The Puppiness Project – You Can’t Change Everything (and You Shouldn’t Try)

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.

Golden Retrievers have a “Soft Mouth”

While researching Golden Retrievers, I kept reading that they have a “soft mouth.” On You Tube, you’ll find videos of folks putting their dog’s mouth to the test by having them carry an egg.

Golden Retriever with apple

You look so amazed that I didn't mark the apple while playing with it. I couldn't do it any other way.

Honey demonstrated her soft mouth recently.

We were waiting for Mike to pick up sandwiches at a local deli. It was hot so Honey and I headed over to the shadow of a tree. When we got there, we found a dozen tiny apples fallen from the tree.

Ahhh, play time. We spent a few minutes playing fetch with one of the apples. At the end of our game, there wasn’t a mark anywhere on the apple.

The soft mouth is the result of generations of breeding. And although Honey loves to play tug, she’ll never have jaws that support her while hanging from a tree. Some things are not within our power to change.

Nature vs. Nurture

Dogs and humans are a mix of nature (born that way) and nurture (raised that way).

The question of which traits come from where is complex and heavily debated in scientific circles.

But non-scientists in this country have strong opinions about how much we can change or improve ourselves.

Blame it on the myth of the self-made man. Americans are a sucker for a story about someone who came here with just the clothes on his back and made a life for himself (at least if they came here a few generations back; current immigrants have never been welcomed as warmly).

And if someone can remake himself in “olden days” why not now?

If you are misfortunate (or dumb) enough to read comments at mega websites, you’ll find that if you’re poor, fat, wrinkled, shy, or whatever else, it’s all your fault. You’re just not trying hard enough. All it takes is willpower and you can transform yourself into a new and better (whatever that means) person.

In an economy hammered by the recession, one sector keeps growing: self-help. In 2008, companies promoting self-improvement made $11 billion off us trying to change things about ourselves that probably didn’t need to be changed. Perhaps, things we couldn’t change even if we tried.

Born That Way (and OK with It)

Like a Golden Retriever with a soft mouth, some of us have strong traits. Maybe they’re genetic. Maybe they came from our upbringing. But they’re as much a part of who we are as floppy lips are to a Golden Retriever.

According to Scientific American magazine 90% of women have cellulite. Why aren’t the 10% of women who don’t have it trying to get it so they look more “normal?”

And I’ve heard several of my blogging friends lament their introversion (Should I boost your blogs by linking to them here and here? Or should I respect your shyness by not mentioning you by name?).

But what’s wrong with being introverted? Being the kind of person who thinks before she speaks is a good thing (and a skill I hope to learn some day).

Maybe it’s time to question whether everything can or should be “improved.”

Honey never worries about not being able to do this.

And she shouldn’t have to. Maybe I don’t have to either.

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  1. I love your cellulite example. I hate that I spent a large majority of my life worrying about this. It wasn’t until my current beau told me “you can’t be curvy and sexy without it…men know this, we just wonder when you women will catch on.” He’s so sweet in a weird, don’t-know-if-he’s-insulting-me-or-complimenting-me kinda way. 😉

    Kuna is a boy that would rather dig holes and chase bugs in the yard than attend conferences with me. Part of me has already accepted this – it’s like wanting your child to grow up to be a doctor when all they’d rather do is move to NYC to become an artist. 😉

  2. Delilah does NOT have a soft mouth. She would have eaten all of the little apples around the tree and gone looking for more.

    That is truly amazing that the apple didn’t have bite marks in it. I’m impressed.

    • I guess Delilah doesn’t know she’s a retriever. :)

      Honey doesn’t know she’s supposed to like swimming. I guess we’re always more than our genes, huh?

  3. Being yourself, and being happy with it, is a difficult skill to have. It’s a very good thing to be mindful of, though, and I’m glad to read the reminder!

    Also, in your video, look at how happy that dog is! It’s clearly one of his (her?) favorite games.

    • I dislike seeing dogs trained to attack because of the fear that so many people have of dogs. But I love the fact that a highly-trained police dog gives an officer an option of using non-lethal force. It’s amazing what these dogs can do.

  4. I’ve thought a lot about soft mouths, particularly in relation to pit bulls. Fozzie has a mouth that is so incredibly, meltingly soft, it still surprises even me. It is so nice to have a dog like that–makes giving treats a huge pleasure.

    Our society is so goal oriented; seems we can’t accept anything about ourselves. One of the things I like about positive dog training is the emphasis on management rather than always training–the acceptance that some things are easier to live with than to fixate on “improving”.

    • Great point, Kirsten, about the management aspect of positive training. You’re so right.

