The Puppiness Project – Play to Win

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.” Today, the Puppiness Project is my husband’s attempt to learn the same from Honey, my Golden Retriever.

Play to Win

Regular visitors to this blog will know Mondays are for the Puppiness Project, featuring the ways in which my wife has been learning the secrets to happiness from our golden retriever, Honey.

I did not think I would ever be writing a guest post for a Monday slot because, after twenty-two years together, Pam and I have despaired of my learning anything from anybody.

However, I may have beaten the odds after all. I was playing with Honey earlier this week when. . .

But first, let me tell you about how we play.


Golden Retriever and Man playing with Kong dog toy

Hey, whatcha playing at? That's my toy.

It often begins quietly. Either Honey will humbly and calmly insist on my attention by picking up a toy and dropping it in my lap; or I, seeing Honey mercifully at rest and not giving my ever-blogging wife any reason to be distracted from her sizeable workload, will feel a compulsive need to provide a diversion of my own by pummeling her (Honey, not my wife) on the muzzle until she wrinkles it up and starts to play bitey-face with me.

Soon, an object we both covet greatly, such as an oversized cigar-like rubber squeakie toy with a green microfiber cover half ripped off from repeated abuse, will end up in my momentary custody. Standing over Honey, I’ll initiate a game of keep away by bopping her first on the head, then on the tummy, then on one side or the other of her rear quarters. Since possession is nine-tenths of the law, she’ll attempt to grab the toy from my hands, whirling, teeth and tongue bared, in the direction of the last touch.

Before long, Honey will succeed in latching on to this increasingly slobbery object of our mutual desire, and we will enter into a full-blown, hammer-and-tongs (or, if you prefer, hands-teeth-and-tongue), life-or-death game of tug-of-war.

Reflecting on the last sentence, there are simply not enough hyphens in the English language to describe the intensity of these battles.

I’m Honey’s favorite tug-of-war partner because I take her seriously. I take all my opponents seriously. I play to win: and I have never thrown a game, not for love or money. Like the scorpion in that story with the fox, I can’t help it. It’s my nature.

Man playing tug of war with Golden Retriever

No time for trash talk. I've got my mouth full.

And while the years are conspiring to teach me to be a gracious loser (the “noun” part of this role is something I achieve too readily; it’s the crucial “modifier” the years have had to drill into me), heaven help you even today if you beat me.

Or, for that matter, if I beat you.


Having latched on, Honey will eventually take the toy away from me.

And I was playing with Honey earlier this week when I realized that, when she does so, she doesn’t run off with her prize into a defensible corner from which to fend off all challengers.

And. . . she doesn’t gloat about her victory. And. . . she doesn’t talk trash. And. . . she doesn’t sign into Facebook to tell the world how reaming me has helped her climb two places in her Fantasy Tug-of-War League rankings.

(Puppies don’t fantasize about football because they can’t carry them around in their mouths. OK, there are those Nerf foam footballs that some dogs can sink their teeth into and are light enough to carry. But you have to be careful to supervise your dog vigilantly with those because they might dislodge and swallow a chunk that will require a vet’s scalpel and a second mortgage to remove. So you’re better off getting them high-quality dog toys. But I digress.)

No, instead of acting on the baser instincts that drive me in the midst of my life’s petty competitions, Honey will step off two paces, turn back toward me with a floofy, wagging tail, play-bow, and put the toy in my lap again.

That is to say, the half-fuzzy, half-stripped, spit-coated trophy which I must at all costs win from my dog is, for her, no more than a means to a higher end: an opportunity to continue a fine friendship and a chance to be with one of many people she loves.

Golden retriever clutching man's arm

How about a quick game of bitey face before dinner?

Honey knows that to play is more important than to win.

No, I’ll go one better than that.

Honey does play to win. But for her, the winning is in the playing.


hop on…


  1. I knew there was a reason I liked you Mike! 🙂

    I also play to win. When my brother’s girlfriend’s daughter came over for Christmas and asked me to play Connect 4 with her (one of her X-mas gifts), I told her “Yes. But no freebies. You have to win on your own.” She got a grin and beat my butt several times. Loved it!

    But, what you call out is something I don’t think many of us think about. How we gloat and spread the story of our wins while dogs just look at is continuing the game and extending the fun. Maybe we need to do a little more of that.

    BTW – I also play that same game with Jasper. Touching his toy to his nose, side belly. It’s a lot of fun.

  2. What a fabulous post and a wonderful reminder that life is in the journey, not the arrival. It’s not getting the toy that matters to Honey, it’s getting that play time with you she cares about.

