Man-dog love

I adore my boyfriend, but his obsession with his dog is ruining our relationship.

Published August 26, 2003 7:32PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am in a relationship with a fun-loving, intelligent 30-something man, who I have been seeing on and off for over a year. We have mutual interests and friends, enjoy each other's company in many ways, and laugh together often. And while I don't plan on marriage anytime soon, I do plan on marrying him when the time is right. However, there is a problem that has been worsening over time -- in fact I am at my breaking point -- and I don't know how to work with him on a mutual solution (as he becomes very defensive): his dog.

The dog is affectionate and adorable. I have grown rather attached to him, but it is not well-trained and behaves horribly. It begs, does not come when called (it is often running off, and I have to patiently wait around while he interrupts our own "people activities" to go look for it), and leaps on people (it weighs 70 pounds), which frightens our friends and their children. Yet he refuses to send the dog to obedience school, "end of story."

The actual problem is how this man lets the dog dominate his entire life, which is ruining our relationship. He cannot spend one night without it. We cannot go on trips where the dog cannot stay, and even if we do, we cannot stay long because we have to "get back" -- same with even short social gatherings. He refuses to board the dog because he thinks it is cruel. Moreover, he lets the dog sleep wherever it wants (I adamantly draw the line to its sleeping in bed with us, however, which he has learned to deal with, as I sleep naked and the dog is often dirty), and he insists that it is "cute" or "funny" that the dog seeks affection during and after we make love. I can even count on one hand how many times we've been intimate without the dog in the room, which is now disgusting me as I write this. It has ruined the intimacy level in our relationship, since he believes that shutting the dog out of the bedroom is also cruel.

He will often lie around kissing, stroking and petting the dog (even lying on the floor with it) in front of me while we spend time together, but refuses to give me the same affection (he was very loving at the start of our relationship, however).

I have broached the subject several times and have tried to open up options (paying for the boarding to take a trip, asking to have the dog outside "just during meals" or lovemaking), but he always gets defensive and argues with me, sometimes even nastily, saying that I am just jealous, that I don't understand their relationship, that I have no room to talk unless I have a dog, that I "hate dogs," and the worst, which he stated only recently, that the love and value he places on the dog and myself are exactly the same! He believes that I'm asking to choose between us when I bring it up, when I'm only looking for a compromise, looking to get him to see that I'm a very important part of this relationship with real feelings about this issue, who needs attention and affection too.

Am I crazy and seeing things? Does he have a problem or do I? I'm smart enough to know that there's something wrong with this picture at this point and have been giving him the benefit of the doubt to come around due to his redeeming qualities, but on the same end I feel stupid for feeling this way, as if I am overreacting. Whatever advice you could give, I would appreciate and take, including leaving him to find someone who is more willing to focus on his significant other -- namely, a human.

Puppy Sick

Dear Puppy Sick,

The best advice I can give you is to get a dog of your own.

Sure, the simple solution is to ditch the boyfriend. In fact, I sense that's what you want me to say. But, trust me, if you get a dog, it will change your life. After you get the dog, you still might break up with the boyfriend. But you get to keep the dog.

In giving you this answer, I am torn between my own disorderly passions, my fervent opinions, and my desire to help you. To be honest, I think breaking up with him would make your life easier but I do not necessarily want to make your life easier. I want instead to push you toward chaos and mystery, toward the interpretation of signs and symbols, toward the anarchy and barking of the dog world, because that way wisdom and insight lie! Why are you with this man? Is it simply a dating mistake? Or is it a sign that you need to go to the dog shelter and walk among the kennels and look into the eyes of the many abandoned dogs there and pick one out and take it home and learn to take care of it?

I am torn because, nutty as he sounds, there is something beautiful about your boyfriend's devotion to his dog. True, he's not treating you well, and you deserve to be treated better. In the ideal world, you and he would be able, as you say, to compromise. He could agree to board the dog every now and then, or leave it with a friend. You have offered to pay for boarding the dog, which is admirable. His refusal to even entertain the notion is troubling. There are reputable kennels that will care for his dog. But even if his unwillingness to compromise is rooted in a kind of irrational fear, that doesn't mean he can simply toss it off like a smoked-out cigarette.

Besides, the reasons for his unwillingness may be deep, compelling and several. For one, he may believe -- as one comes to believe various things correctly or not about one's dog -- that the dog is as well-trained as it is going to get. Or he may lack the sheer will to train the dog any further. After all, training a dog means not only adding traits but extinguishing others. If he, for instance, believes, as many do, that his dog possesses a sense of humor, bringing the dog under complete and strict voice control might entail the eventual extinction of its anarchic love of the unexpected, which can be one of the chief delights of owning a dog. He may not believe it is his place to have absolute mastery over the beast. He may be temperamentally unsuited to the kind of vigilant policing such control requires. He may have discovered through his own attempts to train the dog that it retains an intractable independence of will that only a shockingly fierce, demanding, unrelenting dominance could shake. He may simply not have enough of that consistent, rules-based, top-dog enforcer in him to gain complete control of the dog.

At the risk of overlooking you and your relationship problem completely, I must further say that dogs are, after all, individual beings. They are problem solvers, dreamers, lovers, fighters, pleasure seekers, officious and naughty and slovenly, haughty or humble or simply aloof, good or not so good at standardized tests, adept or inept socially. They are seemingly possessed of that atom of singularity as distinct as a human voiceprint that we tend to refer to as a "soul." They argue, in their way, for the correctness of their position. If you listen closely, it is sometimes difficult to dismiss their arguments.

So it is to our eternal discredit that we tend to see dogs only as guests in our world. We are just as much guests in theirs. Moreover, we bear them a unique responsibility, for although they are separate from us, it is we who shaped them to our liking as much as we could. It is we who made them herders, barkers, biters, cuddlers, preeners, ratters, trackers. We brought into being this whole race of boxers, Pomeranians, Dalmatians, poodles, pugs and innumerable others. So our bond is complicated: We created them and we control the conditions under which they live, yet, in the strictest sense, we neither own nor control their beings. Having brought them this far, having given and taken so much, we orbit around each other on a tether of complex reciprocity. We owe them our lives as much as they owe us theirs. We are bound in a way that bears certain cautious parallels to slave-owner and slave. The relationship is full of tension and contradiction, and each, in his role, strives for redemption over a terrible legacy, strives to act in accordance with some principle that ennobles his behavior.

Masters live in their slaves' universe much as slaves live in theirs; in the same way, we dog owners live in our dogs' world much as our dogs live in ours. We are not immune to their criticism and contempt; we fail them as often as they fail us, yet they seem to be more patient and forgiving of our lapses than we are of theirs. It is probably to our eternal good fortune that we cannot listen in on their brutally ironic confabulations, their trenchant criticisms of our imperious designs and our angry authoritarian lapses, our breaches of pack etiquette, our deafness to their clear entreaties, our coldness to their offerings of love, our cruel and repeated attempts to shut them out of our lives, our feeble and inadequate physical accommodations, our policies of euthanasia, our casual practice of routine abandonment, our thoughtless trading of puppies, our calculated breeding for blood-thirstiness and for beauty.

I repeat: The only way you can come to accept your boyfriend's relationship with his dog is to get a dog yourself and watch as you are slowly transformed into the same slovenly, disgusting slave to canine whim as he is, until you, too, want to leave the club early to get home and feed the dog, until you, too, become acutely sensitive to the various barks, whines, squeals, yips and nudges through which the dog makes known its rich and complex emotional life, until you, too, find yourself rapturously inhaling the dog's wet, furry aroma and staring minute upon minute into its adoring brown eyes, welcoming its wet tongue over your cheekbones, spending evenings peering into the spaces between its paws and the recesses of its ears, looking for burs and ticks, until you, too, find yourself looking at your lover and then at your dog, unable to choose between them.

The dog, after all, will not judge you on your opinions; it will not adopt an air of superiority and try to make you feel small; it will not withhold its affections or change its mind about whom it loves. It is yours forever, unconditionally, without question, and will defend you to the death if called upon.

Until you own a dog you will not see yourself in their eyes. They will remain outsiders, guests in your world. Only when you undertake the complicated routine of daily sharing the universe with another species will you see yourself as they see you, and only then might you realize that what seems reasonable treatment of animals today may one day appear as barbaric as slavery or public hangings. If you could look back from that hypothetical future, you might even feel ashamed of your assumption that you, because you're human, come first in the world; you might be humbled enough to see how majestic is your boyfriend's love for his dog.

Pick a loving and relatively trouble-free breed. Soft-coated Wheaton terriers are nice, as are certain smaller poodles.

Become a dog person! Surrender to the delights of man-dog love!

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By Cary Tennis

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