Beachside Stroll

Having pets can enhance a couple’s relationship.  But sometimes the pet becomes a pawn in a power struggle between adults. I have seen many cases of hidden agendas between people who use their dog to control their partner.

I first wrote this several years ago for my beloved friend Andi Godfrey for her website.  She is sadly missed.

There’s an old theory that arguing with your partner about leaving the cap off the toothpaste or leaving the toilet seat up isn’t really about that at all.  It is supposedly the catalyst for an argument about more serious issues and the simple, obvious behaviour is simply an excuse to vent feelings.  So could that be true of couples who own dogs?  Could your partner’s complaints about your pet really be about your relationship?

If your partner tells you that your dog howls the house down and sulks when you leave, can you really believe it?  Do you live with someone who is insecure and manipulative and could they be using your dog to keep you home?

Be honest with yourself, are you the one using your pet’s behaviour to manipulate your partner?

Couples often end up fighting each other over dogs.  They sometimes take completely opposing sides.  One thinks the other is too soft and so is harder on the dog, the other thinks that the dog needs more love to make up and so the people get further apart.  One maybe complains the dog causes the house to be untidy, leaving chews and toys all over.  Is that really true or does he really mean you are a lazy housewife that does nothing all day but daren’t say so?

I know a couple with a Labrador.  They are nice enough people but horribly manipulative.  The wife has to avoid showing too much affection to the dog until the husband has gone to bed.  He says it’s because she spoils the dog and she is ruining his training.  She now doesn’t enjoy the dog and the dog is becoming very stressed.   Often when he approaches his Mum for a bit of attention, she panics and has to send him away to appease her frowning husband.  Once husband is in bed she has the dog up for a big cuddle but she says the dog is getting less keen on this.  It’s easy to see why; the poor dog has no consistency.  He has no way of getting attention when he needs it or of understanding his humans.

It is obvious this man is jealous of his dog.  I dread to think what will happen when he has to share his wife with children.

A common thing I hear is that a particular dog is stressed when the owner leaves.  The manipulative partner says the dog is sulky or stressed, maybe it won’t settle and sits by the door all night.  I have a client who on my advice sneaked home when told this was happening.  She discovered the dog asleep on the sofa next to her husband.  When she returned properly later she was told the dog hadn’t settled all night and she really needed to reconsider whether these nights out were worth it!

There are very differing reasons why people have dogs.  For some it is a general love of animals, dogs perhaps in particular. Others only get one to satisfy a partner or child, or see their pet as something earning its keep by guarding the kids or home or keeping their partner safe whilst they work away.  Even worse some want their money back and think breeding is the way to do that.  Not everyone gets a dog because they simply want the enjoyment of a pet.

Another recent client is the owner of a Mastiff cross bitch.  She didn’t really want a dog that big, it was her husband’s choice.  Her husband is a control freak who constantly complains about the state of the house.  It is never clean enough for him or tidy enough so you wonder why he would get a large slobbering dog to live in it.

The answer is fairly obvious.  The dog gave him a whole new set of complaints and therefore control.  The dog isn’t walked as she can’t handle it and he won’t walk it so it has gradually become frustrated and bored and destructive.  When he is home the dog is put in the kitchen as he says she messes up his clothes.  I told them to rehome the dog and give it to someone who actually wanted it.

Maybe you are the guilty partner?  Do you tell your other half that the dog needs walking to delay them leaving?  Do you tell them the dog misses them when they leave in the hope they will go out less?  Does your partner’s behaviour with your dog mimic how they treat the children?

It isn’t unusual for me to see couples at loggerheads over the attention given to the dog or the rules everyone has for the dog.  One side says the other is too soft, they say the other is too hard.  Each has devised their own set of boundaries and the poor dog is left not knowing how to behave.  Parents often tell me their partner is “just the same with the kids”.  Somehow it is easier to point out someone’s failings over their treatment of the dog than the children.

Getting a dog can be a moment of manipulation too.  Some recent clients had serious problems with their dog as it often showed aggression to the husband when he came home.  The wife had only been able to get a dog after negotiations with her husband.  He said she could have a dog only if it didn’t interfere with his having his dinner made and ready, going out to eat on a Saturday night and not messing up the house.  He would come home and have a quick look round first and as long as nothing was wrong he would pet the dog (and probably his wife too).  The dog was ignored if anything was out of place or dinner not ready.

I pointed out that the dog didn’t know these stupid rules and that its only defence was to act aggressively as he had no idea what this returning member was trying to do.  It was fear, plain and simple.  All the husband kept saying was “well, she knew the rules when she got the dog”.

Your dog is not the emotional stick to train your kids with either.  Don’t stop your children from playing with or feeding or grooming the dog as a punishment.  The dog has no idea why they are approaching their child and being told off or sent away and may come to fear being near the child.  Dogs cannot grasp human emotional issues and telling the dog, “it’s ok, Johnny will play with you later,” really doesn’t help.

Your dog isn’t a tool with which to control your partner or your children.  Family and relationship problems are not the responsibility of your pet and using them in any form of emotional manipulation is cruel and selfish.  If you have a problem with your partner’s behaviour, get therapy, not a dog.

About Safepets UK

Expert Witness behaviourist assessing dogs for court, treating cats and dogs. Covering Midlands to London and other areas.

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