Is your pet battling for affection?
When Scott Frary of Marblehead, Mass., ended a long-term relationship with his girlfriend, he got custody of ‘Chilli,’ a boisterous, fun-loving Australian Cattle Dog. As a newly single pet parent, Frary indulged the dog with his undivided attention, long walks together and endless games of fetch. And Chilli, typical of her breed, reciprocated with total love and loyalty for the man in her life. Within months, they were a popular twosome on neighbourhood streets.
Then Frary met and married Cheryl and suddenly found himself embroiled in an unusual jealous love triangle with his dog and new wife.
Any signs of affection the couple showed toward one another would instantly set Chilli off on a barking frenzy. She deliberately tried to physically get between them and, on occasion, even became openly aggressive, growling and jumping up on Cheryl to show her disapproval of this new family relationship.
“Cheryl loves dogs and it was very upsetting,” recalls Frary. “So we contacted a local behaviourist to try and get Chilli to understand her place in the household. But things only got worse when Cheryl became pregnant and the baby was born.”
In desperation, the couple contacted animal behaviourist “guru” Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behaviour Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton, Mass., and author of the popular book If Only They Could Speak.
Animal intelligence, emotions and self-awareness have always been highly controversial subjects. However, Dodman has always supported the contention that dogs are thinking, sentient beings capable of tantrums and jealous rages.
“Dogs do manipulate,” says Dodman. “They are intensely jealous creatures that experience a range of complex human-like emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety and even pride. They are very capable of attention-seeking behaviours, knowing the results will alter their owner’s conduct for their benefit. So it’s quite common for a ménage à trois involving the family dog to go awry, seriously impacting the relationship.
“As an animal behaviourist, my work is a combination of a human family counsellor sorting out the family dynamics that involve the dog, a psychologist counselling on some psychological disturbance and also as a veterinary psychiatrist as often I prescribe mood-altering medications as a way of modifying behaviours,” explains Dodman.
Steps toward a solution
To deal with the growing jealousy problems in the Frary household, Dodman introduced a behaviour-modification program for Chilli.
“I call it my ‘Nothing in Life is Free Program.’ Chilli has to learn to work for everything she wants, whether it’s food or affection or going for a walk. The idea is that Scott, the love of her life, has to take a back seat in providing her wants and needs and allow Cheryl to become the main supplier instead.”
Dodman also suggested the use of a Gentle Leader, a head-collar system with a nose loop to help her gain control of the dog.
“And I prescribed a mood stabilizer called Reconcile, the pet version of Prozac. I know many people consider this type of medication to be cosmetic pharmacology. But I don’t give it to dogs so that they are good at cocktail parties or to boost their self-esteem. It can be used short term or indefinitely if necessary. Without these new treatments I firmly believe that an even greater number of animals with behavioural issues would be relinquished to shelters and ultimately euthanized.”
In Chilli’s case, Dodman prescribed the drug to help her through the initial rough patches.
“It’s been really tough on her because we also decided to put our house on the market and move, exacerbating the problem,” says Frary. “Nevertheless, there are definitely signs of improvement. We restrict her to certain parts of the house when Cheryl and I are together and she has to earn more freedom. She is beginning to allow Cheryl to take her for walks and play fetch and is slowly recognizing her as the supplier of her valuable resources.”
“The way dogs react to changes in the household has a lot to do with their personality and breed traits,” explains Dodman. “However, the personality of the newcomer joining the household and how they react to the pet is an equally important part of the equation.”
New York-based psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Joel Gavriele-Gold, the author of When Pets Come Between Partners, agrees.
“Chilli has jealousy issues. However, it is also not uncommon for people to dump their own personal issues on their pets and the dog winds up looking like the problem when actually it’s the victim.
“I am always wary of statements such as ‘My girlfriend doesn’t like my dog’ because often the pet is nothing more than a catalyst for bringing out unresolved psychological issues in the couple’s relationship,” says Gavriele-Gold.
“And when it gets to a point in a liaison when one party says, ‘The dog has to go,’ or ‘You love the dog more than you love me,’ it’s a warning sign that there are other much deeper issues that will eventually emerge in the relationship. This is a control issue and is very common in human-pet-human triangles.”
Gavriele-Gold says that in psychological terms, the three mechanisms that drive our relationships are displacement, projection and repetition compulsions.
The roots of the problem
Displacement is the unconscious act of putting past thoughts, moods and feelings onto present-day individuals and situations. “For example, someone might fear a very large dog because of an association with an overbearing parent.
“When we project something, we are unconsciously ascribing to others thoughts and feelings that we do not wish to acknowledge in ourselves. It can be difficult for someone to admit hating a parent who years earlier accidentally killed a beloved pet. So they project their feelings onto their partner and the current dog instead,” he explains.
Repetition compulsions can be explained by continuing to repeat situations from the past.
“I had a patient who felt that his girlfriend’s three dogs were ruining their relationship and sex life because she insisted they sleep in the bed with them.
“When they came to me for counselling, I discovered that the woman was an only child and that her dogs were the siblings she never had. Her boyfriend came from a very large family and while growing up, never had his own space. Consequently, he didn’t want to share her with the dogs. They were both bringing past family situations into their current relationship.
“Once they understood the underlying issues that reflected the role the dogs played in their relationship, they were able to resolve the problem by compromising and locking the dogs out of the bedroom on potentially romantic nights. In fact, they got married and lived happily every after.”
Another situation that can cause a tug-of-war between pets and their people is when both parties bring their pets to a joint household. When you’re dealing with dogs, the chances of them all getting along has more to do with their individual personalities than their breed, says Dodman.
There are three main characteristics that determine dogs’ interactions with people and other animals: their dominance, fear and prey drive. A dog with a high score for dominance, fear and a heightened prey drive would be very difficult to manage. “It would be bossy, in control, frightened of everything and chasing everything in sight,” warns Dodman.
“However, dogs are very intuitive. The incumbent dog will need to stay in charge in the household but nevertheless may consider the changes to be exciting and filled with new opportunities.
“We’re back to the tremendous dynamic between an owner and a pet – they feed off each other in so many ways. So I agree with Gavriele-Gold; sometimes all it takes is for owners to look at themselves and assess their personal baggage before they look at their dog.
“Often an owner has joked with me saying, ‘Perhaps I’m the one that should be taking the Prozac.’ And indeed, that could very well be the answer.…”
This article is from Dogs in Canada