      You can’t have a relationship with an animal if you only expect them to do what you want them to do when you ask them. Sometimes it’s ok to manage situations, like not leaving food on the counters or avoiding high stress situations.

  5. Thanks for the reminder of yet one more thing I need to work on with my dog. She absolutely does not have a soft mouth. I know we were supposed to train this by not giving her treats unless she took them gently – and for the most part she does – but I haven’t been very consistent. *sigh*
    My dog trainer believes very much in “lifestyle training.” As in, you train what is important to you. If it doesn’t bother you that your dog eats off the counter, then it may not be necessary to rid them of this habit. Within reason, of course. But I think that falls very much in line with what you are saying here. And I agree. :-)

    However, there are some pitfalls to introversion. When it prevents me from doing my job, for instance, and holds me back from exciting opportunities. But then, I guess extroversion might have it’s negative too, right?

    • I think getting a little “toothy” when taking snacks is a function of excitement. I can’t imagine Shiva is anything but excited–that girl just loves life!

      Yes, extroverts have our pitfalls too. Mine is that it’s very hard for me to work alone. If I don’t have company, it’s very tough to get things done.

      I once joked that I was going to hire a cleaning person–not because I needed someone to clean my house but because I wanted someone to talk to while I cleaned my house. :)

  6. I suppose it depends on whether the trait in question is adaptive, maladaptive, or neutral. Honey’s mouth was deliberately bred so she can’t mangle the ducks she retrieves (and I know what an avid duck hunter you are!). Not such a good trait in a GSD bred for police work. Frankly, I hope Our Best Friend would mangle the heck out of an intruder.

    I suppose we see “fat” as maladaptive due to its links with hypertension, type II diabetes, etc. But what makes wrinkles maladaptive? That’s an entirely social construct bred from the cult of youth worship. Shyness can go either way. It’s a definite drawback in politics, where ideas are never enough; you need personality to sell them. Then again, if you prefer to putter alone in a lab, you might be the next genius inventor who saves mankind. Work with your strengths, that’s what I say.

  7. Pamela, another very thought provoking post :) Cali doesn’t know that she is supposed to like swimming either! I really need to read the Happiness Project it sounds like an interesting read. Personal coaching and self help are HUGE right now (and expensive!). I did a little course called “Soul Restoration” with Brave Girls Club which was all about remembering who you really are (the you that was there before you started trying to make everyone else happy!) It was interesting – it’s hard sometimes to just be ourselves isn’t it?

  8. This is a wonderful post. I love how you’re taking what you’re learning about Honey and applying it to your own life. I know I’m learning as much about myself as I am about dogs in raising my Bella.

  9. There’s a lot for me to think about here. When we go somewhere with the Greyhounds, people always comment about how gentle they are when they take food from them. It’s something that always amuses me. And then there’s Morgan, who might or might not leave you with all your fingers attached if you have something she’s really interested in! I love that our dogs never seem to worry about what they can or can’t do when they’re around other dogs, and they don’t seem to care where I rank, either. It’s enough that I love them, they love me and we’re together! I’d be a much better person if I learned to see myself the way my dogs see me.

  10. I’m with you, just who was the sexist jerk who started the “cellulite is ugly” brainwash?! I mean, if 90% of us have it (and that would include the skinny itches), maybe it was never intended to be a bad thing. So as of now, I am okay with my dimply butt! Thanks! :)

    Now, as for the shyness, I used to be WAY more self-conscious about it (imagine that – being self-conscious about being naturally shy – talk about anxiety!). Now, as I’ve gotten older than half of all people, I just try and manage it. Putting it out on my blog somehow feels like taking a weight off – it’s thrilling to know that you all know I’m not the life of the party, but still like me anyway. :) Just like you say you talk too much, but I like you anyway.

    Oh, and just try taking the bark out of a Corgi – NOT happening.

  11. One of the advantages of having a mutt who is so thoroughly mixed that no one can identify what his lineage might be is that there are zero expectations about what he should or shouldn’t be like. He’s just the Doodlebug…and that’s enough :)

  12. What a great post! I love your cellulite and introversion examples. I’m one who laments both, although I’m getting better about accepting the introvert. The cellulite is a harder one LOL.
    Wonderful post, and I just love Honey’s picture. What a beauty. :)

  13. It must be nice to have a “soft mouthed” pup. That apple would have looked like it was mauled by a wolverine if Koly got his paws on it. Love the message. Sometimes, I exert a lot of energy trying to be someone I’m not. I should follow Honey’s example and just be.


  1. […] week, a post from Pamela Douglas Webster from Something Wagging This Way Comes about The Puppiness Project – You Can’t Change Everything and you Shouldn’t Try reminded me that I should question whether things really need to be “fixed” or […]