7 Life Lessons From a Puppy

Woof! My name is Zuzu, and although I’m only 14 weeks old, I’ve already learned some important life lessons.


1. How to make a tail wag

What makes a puppy happy?

  1. A healthy lifestyle (yummy food, lots of water, plenty of exercise, and snoozing time, too);
  2. Feeling secure (with a warm bed that’s safe from raptors and other scary creatures);
  3. The opportunity to give and get lots and lots of love; and
  4. Little pleasures.

I guess I’m not that different from a lot of humans! For more on happiness, you can check out Chade-Meng Tan’s book, Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within, in which he describes how to recognize “thin slices of joy” in life. Or watch this iconic video of Julie Andrews singing her recipe for finding happiness during dark times. My point is this: you don’t need to be a big shot to find happiness, and you don’t need lots of big things or experiences either. A simple puppy-style life might be all that you need.

Puppy lesson #1: Even the simplest things can make your tail wag.

2. The many languages of love

Puppies like me love to lick people to show our love, and you normally put up with it because of our innate cuteness factor. But as we grow up, we have to learn that everyone has an individual style for giving and receiving love.

Do you like to be licked? Kissed? Hugged?
(I like all sorts of physical attention, except when I’m overtired, and then I get wriggly and feisty.)

Do you like to get presents?
(Count me in on that one! Especially duck-and-potato treats or Kong toys stuffed with cheese.)

How does it make you feel when people do favors for you?
(Like when they clean up my accidents? It makes me feel great!)

Do you thrive on words of encouragement?
(I do! I love to hear “good girl” when I’ve done something right.)

Or is the gift of someone’s time the most important sign of love for you?
(Bingo! I love all those other things, but this might be the best one of all. Puppies never tire of being with their canine siblings and their human owners.)

What all this means to me is that I shouldn’t take it too personally if someone rebuffs one of my methods of showing love. I just need to try another approach.

Puppy lesson #2: Know your love language and be mindful that others might want to communicate love differently.

3. Exploring with all your senses

Kids who love to play with finger paint, clay, or even their food intuitively know the benefit of tactile exploration. Puppies do, too. It’s how we learn. We don’t need headlines on Facebook to figure out our world. Take it from me, even though I’m just a newbie: put down those touchscreens and get outside to touch the real world. Pick up a pine cone and note its prickly edges. Take off your shoes and walk barefoot through the dirt. Slip a piece of gravel into your mouth, like I do, and let it roll around on your tongue. (Okay, maybe skip that last one.)

You people spend far too much time paying attention to what’s right at the end of your noses, like your smartphones, without even using your sense of smell. Maybe that’s because your sniffers aren’t as good as our dog sniffers, which scientists say are 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than yours. Also, the part of our brain that’s devoted to smell is, proportionately speaking, 40 times greater than yours.You’ve seen lots of TV shows and movies in which dogs track down missing people and fugitives using their sense of smell. But did you know they can also locate endangered species? Check out a Labrador Retriever named Tucker who finds orcas with his nose here.

Our sense of hearing is really powerful too. We can hear sounds up to four times farther away than humans. Yesterday, I heard a flock of Canadian geese coming when we were walking on a trail in Marymoor Park. At first, I didn’t know what the cacophony was, but finally I saw them—hundreds of them, soaring toward us and then right overhead. It was a marvelous multi-sensory experience to behold.

Visual acuity seems to vary among dogs. Some people think it’s dependent on breed; others think it’s an individual variance. I like to watch the television, for example, but Lani–who’s also a Doodle–doesn’t pay any attention to that screen on the wall at all. Is it because she doesn’t see the images? Or because she’s self-actualized and doesn’t need TV? One thing that’s becoming clear is that it’s just an old myth that dogs only see in black and white. We can’t recognize as many colors as you can, but we can see colors in the same way a color-blind person can. And we notice motion, and see much better in the dark, than you humans do.

Overall, I’d be willing to place a wager that dogs use their senses more efficiently and effectively than humans. Which brings me to…

Puppy lesson #3: If you do a better job using all your senses, you’ll better know and appreciate your world.

