A single male friend once told me that owning a dog was a dating deal breaker for him. His concerns were lack of spontaneity and a sense of inherited responsibility from day one in the relationship. Everything he said was valid, and of course, my thinking brain understands that it is healthy for people to set boundaries for what they want and don’t want in a relationship.
But as a dog parent, I don’t get it. Would I go so far to say that it’d be a deal breaker if you didn’t like dogs? Maybe.
Alongside differences of religion, lifestyle, and geographic location, your personal view on pet ownership ranks pretty high up on the list of concerns in any new relationship. Does your partner exclusively exist on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, while you’re running out of cabinet space for supplements? Do they spend half the year doing research in the Arctic Circle while you’ve put roots down in South Africa? Do dogs activate a wave of revulsion and their gag reflex, whereas you’re reduced to an incomprehensible puddle of baby-talking gooey mess at every sidewalk dog-sighting?
“With some hard work, your dog just might save your relationship.”
If you both inherited the dog-loving gene, congratulations! That’s one less issue to navigate in your relationship, and you can focus on the moral failings of not taking the trash out, or the deep existential question of what to eat for dinner. Unfortunately, it doesn’t preclude you from a world of buried issues forced to the surface, thanks to the navigation of cohabiting with an animal.
Issues that come up about a dog are often just typical relationship issues disguised in a wig and sunglasses. It can feel like there’s an endless number of things to argue about: Where does the dog sleep? Who walks the dog? For how long can the dog be left at home? What brand of dog food is best? Who loves our dog more? Who does our dog love more?
Take my mental diary of how many times I had to walk my dog, compared to how many times my partner, James, would offer. It was a Cast Away tally scratched on the walls of my cave brain, waiting to blow up any moment. When I did summon up the courage to talk to my partner about it, I described the concern in terms of how tired I was feeling. Inevitably, it was actually a plea for establishing commitment and the reassurance that my fear about losing my identity to an avalanche of domestic chores with no support won’t come to fruition when we do decide to have a (human) child one day.
Creative director Jennifer Paccione and architect Adalberto (aka Albe) Angulo found themselves in couples therapy for the first time after adopting their dog, Basil, and running into disagreements on everything from the investment of a fancy but effective luxury dog harness from Boo Oh [editor’s note: This is chief canine Artemis’ favorite harness too!], to the rightful place of where a dog should sleep. Neither of them had been to therapy as individuals, and ended up confronting and renegotiating a lot of their differences through the lens of dog ownership.
“We fell into a habit of me versus you, of comparing what one person had done compared to the other,” Jennifer said. “That’s no way to raise a pet, let alone a baby one day. It caused a lot of arguments and fear-driven conversations: What are we going to be like when we have a kid? We have to solve this now.”
Thankfully, her partner agrees. “I don’t think the issues were about the dog at the end of the day,” Albe added. “The dog just helped provide a catalyst to talk about the other actual problems in the relationship. We had to unify as a team for Basil’s sake.”
For style writer Tara Gonzalez and software engineer Rafe Lepre, Bjork wasn’t intentionally their pre-baby baby, but she made it clear that they were both able to handle responsibility and take care of a living thing in a way that they hadn’t done before.
“Having a dog has made me feel more comfortable with the idea of my ability to have a baby,” Rafe said. “Because I’ve taken care of Bjork, I don’t feel like I would fuck it up. I’ve had a living thing shit on my arm, and my response has been, ‘That’s okay, because I love you.'”
Both couples also found that getting a puppy posed its own challenges of making personal and intimate space in their relationship. For example, sleep deprivation makes poor partners out of the best of us, and the arrival of a new dog in a relationship can affect other parts of a couple’s bedroom life.
At first, Jennifer and Albe would alternate between sleepless nights on the couch with Basil so she wouldn’t cry at night and disturb their neighbors. “The puppy phase was so hard on our relationship because she couldn’t be alone; you couldn’t even close the door,” Jennifer said. “You couldn’t be in another room, she wanted to be there.”
When James and I fostered Sarra, a 120-pound Presa Canario that was about the same size as me on all fours, we didn’t realize that she had incredibly strong and vocal feelings about us having sex. Any small noise would activate Sarra’s defense mechanism and cause her to believe that I was in imminent danger. Her bark sounded like a monster truck, and all 120 pounds of her would suddenly be next to us in bed, ready to defend my honor.
But you don’t need a big dog to ruin your sex life. Bjork, a 10-pound pug, was just as effective. “It really takes you out of the moment when your partner says, ‘Wait, I gotta poke my head out of the door so she remembers we’re still in the house,'” Rafe said.
My own experience more closely mirrors Jennifer and Albe’s; I find myself defending opinions on how to specifically make a bowl of dog food (Who cares? If you’re reading this, you probably do…) and the correct number of tick checks to perform after going upstate with a viciousness and intensity that is both unreasonable and bewildering to both myself and my partner. The space of frustration and difference that Ghost has opened in our relationship has been an opportunity to tackle the issues that have plagued us for years in some form or another. The dog was just the canary in the coal mine.
Most issues in a relationship are solved by the basic strategy of clear communication. Tara and Rafe, who has been in a relationship for 10-plus years, had no issues prior to Bjork about expressing concerns to each other, and had established clear lines of communication by the time they added a dog to the household. But Jennifer and Albe ended up making a a physical calendar page with assigned walks to provide a clear and visual representation of the responsibility split. “We would schedule who would walk when, and we could both see that it was 50-50,” Jennifer said. “It’s very easy when you’re tired and stressed to think that one person is pulling more weight than the other.”
After a while, they simply got used to it. They adapted to the new rhythm and routine of taking care of a dog together. They understood what Basil needed, and what each other needed. “If you haven’t already mastered the art of compromise in your relationship, be ready to master it.” Jennifer advises. With some hard work, your dog just might save your relationship.