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Minimalist Lessons from Your Dog

(Adriana, four years ago)

Want to be a minimalist? Or at least learn about minimalist values? My best advice is to use your dog as a mentor.

People define minimalism in many different ways. The most hardcore define it as owning 100 possessions or less. Even under these admirable guidelines, dogs easily qualify, but this isn’t the kind I’m talking about. For my family, minimalism means finding happiness in simplicity. And simplicity is programmed into a dog’s DNA.

Simplify Your Toys

One summer afternoon a few years ago, I watched Adriana La Cerva investigate the front yard. She had still been a puppy, floppy ears, pink paws, nothing but cuteness. At one point, she found a mammoth sunflower I’d thrown near the tree line. The flower’s head was wider than her front half, the stalk longer than her length, nose to tail.

The sunflower was still alive but wilting after a storm had bent its stem. Adriana didn’t care. She acted as though she’d discovered Escobar’s hidden stash. Clutching that flower in her tiny maw, she wrestled and sprinted and leaped and even flipped ass over teakettle a few times. She was downright giddy, and it was all because of a sunflower.

When she exhausted herself, she pranced through the front door, holding her prize high, so the rest of her pack could admire it. And they did. Colorful balls, braided ropes, and stuffed squeaky toys were scattered across our house, but that flower was the only thing our dogs cared about for the rest of the afternoon. At the time I didn’t understand what I was witnessing, but in retrospect I realize it was a lesson from my dog, a lesson about finding happiness in simplicity.

To this day, Ade feels the same way about sticks, nuts, cornhusks, and pinecones. She’ll discard any manmade toy in an instant for a natural one. In the most obvious way possible, dogs embody minimalism because they don’t care (at all) about material possessions. In fact, I bought every dog bed, collar, leash, and toy that my dogs own. The canine industry makes billions of dollars a year because of people like me, not Adriana. If Ade had her choice, life would be filled with sunflowers and sticks. In her world, nature would always come first.

Simplify Your Experiences

Another minimalist value that dogs have mastered is living in the moment. If my dogs listed their favorite activities, it would look something like this: long walks (rain or shine), car rides with windows down (also rain or shine), napping in warm laundry, sunbathing, running in the woods, swimming in the creek, and long wrestling sessions. Full disclosure: I’ve tried all of them, and none disappoint. Plus, they don’t cost much more than a little gas or electricity.

These experiences share another commonality. They all engage multiple senses, meaning they aren’t passive but visceral activities. Dogs are really good at living in individual moments because each one is an sensory explosion. They don’t only see their surroundings, but they listen to it, taste it, touch it, and of course, smell it. Have you ever seen your dog throw back her head, stick her nose in the air, and take a giant sniff? Have you ever imitated her? Well, I have. Sure, sometimes I get a whiff of manure or something dead, but other times it’s the scent of wild honeysuckle, fresh-cut grass, or an impending thunderstorm.

A few days ago Adriana and I were walking through the historic section of Springfield. I was lost in my mind, mulling over work gossip, my current read, my mother’s mental health, giving my dogs a bath, and a phone bill I needed to pay. Suddenly, Adriana halted, and I was jolted right back to Oak Street.

Following the direction of her snout, I saw three baby chickens rooting in someone’s yard. The peeps were too busy to notice a dog and a human, so they didn’t scatter, but kept working while we kept watching. And we watched those fuzzy yellow babies for a solid five minutes. I knew, even then, that without Adriana, I would have passed those three chicks without ever seeing them. Without Adriana, that walk would have dissolved into every other one. Instead, she made it into a memory.

This happens all the time on our walks. While I’m busy muddling through my human thoughts, my dogs are busy living in the moment. Whenever I do pay attention to them, when I emulate them, all sorts of treasures appear. Besides baby chicks, my dogs have pointed out deer, ducks, herons, beavers, snapping turtles, rabbits, frogs, fish, snakes, hawks, river otters (!) and turkeys.

Sometimes, they point out unsavory things too, like dirty diapers or empty fast food bags. Other times, they tell me necessary information, like a runner is approaching or a stray dog is off leash. The bottom line is whenever I imitate my dogs and engage my senses, I discover something beautiful, surprising, or at the very least interesting.

Simplify Your Emotions

I could write twenty pages about what a dog’s capacity to love can teach us, minimalist or not. Across the board, dog people attest to their animal’s unconditional love. And personally, dogs have cured my broken heart more times than I can count. But, what makes their love a minimalist value is its purity.

Dogs teach us how to love without labels. I’ve never met a creature who cared less about social status or categories than a dog. If they could read, they’d scoff at Thorsten Veblen and his theories about conspicuous consumption. Dogs don’t care if we are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, overweight or skinny, outgoing or reserved, Muslim, Christian, or atheist. They don’t care if our skin is black, brown, or white, or if we are gay, straight, male, female, or any sex in between. A dog’s love is socially uncontaminated. Label free. Simple.

They also know how to make forgiveness simple. Last Tuesday I was tired. I spent all of June and most of July traveling for work. I had cramps and only two days at home before I had to catch another flight. Ade wanted to walk. I could tell because every time I moved towards the door, she followed.

It was a glorious summer evening, and normally, we would walk. We would jump into the Honda and head to town for our two-mile evening stroll. But, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and binge watch British crime dramas. At one point, Ade was staring at me so intently that I could clearly hear her thoughts, “I’ve barely seen you for a month. The least you can do is walk me.” And she was right.

But, my exhaustion won out. I turned on my heating pad, spooned out a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and streamed Acorn TV. Ade shot me one recriminating glance before she jumped on the bed and cuddled close. She forgave me within seconds. She always does. And the most remarkable part is that she does it without holding a grudge. When dogs forgive, they also forget.

Of all the lessons my dogs teach me about minimalism, simplifying my emotions is the hardest one I’m still trying to learn. But I have four great teachers, who love me unconditionally, ugly parts and all. All minimalists have different definitions for their lifestyle. But, at its core, minimalism is the belief that happiness can be found in simplicity. And there is no better example than your dog (s).

One comment

  1. Trish Lawton says:

    Melissa, you nailed it! I love how you wove our conversation that morning into an eloquent, yet simply-stated, lesson of life!
    Thank you. Love you always, Trish

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