You feed your dog. You take them for a walk first thing in the morning and before you go to sleep each night. You’re responsible for grooming and taking them to the veterinarian for shots and check-ups. In fact, you can safely say that you are not just your dog’s primary caretaker, but also their trainer and disciplinarian. So why does it seem like they love your partner just a little bit — or maybe even a whole lot — more?
Sometimes, a seemingly unwarranted affection between a dog and a person is simply a meeting of the minds.
“Being mammals, dogs are born with temperaments,” says Dr. Joel Gavriele-Gold, licensed clinical psychologist and author of When Pets Come Between Partners: How to Keep Love and Romance in the Human-Animal Kingdom of Your House. “If a couple gets a dog, you may find that there’s a wired-in attraction to the one partner who has a similar temperament as the dog, whether that be laidback, hyper, or in-between.”
Dr. Gavriele-Gold notes that he’s seen this quite frequently. If you think about it, it’s no more or less unusual than a couple meeting, say, a yoga instructor. For instance, one partner may click with their character and turn into a devotee. The other, conversely, may feel more ambivalent and stop going to class. This is not a cause for jealousy, Dr. Gavriele-Gold says.
“Jealousy is about wishing for control over another person,” he insists.
Instead, be grateful that you found a dog that meshes so well with at least one of you. Look for ways to participate or engage by examining your own attributes honestly.
“Dogs are smart,” says Dr. Gavriele-Gold. “The more I tune in to some of the scientific findings, the more incredible I find it.”
Indeed, your canine has a clear sense of good cop and bad cop. Dogs can learn who’s the dutiful parent who says “no” for their own good, and who’s the fun one who lets them break the rules. There’s a good chance your pup will want to snuggle up to the one who allows them to jump on the soft, warm couch, rather than the one who makes them lie down on the vet’s cold table. Like children, dogs are manipulative in this way. Sometimes, they make you feel like they’re punishing you for your influence over their lives, by preferring someone else.
As with children, don’t let this little game bother you. Win the dog over with the three A’s: affection, attention, and positive associations. Create special moments through things like playtime, massages, and treats.
Dogs are not only intelligent beings, they’re emotional ones as well. Because they experience happiness and sadness, they also have empathy. It also means a dog’s allegiance can change over time. If a couple separates, Dr. Gavriele-Gold affirms, the dog could wind up picking sides.
“They’re both cute and astute,” says Dr. Gavriele-Gold. “They operate on what’s going on in the atmosphere and inside of us. When one person falls out of love, the dog feels the difference and picks up on it. It might move closer to the person leaving, or stay with the person being left.”
The problem here, of course, is that couples may fight in court for custody over a dog based on its perceived preference. Since dogs can and do change loyalties, even if it’s not always immediately, judges usually rule for familiarity. This often involves leaving the dog where it has lived or been raised, rather than taking it out of a comfortable environment.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
In some cases, both partners in a couple walk and feed the dog equally, yet the dog still prefers one partner over the other. Often, this is simply a case of access, or lack of it. If one person spends more time at home with the dog, naturally the dog will want to see and spend time with the other partner, too.
When the absent partner rewards that behavior by handing out treats upon return, reinforcement and hardwiring occurs. Still, warns Dr. Gavriele-Gold, don’t confuse a delighted “welcome home!” routine with true preference.
What’s That Smell?
Finally, dogs have notoriously good senses of smell. They can and do develop antipathies to people based on their odors. Dr. Gavriele-Gold says that he has patients who have particular, adverse aromas – sweat, alcohol, and other unsavory scents – that his own Bouviers react to negatively. So, it’s possible that a family dog could develop an aversion to one partner based on an unpleasant odor.
On the other hand, a partner who smells delightful to a dog — whether it’s because of pheromones, food, or other animals — has an excellent chance of being loved unconditionally. But, you don’t have to wear hamburger perfume just to get the dog on your good side. The fragrance of fond friendliness usually does the trick.
‘No Bones About It’ is a monthly relationship column about the ways dogs impact human connections. Dr. Gavriele-Gold’s latest book on dog-human relationships, When Pets Come Between Partners, is now available on Amazon. He also hosts a monthly “Comfort Conversation” on grief on the AKC Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook.