And Doggy Makes Three : In Relationships, a Pet Can Make for Estranged Bedfellows

<i> Margo Kaufman's last article for this magazine was "Baby Bores." </i>

CAN THIS relationship be saved? My sister calls from New York in tears. Her boyfriend refuses to let her basset hound sleep on the bed. “I can understand him not wanting Elvis between the sheets,” Laurie assures me. “But what’s wrong with on top of the covers?”

“Many men do not like to be in bed with more than one species at the same time,” I tell her.

“But Elvis is used to sleeping on the bed,” my sister insists, adding that her boyfriend considers it objectionable to find non-human hairs on his jacket.

I search for a way to break it to her gently. This relationship cannot be saved. In my experience, a couple can disagree on many subjects--where to eat, whom to vote for, what movie to see, even how to spend money--and still get along fine. But couples with major disagreements about pets--and by that I mean how many, if any, what kind and how to treat them--are virtually bound to wind up with irreconcilable differences.


My sister takes the bad news in stride. “Men who want dogs to fetch are a good bet to avoid because they want you to fetch, too,” sighs Laurie, who decides to take Elvis for a walk in the hope of attracting a pet-loving mate.

He shouldn’t be hard to find. Recently, the New York Times reported that pet ownership is “at an all-time high, with 61% of American households, about 52.5 million, owning animals, in most cases more than one animal.” These pet owners can accept almost anything: exorbitant vet bills, a year-round flea infestation, glossy copies of Dogue and Catmopolitan, even a surly half-housebroken destroyer of shoes. They just can’t accept criticism about their pets.

“My dog is just as important to me as a child would be to a single mom,” says Sabina, the “mother” of a 100-pound German shepherd named Shane. “And if a man cannot choose to make my animal happy, that, in essence, is not making me happy, and the animal stays and the man goes.”

Sabina admits that her “son” has caused some problems between her and her boyfriend, Anthony, even though Anthony “loves the d-word (dog) like a stepfather.” What kind of problems? “We were spending a week on a houseboat,” Sabina recalls. “Naturally, we were taking Shane along. We all went to the pet store to buy a harness so that if he fell in the water, we could pull him out. Anthony was working with the pet-store lady. She showed him a blue harness. I explained that ‘Shane says that he would prefer red.’ Anthony got so mad that he walked out of the store. He was really embarrassed. I didn’t understand. Shane’s the one who has to wear it. He might as well pick the color.”


Curiously, I believe that this relationship can be saved. Sabina will never find another guy who is willing to take a German shepherd on a houseboat. And at least Shane accepts Anthony.

Dr. Richard Polsky, an animal behaviorist in West Los Angeles, has been called on to intervene in numerous instances where a pet refused to let a human come between it and its owner. “One woman couldn’t embrace her boyfriend because her Rottweiler would attack and growl,” Dr. Polsky recalls. “Every time a man would go near her the dog would get really aggressive, even to the point where she couldn’t keep the dog out of the bedroom because it would bark and scratch and carry on.”

Could this relationship be saved? “Yes,” Polsky says. “We worked out the problem in terms of teaching the dog to be more independent, and we did some anti-jealousy training. This involved teaching the dog to accept someone he doesn’t like by associating it with something positive, like Haagen-Dazs, Stilton cheese, Italian sausage. You’ve got to find out what turns the dog on.”

Haagen-Dazs and Stilton for recalcitrant animals might get expensive in Judie and Michael’s Old MacDonald-style relationship. These two animal lovers keep about 50 pets, including two horses, a pony, eight cats, a golden pheasant and three French rabbits, with four California tortoises here and a goose there. Ee-ii-ee-ii-oh dear!

The downside? “They run our life,” says Judie, who is awakened at 5:30 in the morning by the frantic quacking of Victoria, her black East Indies “house duck.” She explains that “as soon as you get out of bed there are eight cats yelling, ‘Feed me.’ Then you open the door and the goats and the sheep yell, ‘We’re starving.’ ”

The upside? No danger of running out of things to say to each other. Judie reports that “Michael calls and says, ‘What’s new?’ and I say, ‘Bear the cat did this. The horse did that. We have a crisis in the aviary. Should I call the vet?’ ”

“I can tolerate small talk about the animals better than small talk about work, or a mutual friend’s hysterectomy,” Michael says.

I can’t imagine what would happen if Judie and Michael found themselves in the position of Monica and Jack. They bought their cats, China and Tucker, when they first started living together. “When we broke up it was horrible,” Monica says, “like who gets the kids. It was finally determined that Jack would give them a better home because I had moved to a one-room apartment. I made him swear that he wouldn’t turn the cats against me.”


Fortunately, China and Tucker performed a stupid pet trick that is actually quite common but seldom seen on David Letterman’s show: The cats played marriage counselor. Monica’s visits to ascertain whether Jack was fulfilling his litter-box responsibilities resulted in a reconciliation that ended in a trip to the altar. That was one of the few trips that having a pet made easier.

Here is another. A couple of years ago, when my husband and I were still in the midst of the Commitment Wars, I had to make a one-week trip to the East Coast. At the time, I was living alone with Bess and Stella, my pug dogs. I happen to regard pugs as the crown of creation, though I realize that viewpoint is not universally shared.

In Baltimore, I had dinner with Marc, who has been my friend for as long as I can remember. We discussed whether my relationship with Duke could be saved. “I’m afraid that he’s never going to get over his ambivalence,” I sighed.

“Wait a minute,” said Marc, who has an uncanny instinct for grasping the crux of the matter. “Where are Bess and Stella?”

I explained that the girls were staying in Duke’s apartment. “Duke loves all dogs, even pugs,” I proudly reported. “And he hates to think of them locked up in a kennel.”

“Duke took the pugs!” marveled Marc, who feels that pugs are a waste of good dog food and swears that he would eat a can of Alpo before he would be seen walking two small, wrinkled dogs with curly tails.

“Don’t worry, Margo,” he said. “Duke must really love you.”