Every morning, Jill Kessler whispered sweet nothings to her rottweiler, Tor. “I love you; you’re my sweetest boy,” she’d coo to him. One morning, she heard a voice from the other room: “I love you, too, honey,” her husband, Steve, called to her.
Luckily for Kessler, who lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif., her husband remains good-natured about the affection she lavishes on her dogs, but the path to true love isn’t always so smooth when a pet is involved.
Pets can become territorial when their people begin a new relationship, and people who aren’t fond of animals can be annoyed at the amount of attention some people lavish on their pets. When pets and lovers clash, there can be fussing, fighting, snarling — and sometimes, peeing.
Susan McCullough of Vienna, Va., recalls dating a man whose German shepherd didn’t appreciate her being around.
“I woke up one morning to find the dog lifting his leg and peeing at my corner of the bed, very close to my face!” she says.
Some messy reactions
It’s not unusual for cats and dogs to express their anxieties over a new person in the household by seeming to forget that they’re housetrained, says veterinarian and animal behaviorist Sophia Yin, who practices at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists. In particular, cats who are stressed have a reputation for urinating or spraying on items that belong to their owner, especially clothing or bedding.
“They choose things that smell like the owner because that’s where they feel comfortable,” Dr. Yin says. “The owner shouldn’t take it as the cat being malicious; it’s just an indication that the cat — or dog — is stressed.”
When people bring their dogs to her because of a relationship problem, the troublemaker is often a pampered small dog who’s used to being carried around, petted and given frequent treats.
“With dogs, I more commonly see the ones that are really used to getting everything they want from their owner, so they want all of the owner’s attention,” Yin says. “They’re the type of dog that is always jumping on the owner’s lap and won’t get off. Sometimes they’ll growl if pushed off, or they’ll bark and they’ll keep pawing until they get what they want or they get picked up. When a new person enters the household, they don’t want that person competing with them for attention.”
When cats don’t like people, they usually run and hide. But dogs can turn into canine chaperones, nudging people apart so they can sit between them, growling at them when the partner tries to get into bed and even barring them from the bedroom.
Dog trainer Liz Palika of Oceanside, Calif., had been married less than a month in 1975 when her husband was shipped overseas for a 13-month tour with the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I was devastated and depressed and very lonely, so I decided to get a dog, a German shepherd puppy I named Watachie,” she says. “For a year, it was just the two of us. He was a big black-and-cream 100-pound dog with the impressive bearing that German shepherds have.”
When Palika’s husband Paul finally returned, Watachie didn't want to let him in the house.
“Standing in the doorway, he braced himself, leaned forward in an aggressive posture, and growled down deep in his chest. I had to walk him outside and leave him in the backyard so my husband and I could have a reunion.”
Afterward, she introduced the two males in her life to each other and had Paul feed Watachie for a while, take him for walks and throw the Frisbee for him. Eventually, Paul and Watachie came to like each other, but Palika says there was always a little tension between the two.
When your partner resents your pet
It’s not always the pet whose teeth are bared. Gail C. Parker of Philadelphia was married for almost 15 years to a man who resented the affection and attention she lavished on her pets. When they married, he didn’t want her to get a cat, so they acquired an Irish setter and a rabbit instead. He hated it when the dog cuddled in her lap and "and he was afraid of the rabbit, which had been his idea to get," Parker says.
The couple’s arguments over their pets were among many larger issues in their marriage, and eventually, they divorced.
It can be difficult for people who don’t have a pet to understand the benefit of animal companionship, says psychologist Judy Welch of Thousand Oaks, Calif. They may feel left out when their romantic partner is paying attention to a pet, causing feelings of irritation, jealousy, resentment and insecurity. It’s especially crucial for people in a new relationship who really want it to work out to take steps to sort out the tangled web of emotions whether the person or the animal is the aggrieved party.
If you find yourself courting a curmudgeonly cat or disdainful dog, become the giver of all good things. Treats, meals, favorite toys, walks in the park: they all come from you. If the animal is fearful (which is often the case with cats who weren’t socialized as kittens) toss treats to them in rapid succession every time you approach.
With dogs, Yin recommends a “joined-at-the-hip” technique.
“When I want to get this trained really fast, if we want to get a change within days to a week or two, then I’ll have the new person tether the dog to them so the dog can’t just blow them off and run to the person it likes,” she says. “The new person will give (the dog) treats or their kibble throughout the day or whenever they’re home. The dog learns, ‘New person equals good things for me and I have to actually pay attention to the new person; I can’t just get it for free.’ ”
To “retrain” human partners, use positive reinforcement when you see your new significant other interacting with your pet — praise and a kiss work across species — and use what Welch calls “the shoe exchange,” the time-honored technique of gaining a new perspective by putting yourself in another’s shoes. Ask yourself such questions as “What might be annoying about my pet?” or “What would it feel like if I was not an animal lover?”
Describe how your pet makes you happy and what’s involved in providing for a pet’s needs. A little education can help diminish a lover’s feelings of insecurity.
“This is especially important when one of the parties has no context of pet ownership,” Welch says. “Teaching someone how to best engage with your pet can be helpful. This would demonstrate caring toward the other person and a desire for them to be involved with your pet.”
Compromise is essential in any relationship, but if the person you’re dating issues an ultimatum — “It’s me or the pet” — think twice about whether this is really someone you want to be with. After all, which one is giving you unconditional love?
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.