Help! My Dog Is Cheating on Me
The important role of jealousy in human-dog relationships.
Posted Nov 12, 2018
Some of you may be lucky enough to have a dog who is constant and loyal, who loves you best, and who steadfastly shows a preference for you and only you. But there are those among us who have been two-timed or even three-timed by our dogs.
My dog Ody (who died in 2011) was what I would call a promiscuous lover. He loved people — all people, all the time. For instance, he looked for any opportunity to escape from our house so that he could go in search of love. I’d get a call from one neighbor or another who would say, “We’ve got your dog over here.” I’d show up to get Ody, thinking he would be scared and desperate to be reunited with me, only to find him stretched out in front of the other human’s fireplace, begging for belly rubs. I’d call him over with a “Time to go home, Ody,” and he would ignore me, basking in the attentions of his new friends. Invariably I would feel hurt and embarrassed: My own dog doesn’t want to come home with me; he’d rather be with someone else! These people must think I am a bad dog owner, that I neglect Ody — or worse, that I am unkind to him.
Was I jealous of Ody’s affections? A little bit. I poured my heart and soul into Ody. I loved him more than any other dog alive. Not only that, I took care of his needs. I fed him, walked him, made sure he had good veterinary care, played ball with him. I went out of my way to make him happy by driving him to faraway areas where he could run off leash; I cooked him homemade food and treats. I felt that I should have been the apple of his eye — if not the only apple, at least the biggest and best apple, the one he reached for first and most often. And yet I seemed to be about equal to all the other humans in the world, in Ody’s estimation.
One of the most common messages promoted by the media is that our dogs are our best friends. But this is a myth about dog-human relationships; it doesn't always hold up. (See my previous post and Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today post challenging this “best friends” myth.) Sometimes a dog has many best friends and shows no preference for his or her owner, and this may lead to a weakened sense of attachment and bonding on the part of the human, or even to feelings of resentment toward the animal. People like to be liked. When our dog behaves as if he doesn’t particularly like us, or if we feel that we are interchangeable with any other hairless primate, we may form only a weak attachment to our dog. According to psychologists who have studied pet keeping, one of the primary reasons people choose to keep pets is the gratification that comes from being the caregiver of and attachment figure for another “person” — the feeling of being needed. Promiscuous dogs can challenge our sense of being needed.
Jealousy in Human-Dog Relations
When it comes to human-dog relationships, the green-eyed monster makes many appearances. Living with a promiscuous dog like Ody is only one of many potential jealousy-related challenges.
Another complicated dynamic can arise within families when a dog shows a clear preference for one family member over another. When I was young, my family had two dogs, Rufus and Brownie. Rufus was supposed to be my dog, and Brownie was supposed to be my brother’s dog. But both dogs liked me better (probably because I did all the feeding, walking, and playing). The fact that Brownie liked me better was an important notch in my sibling rivalry belt, but hurt my brother’s feelings. In the case of couples, a dog will often show a preference for one person over the other, and this can be a source of serious friction between the people and between the dog and the human-who-has-not-been-chosen.
A number of studies have looked at the role of companion animals within family networks and have explored the role of animals as social actors within these networks. Most of the research has focused on the positive aspects of human-animal relationships, such as the role of animals as social lubricants and as providers of emotional and social support for humans. Less attention has been given to the various ways in which dogs and other pets can be a source of irritation, jealousy, resentment, or anger. Further work in this area by psychologists, anthrozoologists, and ethicists would be fruitful, and could lead to frank conversations about the emotionally complicated terrain of loving a dog (or cat).
The mutual love that exists between people and animals — especially people and their dogs — has uncontroversial elements, such as mutual companionship and affection. Yet it also has deeply complicated elements. As Anca Gheaus writes in her article “The Role of Love in Animal Ethics,” “the mutual love that often exists between people and animals is permeated by morally charged emotions such as trust, loyalty, or guilt.” (Gheaus p. 584) To this list, we could also add jealousy.
Which brings me back to Ody, my promiscuous lover. Even though I sometimes felt jealous of Ody’s wide-ranging affections, it was also one of the things I most loved about him. He was big-hearted in a way that I never could be. And he was a perfect ambassador for dogs in the country of humans: He was so sweet, so gentle, and so friendly that even people who didn’t like dogs were won over.
Anca Gheaus, "The Role of Love in Animal Ethics," Hypatia, Vol. 27. no. 3 (2012): 583-600.