    Oh what we can learn from our dogs… 🙂

  3. Wonderful guest post Mike!
    I have to admit that I play to win too, but only with Leroy. There is just something about him that makes me feel the need to come out with a victory when we are playing a game of tug of war, but that is because Leroy gloats when he wins. He will prance around the house with his victory toy and glare at me. He will drop the toy by me only to quickly grab it as I reach to pick it up. He’s a teaser:))))

  4. What a great post. I play to win too, although I try not to gloat. Many people could take a lesson from their dogs.

  5. It IS about enjoying the fun and not about being better than someone 🙂

  6. What a terrific post! I think Honey has something to teach us all! What a good girl.

  7. The only game I ever win is Trivial Pursuit, and man do I beat the crap out of people. Sadly, Our Best Friend doesn’t know a lot of trivia.

    It’s an interesting mind-set, to enjoy the play and the not victory. Maybe if we stopped keeping score, that would work for us too.

  8. That was a cool post Honey’s Dad!!

    I know all about it when you’re busy sleeping and get disturbed to play – my Mum does that to me – I’m not so competitive as Honey in our games, I will play until I’m fed up and want to do something else – but I will usually entertain my Mum at least a little even if I’m busy with something else, like sleeping!! 🙂 On the plus side, I can usually turn the games into a game of ‘rub my belly’ – now that’s what I call winning!! Tee Hee

    Have a fun day,

    Your pal Snoopy 🙂

  9. Men probably tend to be more competitive, which is not meant to be insulting. It’s just in their DNA. I enjoyed reading this hilarious post of self-discovery. My own dogs tend to gloat though which brings out my more competitive nature.

  10. I love to win but forget the effort it takes and the joy getting there. This was a great post for me to read – and Honey has the journey down pat – let’s play!

  11. My husband is my dog’s favourite tug partner as well. Even when we’re playing fetch, she’ll often bring the ball to my husband, even if I am the one who threw it. Not being very competitive, maybe I am not as much fun? But perhaps that’s the lesson I can learn from you and Honey, that sometimes a little competition never hurt anyone, sometimes it just increases the good time!

  12. I love this post! Seems like life’s gems can be learned by observing man’s best friend. But can we put aside our basic instincts and not succumb to the sweet taste of gloating…

  13. Don’t tell Pamela, but I think this may be my favorite Puppiness Project post ever! It’s so true! I grew up in a very competitive family, but by comparison, I am the least competitive among them. My husband won’t play games because he hates them. I teach PreK and I won’t throw a game for them, either! I love that our dogs always see the best side of a good game, though, and win or lose doesn’t matter a whit to them!

  14. The game is the best part!! 🙂

    Thanks for joining the hop!


  15. So true, the playing is the prize. 🙂

  16. Dogs just always seem to what’s really important, don’t they? Sounds like you and Honey have lots of fun!!

  17. Mike Webster says:

    Thank you all for the kind comments, both about Honey and about the post.

    I’ve had games ruined by people with overcompetitive spirits, and I’ve ruined a few myself. So Honey actually taught me two things in the past week. The first I described in the post.

    The second is this: It’s very intimidating to live with a dog that is smarter than you. 🙂

  18. I’m glad to know that you’re not pummeling Pamela – I don’t think it would be advisable to play bitey face with her. 😉 Loved the post and my boys are the same way – the treat is the playing, not the winning.

  19. Lol, I live with 2 dogs who are smarter than me …. they’ve both got me much better trained than I have them:) Beryl is good to play tug with, neither of us are serious about it. Frankie is a true competitor and also has a much stronger jaw than I have hands so we don’t play for long but it’s a good work out for both of us. He needs to learn that the winning is in the playing though:)

    Great post, Mike.

  20. I’m pretty competitive too… I’m trying to work on not being a game-ruiner myself. 🙂 I’ll have to take a lesson from Honey!

    Great post, Mike. 🙂

  21. Aw, well said! I love The Happiness Project, but I think I will love The Puppiness Project even more!

  22. this was such a good post–and so true. our dogs want to play simply to play and spend time with us. they have this way of enjoying life that most of us just do not comprehend. there really is so much they can teach us.

    p.s. how can i convince my husband to write a guest post? these are great!


  1. Life by Pets says:

    […] Something Wagging this Way Comes has a regular feature called The Puppiness Project, where she does her best to learn something from their adorable Golden Retriever every week. This week’s installment, written by her husband, is all about good sportsmanship when you Play to Win […]