Jenny Slate loves dogs. She grew up with a Bichon Frise named Wally, fell in love with her own Bichon Frise named Reggie, and now owns a rescue dog named Sally. Jenny even considers herself “very much like a dog,” and fittingly, voiced Gidget, a white pomeranian, in the 2016 film The Secret Life of Pets. And so Jenny understands that dogs sometimes eat things they shouldn’t. Like tampons. In a recent episode of How To!, Jenny shared that story while giving advice to our listener, Erin, whose own dog is eating some things he shouldn’t—in this case, her daughters’ underwear. And even if you don’t have a mischievous dog, Jenny says our relationship with animals can actually help us be better humans to each other. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: So Erin, tell me what’s going on.
Erin: I am a dog owner of two Portuguese Water Dog Poodles. One is very smart and one is not very smart but very lovable. His name is Chief and he has a penchant for underwear. And it’s not just a penchant—it’s an obsession. I have two teenage daughters who are overall great kids, but cannot seem to get the concept that if you leave your underwear somewhere the dog will eat them and then be in surgery.
Charles: Oh my gosh.
Erin: Yeah. This is a continuing issue. I’ve got to tell you, he just did it last week.
Charles: Jenny, how many dogs do you have right now?
Jenny Slate: I just have one dog. I used to have two, but I recently lost my old pal Reggie. He lived a very long life. We had a beautiful time together every moment.
Charles: Well, this is going to sound like the craziest thing on Earth. You actually have experience with a situation similar to Erin’s, right?
Jenny: Yes. So as my ex-husband said to me last week, Reggie was sprinting towards death. There was no connection, obviously, for him between cause and effect. Reggie was diabetic but he would eat anything, even though he was on a strict diabetic diet and he needed insulin twice a day. Not only that, he was very naughty. At one point, he ate five used tampons. When it comes to underwear, you know, we all wear them. Or we should. Or actually do whatever you want. But they’re not an embarrassing item—it’s basically like a sock. So if the dog eats underwear, it’s like whatever. But the embarrassment factor of the five tampons was really, really big.
Charles: I have a couple of questions. Is it five in one setting or is that like five over a period of time?
Jenny: I mean, basically what happened was I used to flush my tampons down the toilet. And then I was making a film and one of the other actors—who happened to be a man and who has never used a tampon—was like, “Well, you know, you shouldn’t do that because you’re going to ruin your plumbing.” We could get into an entire side discussion on patriarchy and why a man should never tell you what to do with your tampons. But of course, I’m like, I better start throwing away my tampons even though he doesn’t know anything about my life or how I live or how gross my dog is. So in the course of a normal menstrual period, I threw the tampons away. They were wrapped in toilet paper. I didn’t chuck them in there. I’m not super gross. They were disposed of properly, but the trashcan didn’t have a lid or anything. So there were five in there and it was probably about time for me to empty the trash. But Reggie beelined it and, well, emptied the trash.
Charles: And how did you discover this?
Jenny: It’s the same story that Erin is telling. Reggie was sitting kind of weird. He already had so many issues that we would go to the vet a lot anyway. Like one time he ate a bag of really strong coffee and he was like, yah! Just being crazy. He ate a lot of stuff. Anyway, he was sitting weird and it was like, we all know that something is up. So we took him in to the vet and the tampons were all in there. It was a surgery situation.
Charles: You’re the perfect person to be giving advice on this, which is amazing. What was the solution for you?
Jenny: Well, the control lies with me. Reggie is not able to control himself. And these are major expenses and the dog is in real danger. So the first thing that I did was that I replaced all of the trash cans in my house with those trash cans that even if you tip them over the lid doesn’t open. Because I am absent-minded. For example, at the time I had a Prius and I would constantly just leave the car running. They’re really quiet and they don’t have a key that you take out. Anyway, I was like, “Jenny, Get real. You can’t be trusted. You have got to outfit this house to remind yourself that there’s an issue and to also try to solve the issue.” So I also put baby gates in the bathroom. And then my house just became much, much more tidy. So Erin, I think you have to replace as many objects as possible. Maybe you have to get some gates for your daughter’s rooms and for your bathroom?
Erin: Yeah, I think that would work.
Charles: What I’m hearing is that your dog actually taught you a valuable lesson. By eating your tampons, you learned to tidy your house more, and not leave the Prius running anymore.
Jenny: I mean now I have a Subaru! But yes, I think the dog’s instincts are the dog’s instincts, and one of the coolest things about having an animal is that they can really make you aware of your own dysfunction. If you have a messy house and you have a dog, they’re going to exacerbate that issue.
Erin: Absolutely. And I think that’s the way with two teenagers too, right? Teenagers are going to be teenagers. They are both absent-minded. And I think you’re right, Jenny—I’m not sure I’m going to change that either.
Jenny: No, you’re not. That’s going to happen in time. And by time, I mean I changed when I was like 35. But one of the things that I love about having a dog is that it’s an exercise in accepting someone for their limits and still saying that they can contribute greatly to your life. There’s something about animals that reminds us of our animal selves and allows us to feel immediate empathy. Animals just give us a big opportunity to give “the other” the most chances for understanding.
Charles: Okay, so we’re not trying to change Erin’s dog’s behavior so much as we’re trying to change her daughters’. Take me back into the head of a 16-year-old Jenny Slate. What could your parents have told you that would have convinced you to change your behavior?
Jenny: I was probably pretty similar to Erin’s daughters. I was a general good kid, but I really was so absent-minded. I would have felt bad if Wally, our dog, had needed surgery. But shame is like so short-sighted and creates other problems. I think the thing that would have helped the most would have been constant discussion—like, “OK, I know this is like annoying that we’re talking about it again. But tonight, when you guys get undressed, where’s your gym bag?” Keep bringing it up.
Erin: That’s just like what you talked about with accepting the limitations. I’ve been like, “Why isn’t this clicking with you? I don’t understand how this is even possible.” But I realize that, ironically, I’ve accepted Chief’s limitations, but I’m not sure I’ve accepted my teenagers’.
Jenny: Exactly. I just remember being like, “Oh, I’m the problem and I’m going to be alone with the problem. And the problem is me.” In your daughter’s case, like, I actually do want my adorable, nice dog to stay alive. I feel like this kind of extends everywhere in my life—there can be an issue between people. There can be an issue in your household. But very rarely is the person themselves just a complete issue.
And you know what? Everybody leaves their underwear on the floor every now and then, but we just don’t focus on it if our dog doesn’t eat them. I probably have underwear on the floor upstairs in my house right now.
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To hear more of Jenny’s tips and how she got into character for The Secret Life of Pets, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.