Michael and Alicia

I was contacted by a couple – a referral from another family in their coop building. From our initial email exchanges, they seemed to both want to adopt a puppy, in the next 6 months or so. We spoke on the phone, and scheduled an face to face for the following week. The discussion started as many do – with beverages, snacks and pleasantries.  Michael, the male of the household – a financial consultant of some sort and the lady of the household – Alicia, an RN, working at the Emergency Department of a busy NYC hospital.

Michael is considered to be a rising star at the upstart consulting firm, where he’s been working for the past 18 months. They are both busy, young professionals and expect that Alicia will pursue graduate work in the next year or so.

Their aspirations include travel and starting a family. Michael has casually mentioned the importance of maintaining a reasonable work-life balance, yet both Michael and Alicia describe their day and evening schedules as very full. It would be interesting to learn how they pull off an end run around the law of the conservation of energy. I take creative liberty with it and say time, like energy, can neither be created nor destroyed. Where would this couple score more of this scarce resource? Did they really have time for a puppy?

As it turned out, they were ahead of the game – they had friends and family members in the building. Alicia’s mother and another couple had committed to being part of their puppy care team. They hadn’t worked out all of the details, but they were well on their way. They were working on redundancies – the people they had in place were not always going to available, so they needed backup.

They hadn’t decided on the type of dog they would bring home. It was shaping up to be a classic schism – Alicia had done some research and really wanted a Coton de Tulear. When I asked her about it, I was surprised that the breeds reputed hypoallergenic properties hadn’t factored into Alicia’s thought process. There weren’t any allergy issues to contend with, though. Alicia had attended a function at Megan’s (a coworker) home and she became enraptured with Brody, a young male Coton de Tulear that belongs to the hostess.

As Alicia shared her interest in a small fluffy puppy, Michael sat beside her and seemed to deliberately not comment. I assumed that his interests are somewhat less fluffy and cute and, more likely run toward a more physically rough and tumble kind of pet experience. I knew little of Michael and Alicia’s prior experience with pets, but my view of the pictures and sports trophies on display indicated that Michael had a history as a Lacrosse player. I knew I was straying into all sorts of stereotypes, but Michael’s next words were not unexpected.

“We may need his and hers dogs,” Michael said. Alicia looked at her husband and said, “It would be silly to get two dogs. You will love having a Coton puppy, Michael!” Why would you want another dog, as well?”

Michael replied, “You want a Coton because it’s a cute, furry lap dog, which I can understand for you, but I wouldn’t make that choice for me. With a concerned look on her face, Alicia said, “ What’s wrong with lap dogs? You don’t think it would be fun to have a dog that’s focused on hanging out with us? Gingerly, Michael said, “I’m a guy, baby. I want to play and interact with a dog that is larger and sturdier that a hormonally enhanced gerbil. I’m worried about tripping over the kind of dog you want. You know me… I’m like a bull in a china shop. Alicia frowned. “I hope you’ll avoid stepping on our puppy, sweetheart.” Michael smirked, and said, “I’ll do my best, but it would be helpful if the dog was larger, and not as fragile as a Coton.” 

My role was to facilitate effective communication. Since they were doing well, I remained quiet. Now that they’d both understood that they were looking for different pet parenting experiences, they’d need to move the discussion a little farther. I had been under the assumption that the question: “what kind of dog do we bring home?” had already been answered. Oops!

“Licia,” he said, “What about a sturdier dog? It wouldn’t necessarily have the same stuffed animal effect, but it could still be cute! It means that I won’t always look like I’m walking my wife’s dog.” “Hmm,” Alicia said. “I suppose that means that you’d have to suffer through less of the chick magnet effect?” Michael’s eyes got wide, and he said, I am willing to put up with a certain amount of female attention, but it would certainly be less of a chore, if we could minimize the number of gawking women that I need to deal with!” Alicia cut Michael a look that seemed to suggest that perhaps he protests too much.

Michael turned to me, laughed and inquired, “What do think about Rottweilers, Dennis?” I smiled and said told Michael that I happen to adore Rottweilers, but like any other type of dog, they aren’t a great choice for everyone. Thinking that the Rottweiler is a vastly different experience from the Coton de Tulear, I asked the couple, “Is the Rottweiler one of the breeds that you and Alicia have discussed?”

Alicia snapped out a decidedly clear “No!” Michael was taken aback by the strength of his wife’s response. “Alicia, Rott puppies are adorable! Take a look!” Michael pulled his smartphone off of his hip holster and quickly displayed a picture of a Rottweiler puppy to Alicia, whose facial expression was now decidedly transformed. Saddened seemed an appropriate way to describe her, now. I think she felt that her fantasy was being threatened.

Alicia barely glanced at the proffered image before asking, “Michael, are you SERIOUSLY saying that a Coton puppy is “too girly” and that you’d like something different because you’d be embarrassed to walk the dog? You have never before seemed to be quite so sensitive to what neighbors and passersby think about your choices.”

“Baby, I’m not saying that I MUST have a Rottweiler,” offered Michael. “I’m thinking that you and I want very different experiences out of having a dog. Also, what does Dennis think? I’m sure that our situation isn’t unusual. Is it reasonable to get his and her’s dogs? What do couples do when their are huge differences in what each want out of having a dog?”

Time to earn my Scooby Snacks…

My suggestion is that you each write two concise lists. List #1 is about what you want to get out of having a dog. List #2 is what you believe your spouse wants to get out of the experience of living with the dog that you would choose. Alicia, in your case, the second list would be about what you believe Michael would enjoy about living with a Coton de Tulear. Michael, your second list would be about what you believe Alicia would enjoy about living with a Rottweiler. Writing these list means that you’ve have done some research on your own preferences and, ideally you will have some basis for understanding your partner’s wants and needs, in the context of the very different breeds we’ve discussed, so far.

Rescue groups can be a valuable source for information, especially when it’s a group that specializes in a particular breed. They are often able to discuss the challenges that the breeders and owners face, both physically and importantly, involving the breed’s temperament. A question that I typically ask is, “Why do these dogs typically need to be re-homed?” Also, I have a client who loves  Cotons. I’ll reach out to her and see if I can arrange an introduction. Would you like to speak to an additional Coton lover? If I can dig up a physically active, “bull in a china shop” male Coton owner, I’ll try to get you a male perspective, if you believe it would be helpful? “Dennis, if you can help us find a male outlook on these dogs, I think it would be helpful.” Michael said the words, but Alicia’s nodding co-signed the notion.

Alicia offered, “Meg is going away for a weekend, sometime soon, Michael. I was going to speak to you about asking her if we could watch Brody, but I’m afraid that you’ve made up your mind that Cotons are prissy and embarrassing.” Michael shook his head, slowly, squeezed his wife’s knee and said, “If I was dead set against the dogs, I would tell you and explain why I felt so strongly about not bringing one home. I’m game to welcome Brody for a weekend. It would give me firsthand experience and make it less theoretical and more substantial for me.”

From my perspective, this seemed a reasonable point for us to separate. They had work to do, as did I. I also needed to prepare for another client.

I’ll continue the story of this couple’s journey to pet parenthood another day. As they say, “It ain’t over.”

Dennis P. Owens
The Pet Ombuds
thepetombuds “at” gmail “dot” com