Love me, love my pet

It was love at first sight. Alas, the love was between Marilyn and Spider, the 7-lb Yorkie she’d brought home a few days before her first date with Travis.

“We went out several times, and everything was going great,” says Marilyn, a philosophy professor whose courses include animal ethics. “But one night Spider was coughing, and Travis got really mad because he couldn’t sleep and he had to get up for work early the next day. But he was so nasty about it. I knew it was over then.”

The canine conundrum didn’t stop there. A few weeks later Jonas, another guy Marilyn met online, said, “I don’t like your dog. He makes you look spoiled.” The problem, she decided, wasn’t with Spider — he came with the territory — but with her prospective mates. Jonas, too, was out the door, with nary a stop in the figurative doghouse.

Anyone who’s surfed online dating profiles knows how important pets are to their owners. Singles frequently post pictures of their animals as an identifying characteristic or as a warning: “love me, love my pet.” Either way, you’d have an easier time coming between Hall & Oates.

“I think the rule is, when you meet somebody and you want to change things about them, don’t,” says Rhona Raskin, a Vancouver-based relationship expert and former radio talk show host. “The condition you find the person in, with all their habits and accumulation of activities — that’s who they are.

“If they’re a golfer they’re not going to give it up, or if they’re into karate 12 hours a week, they’re going to continue. Really, the person’s a package deal, and when you’re a dog owner it’s like, me, my dog, and my kibble. And anyone who thinks that’s going to change is mistaken.”

This bestial bonding goes beyond that of a caretaker/dependent. With people marrying later, staying single longer than ever before and living in small spaces in densely populated urban areas, a more lasting relationship takes root. Maternal and even paternal instincts need somewhere to go and strong, almost parental attachments form.

“The number of people who live on their own, either because they haven’t found someone or they found someone and it didn’t work out, is huge,” says Raskin, who owns a large standard silver poodle. “That’s partly because we live longer. It’s a long life to be on your own in an apartment and pets are definitely a source of affection.

“Dogs in particular — you can go out and come back 10 minutes later and they’re all excited to see you. Again. ‘Oh boy, the greatest thing in the planet just walked in the room.’ A lot of people don’t have that in their life from a human — they don’t have someone who thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread.”

That’s why, when meeting someone’s chosen companion, it’s wise to treat the four-legged furball with as much respect and courtesy as you would the owner. Although, perhaps, with a milk-bone or two. For those uncomfortable around canines, Raskin recommends the work of self-proclaimed “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan.

“He says dog problems are human problems. Maybe some people are unsophisticated in terms of how they approach a dog to make friends with them, so maybe some of it is just a lack of information and skills.” Allergies pose another problem, though one that’s treatable with antihistamines.

There is the danger a canine connection could become a substitute for human interaction, especially for someone who is shy. But dogs have more health benefits than downsides, according to studies. On the other side of the leash, pets — like a tattoo or limb in a cast –can be great icebreakers.

“Borrow someone’s dog if you don’t have one, and take it for walks,” says Raskin. “A dog on a leash makes someone approachable. And I have friends who say, ‘If I meet someone who owns a dog I think I know a whole bunch of things about them already — they’re used to responsibility, they’ll give up things because something else has more needs then they do, they have a kind heart.’ People attribute certain qualities to a person who’s a pet owner. It’s a choice they made to be responsible and be there for someone other than themselves. Yep, it’s a chick magnet.”

Cat-owners have less to worry about, though they might have some image problems to overcome — such as the stereotypes of the lonely cat-lady and the terminal bachelor unable to make a commitment with anything more than an already independent-minded feline.

Owners of exotic pets may have some explaining to do as well: your Siamese fighting fish or three-inch newt might escape inspection, but your tarantula, iguana, or python could cause a prospective paramour to wonder about a possible criminal record. Ferrets are wonderful (if frequently smelly) creatures, and no doubt fascinating as well. But does your date want to hear all the ferret lore you’ve collected over the years?

As for Marilyn, well, she’s doing fine. She’s met someone who actually seems to like Spider. There’s just one problem — he’s a cat person. But it’s not insurmountable. As she puts it, “He’s getting used to the dog. He’s just got to realize that, if he comes over, there’s going to be a little leg-humping going on, and it’s not going to be from me.”

Shawn Conner is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, Georgia Straight and the National Post.

Article courtesy of Click by Lavalife.

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