me.
    My current dogs let me make a lot of mistakes, are always forgiving, and are never destructive. They were passed on to me by people who loved them but sadly could no longer take care of them.
    I’m afraid my next dog will the the Ultimate Dog from Hell who will even it all out.

  6. And apparently it is your birthday, so have a happy one.

  7. Happy Birthday, Pamela. Hope you had a lovely day!

    I have been blessed with two dogs in my life: first, St. Bosco, now Darby. Both have allowed me to make a million mistakes with nary an issue. Both housetrained easily, neither chewed a single non-chewable item, neither dug a hole, both got/get along with the cats, neither had any sort of separation issues, and both were/are too short to counter surf. Granted, Bosco (a sheltie) could bark at falling leaves and Darby hasn’t met a noise that isn’t worth responding to, but all things considered I’m a pretty fortunate woman.

    Of course, that last line of yours will give me nightmares tonight :)

  8. What a great post. I love these little lessons from dog that you are sharing. I wish I had an “easy dog. Both mine allow not the luxury of unattended snacks, the opportunity to provide anything less than exhaustive exercise and complete and total devotion.

  9. Elka lets me make mistakes; or maybe it’s about 50-50. I shudder to think what the future brings me, canine-wise!

    She has counter-surfed once. In her life. And it was only to eat the tiniest corner off of the block of mozzarella left on the counter. Nothing else was disturbed, and there were no paw or nose prints anywhere, just her tooth marks on the cheese. I can leave food on the counter, or in a plastic bag on the coffee table (packed for lunch) and she’ll leave it alone. Conversely, housebreaking too me a long time. Yes, I say “me”, not “her”. I know.

  10. Happy Birthday (was it yesterday?), Pamela:) I’m probably lucky in that Frankie and Beryl are both a mix of easy and making me learn management. It’s been a long time since Frankie destroyed anything expensive (usually a mobile phone!) as I’m a lot better at putting stuff like that out of reach after the 3rd one … I am a slow learner! And I love a mischief dog anyway, as long as it’s not expensive mischief!

  11. There’s no doubt of my six dogs are leading me to a state of perfection!! That can only mean the next ones will all be downhill from here, right?

  12. Oh geez – I think I have had too easy of a first dog – since Cali is a golden retriever mix and has NEVER done anything bad. We always talk about how lucky we are that she was our first dog. We have fostered (Goldens!!) and still never had a problem 😉 I had a dog walking business for 5 years and can’t think of any dogs that were too bad . . oh wait – I did walk an Airedale that actually ate anything that she could get her mouth on including a package of antihistamines (that was her parents fault, of course and when I called them they said, “oh, it’s not the first time . she’ll be fine”)!!

    It makes me nervous to think about what the future may hold for me :) BTW – Happy Birthday!!!! Hope you had a wonderful day :)

  13. Happy Birthday Pamela! I hope you and honey and the hubby had a nice day. :)

    I am beginning to think Jasper is my Agatha. He never lets me make a mistake. Let him off leash and a runner runs by? Not a chance of getting him back. He has great recall every other time. Leave food or a napkin out? Gone. There is a reason he answers more to Trouble than Jasper. (You have no idea how many people think that’s his real name!)

    On the other hand, my dog Indy, was the model citizen. Like Honey, people used to compliment me on her behavior all of the time, but I couldn’t take the credit. That belonged to her former owner. The only thing she ever got into was the bread (I cannot believe a 16 year old dog got all the way up to the fridge!). She loved bread. We always had to leave it up.

    So do you think the ones who don’t let us make mistakes teach us more?

  14. I just love your title and your philosophy…the reminder that it’s our job to set them up for success. I think I’ve been pretty lucky in that department…the majority of my foster dogs, even ones who came fresh out of a hoarding situation or an abysmal shelter, have been easy creatures. And now even Fozzie, after a year and a half, still surprises us with how well he listens and seems sensitive to our desires.

    Remains to be seen how forgiving the new little foster dog bundle of energy is of human error! With a 10-month old pit bull puppy, I’m keeping expectations low and preparing for some destruction!

    And happy belated birthday! Hope you had a wonderful day and are still celebrating.

  15. Bella lets me make mistakes around the house – she never gets into anything (although her storm phobia has increased and we’ve had to make adjustments), so our puppy-proofing is very lax (something I have to correct when we dog sit and will need to really focus on when we get another dog!). She’s just so easy when it comes to that sort of thing.

    In contrast, she does not let me make other types of mistakes – my little escape artist has taught me more about how to keep a dog from running away than I care to admit. After a few times frantically chasing her through my neighborhood, down a mountain, etc., I have learned much. The gate in our backyard is even dog park style – it’s a double gate so that there’s never a need for both to be open at once. We enter and exit our house solely through the laundry room. We call it the airlock – the door to the kitchen and the door to the garage are never open at the same time.

    Thinking about other dogs I’ve had, it’s funny how each one had a different set of mistakes that I could or couldn’t make.

  16. Oh, and happy belated birthday! :)

  17. Happy Birthday! My dog Marilyn is extremely patient with me. I am one of the lucky ones!

  18. Boy can I relate to this one! I’ve had dogs of both categories, and I can say that both made me a better person and a better dog owner. I’ve learned something from every dog I’ve known, but some definitely taught me bigger lessons than others!

  19. Happy belated! 29 again, eh? :)

    I’d have to say that Our Best Friend is middle of the road. He’s great indoors and naughty outdoors. No off-leash walking, but no trash-eating or counter-surfing. I do still worry, though, of him reacting badly to accidental things, like if a baby learning to walk to should trip on him. I want a dog like Honey next time! (But I still love OBF.)

  20. Oh, lord! Mary Lou was the “one”! There were no mistakes allowed with her. George is just the same. Must be a “fawn” thing. If I leave anything out on the counter for even a second, it’s gone. Even Sonic stole egg rolls one time when I had him. Padfoot will stick his nose in my plate, but if I have my eye on him, he’ll be good. I’m not quite sure “how” good though. :) He’s not really a counter surfer, though, for which I am eternally grateful. One “bad-boy” in the house is plenty.