Step pets can be more difficult to get along with than step children. Here’s 5 ways to make the “adoption” as harmonious as possible.
When Mireya Navarro fell in love with Jim, who had children from a former marriage, she knew she would have to confront the challenges of becoming a step-parent. She did not anticipate, however, that the main resistance to her presence would come not from Jim’s children but from his pet.
“I underestimated the dog,” is the opening sentence of Stepdog(link is external), Navarro’s new memoir—a touching, funny, and all-too-real account of her struggle to get along with her new husband’s dog, Eddie. Stepdog details the lengthy battle that ensued with Eddie, and the lengths to which she had to go to win him over to create peace in her new home.
Navarro is not alone. Pets are a frequent source of disagreement for new couples. One study found that, on average, dogs can cause three couple arguments a week—or 2,000 arguments over their life together.(link is external) Topics of disagreement can range from who should walk the dog or clean up after it to whether the dog should be allowed on the bed or sofa to whether it should be fed scraps from the dinner table.
As Navarro discovered, while advice from friends and acquaintances is not difficult to come by, implementing that advice, and, especially, getting on the same page as your partner is not necessarily easy. Dogs are likely to behave very differently when their original owners are present than when they are left with their step-owner. As a result, an issue apparent one minute (like hostile growling) might be absent the next.
Dogs are not the only pets that present step-parenting challenges to new couples. In my years in private practice, I’ve heard stories of similar step-pet battles involving cats (which can be just as creative as dogs when expressing disdain for the person who has “invaded” their home), snakes (not everyone is comfortable living with a python in a glass tank that feeds on live mice), rodents (some people consider them adorable; others, vermin), and even birds (especially those that were trained to “say” words one person considers hilarious and the other, profane).
Compounding the issue, many pet owners assume, “My pet was here first,” and therefore feel it is up to their new partner to make peace with the animal, one way or the other. Often, the “other” way is actually the ‘highway. One poll by petside.com and the Associated Press found that 14% of people would choose their pet over their new paramour if the two were in conflict.(link is external)
How to Make Peace with Your Partner’s Pet
If you find yourself having problems adjusting to you new partner’s pet, consider the following steps:
- Have a conversation before moving in. Navarro was right: Do not underestimate the challenge of having step-pets. The best time to have a conversation about potential problems and solutions is before you move in. Make sure your partner understands their pet is likely to behave differently toward you than it does to them, and that even the best-behaved animal might resist your presence in some way.
- Become more knowledgeable. Even if you’ve had pets before, take the time to read up or consult experts so you can come in with the best plan for making the adjustment easier for your step-pet (and for you). Remember, the fact that you had a dog as a child does not mean you are an expert in animal psychology or dog training.
- Make sure you both agree before implementing any solutions. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to come up with unilateral strategies for dealing with a partner’s pet without consulting them. Not only is this likely to annoy your partner but unless they are participating and using a similar approach, you might end up confusing the animal instead of disciplining it.
- Have a clear understanding about responsibilities. Don’t slide into habits that might not work in the long term. Discuss exactly who will do what and when. Make sure to cover all eventualities so you avoid arguments like, “You went to work and left the poop on the carpet? I won’t be home for another eight hours!”
- Find empathy and compassion. Yes, you might be stuck with pet-zilla but don’t forget that an animal that gives you a hard time does so because it feels threatened and insecure. Being compassionate toward the pet’s emotional distress will not only make life easier for the animal, it will also mitigate the annoyance you feel, and allow you to make better choices and decisions if and when the battle heats up again.
- Speaking of emotional distress, for science-based techniques for treating common emotional wounds in humans, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).(link is external)
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