4. Just don’t drink from puddles

Oh yes, and then there’s the sense of taste. Yes, we dogs do use our taste buds to explore our worlds, just as little humans do. But we only have about 1700 taste receptors on our tongues compared to the human tongue with 9000 taste buds. That might explain why we’re prone to eating gross things, like vomit and poop. Or why I like to drink from puddles.

Which, I learned, isn’t a good idea.  Who knew that giardia thrives in the smallest bodies of water? You don’t have to go swimming in a lake or river to get it. It could be waiting for you, lurking, just outside your front door. And trust me, it’s nasty—especially for young pups—and their owners, who have to clean up the mess. It’s also contagious, as Lani can tell you.

Puppy lesson #4: Beware what you put into your mouth.

5. Nocturnal bliss

Speaking of using all your senses, when was the last time you noticed the night? Really went outside and took in all the curious, even frightening imagery? Shadows whisk past! Bats and owls whirr overhead! Ducks quack eerily like sinister creatures! Clouds mask the moonlight, and branches scrape against one another as wind whips out of nowhere! It’s no wonder I’m scared of the dark.

But when I’m inside at night, lying on the sofa next to my dog sister or my people, with a warm fire glowing, the world is entirely different from what’s going on outside. Here I feel calm and safe. My muscles relax, and all the excitement of the day melts away, and I know that this is the magical hour when love blossoms, even as I fall asleep, just as the poet Joyce Sidman wrote in her poem, Dog in Bed. Here’s an excerpt:

This is how it is with love.
Once invited,
it steps in gently,
circles twice,
and takes up as much space
as you will give it.


Puppy lesson #5: Open your heart to the magic of the night and invite love in.

6. It’s not all about you
Okay, okay. I admit I’m having trouble with this one. Puppies are, by nature, little narcissists. We do think the world revolves around us. But I know this little trip down Look-At-Me Lane won’t last much longer. Big sister Lani has already begun to make clear that she’s the boss of me.

And the truth is this: as much as I love to get into trouble and flit around like a hyperactive gnat, my true joy is when I please Lani and my people. Dogs are social animals, and belonging to the pack is way more important in the grand scheme of life than chewing up a sock. I think that’s true for people, too—don’t you?

Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks wrote, “the purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.” His advice can be interpreted in lots of different ways. For me, it means I need to stop trying so hard to show everyone how funny I am. I need to learn how to observe the others in my pack and, while staying true to myself, be respectful of their needs and gracious in my interactions with them.

Puppy lesson #6: It’s not just about you or me. It’s about all of us, together.
7. Give yourself a break

Life can be hard, even messy. We all screw up and get in trouble. I know I should pee outside, but sometimes I forget. I know I shouldn’t nip at people, but sometimes I get overexcited. I know I shouldn’t munch on well-worn shoes, but…well…they taste good. And I know I should take naps throughout the day (the AKC website says puppies are supposed to sleep 15-20 hours per day), but I’ve got some serious FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) issues, so sometimes it’s hard to settle down and rest.

Even so, there’s an instinctive part of me that knows I need to go off into my happy place and take some breaks each day. Most of the time I fall asleep while there and, according to Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, getting good sleep will make it easier for me to learn when I’m awake. It will help me make better choices. It can also recalibrate my emotional brain circuits, allowing me “to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges with cool-headed composure.” These are all super important for a puppy like me! His book also says that sleep nurtures our immune systems, regulates our insulin and appetite, and supports our cardiovascular health.

But even if I don’t fall asleep, taking a break allows me to forgive myself for my mistakes, let go of my sibling jealousy, and calm my inner psycho-pup. It also demonstrates kindness and compassion for others in my pack who just might need a break from me! In short, it allows me to recharge, so my tail can start wagging again.

Do you have a happy place where you go for your breaks? One of mine is right underneath my mom’s desk, where I lie at her feet while she writes.


Puppy lesson #7: Find your happy place and take frequent breaks there.

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