Dear Beast Mode,
I have a wonderful older Lab mix who is, in most situations, an absolute joy. She’s 13-ish now, and I adopted her when she was about 7. I was single back then, but I started dating a great guy about two years ago, and he’s recently moved in with me.
She was a rescue and was likely abandoned by a previous owner, so she’s always had separation anxiety, which is well controlled with medication. But since the beau has been around, we’ve been dealing with another stress issue. Whenever her humans show physical affection for each other, she panics. She’ll pant heavily, whine, and eventually begin barking uncontrollably. She doesn’t do this if she’s around other friends who hold hands or kiss. It’s limited to us.
We’ve tried giving her Kongs or special treats to help calm her, but it doesn’t really help, and I’m afraid it may be reinforcing bad behavior. Any ideas for what we can try?
—Pooches Over Smooches
Dear Pooches Over Smooches,
PDA can be confusing for dogs. They aren’t good with acronyms, which is why they’ve never bothered to get together to figure out what “dog” stands for. (Defenders of the Globe? Dainty Obstinate Goofs? Dear Old Gremlins?) And then there’s the affection part. They show it differently than we do, so from your pooch’s vantage point, your boyfriend giving you a quick kiss in the hallway probably looks rather strange. I mean, you don’t even sniff his butt beforehand.
Let’s stay with her perspective for a moment. Sure, the smooching and hugging might be alarming, but think about your co-habitation in general. For years, it was just you and her. She got accustomed to your schedule, embraced your scent, and learned when to expect food to “fall” from your fork during dinner. No matter what happened in the world, she knew she could count on all those things. Dogs like to live in the here and now (one of their best, most enviable qualities) and so she couldn’t have foreseen having to deal with a boyfriend. Now, she’s got this guy who showers at weird times and doesn’t smell like you do. He may even be so inconsiderate as to eat over the sink.
Given that your dog is already prescribed medication for anxiety, it would be wise to ask your vet about this new situation and whether it warrants an update or change. I imagine the veterinarian’s office is already a stressful place for the pooch, so take a video of how she behaves at home for evidence. If for some reason you feel uncomfortable showing your vet a video of you and your boyfriend kissing, simply point the camera at the dog.
You are extremely considerate to give her treats and toys, though it doesn’t sound like they’re working too well. Wait until she calms down to give her some primo goodies. Resist giving her rewards when she starts whining and barking, lest she start associating them with your strange, humanoid PDA. On the other hand, you might begin to associate intimacy with pungent doggie bites, and we wouldn’t want that, either. If you feel this Pavlovian response bubbling into your subconscious, please feel free to pull back a bit. We do a lot for our dogs, but they need to learn to live with us too.
This will take time. For now, act with your boyfriend as you would normally (whatever that happens to mean) and try to ignore your dog’s protestations. Don’t force anything, but keep the boyfriend armed with treats and encourage him to build a relationship with the dog. Once she’s more used to his presence, the sight of him giving you a kiss won’t be nearly as disturbing to her. With enough patience, she might even start to like him. After all, that’s what happened with you.