Heartbeat: Why Your Spouse Should Be More like a Dog

We could all learn loyalty, love and understanding

By Dr. Pepper Schwartz February 14, 2023


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

As many of you know, I am considered a relationship expert, and from time to time, I like to write a column about the discoveries that keep happening as I listen in and give feedback to couples and singles about love. But for this column, I want to talk about what I think may be the purest reciprocal love available that of humans and their dogs.

Now if I left the word “reciprocal” out, there could be a lot more animals to mention. But anthropomorphize as you will, there is nothing quite like the bond between canines and humans. I am going to mention seven great contributions to relationship happiness and assert that unfortunately, the only reliable provider of these gifts is your dog. Which prompts another question: why doesn’t everyone have a dog? But avoiding that discussion for this column, I am focusing on once we recognize their contributions, would human relationships be enhanced if we took a few pointers from them? [I am sorry. I could not resist that pun.] 


Dogs give you: 

  1. A reliable welcome home. Humans get very lazy about celebrating entries and exits. I plead guilty to this and try to correct, but alas, I am imperfect. But not my dogs. They either sense I am coming home or they hear the car and press against the door, preparing to give me a joyous, over-the-top reception. There is no polite wag here. They explode with love. Do you do that for your spouse? Do your children [if they are over 5] reliably do that for you? Probably not, but with your pooch, you receive this every single time.  And every single time, it feels fabulous. OK, I admit when you dress up and they are dirty and they are all over you, it can be daunting. But really, all that uncontained love? Fabulous. If we just produce a smidgeon of that for another human being our happiness quotient would go up.
  2. Gratitude for a snack or meal. Yes, a human will give a thank you for thoughtfulness, but not like your dog will. In general, even though you have not spent hours preparing a delicacy, dogs will, like their ancestors, wolf down what you put before them and accept any treat with pleasure. There will be no critique, no sense of whether this was your best effort. Your dog looks at you like a hero because you bring in snacks and foods and, if you ask for a few tricks as payment [sit, stand, lie down, roll over], it is cheerfully provided. They are on time for dinner and understand if it’s a bit late. This approach to life can occur in human households, but it is certainly not predictable, and rarely common.
  3. Good will in general and very little whining. Dogs are stoic. They will only show pain or suffering if they are ill. There is no false bid for attention. Quite the contrary. If your dog is sleeping too much, doesn’t want to eat or limps, it is not for show. You will have to be the one who is observant and responsive. If there is a whine, it is usually because Fido wonders where you are or alerts you to the fact that s/he needs to go potty or desperately desires to go with you, wherever it is you choose to go. Your dog probably rarely whines and almost never without good reason. On the contrary, their default is to be happy every single day. There are few human beings like this.
  4. Enthusiastic endorsement of any activity we choose. We are the princes of entertainment to our dog. If you want Netflix and to chill, they are right there with you. If you want a hike, they are deliriously happy about going with you. They love a car ride so much that they don’t care if it sometimes means going to the vet. If you think something is fun, they are all for it. Not so with all partners. Partners tend to have strong tastes about what they like and when they want to accompany you when you do “your thing.” Sometimes you sense strong resistance to your suggestion. Other times you get an unequivocal, “No, I am not interested.” Yes, it is possible dogs could have an off day, but if you are up for it, they are almost always up for it. This may be true for partners in the first couple of years of a relationship, but that’s it.
  5. Adoring  looks, cuddles and daily sweet moments of affection. This might be true of cats as well, but I am suspicious about motivation or emotions in the feline world. Nonetheless, it is true that both cats and dogs love the warmth of your body, enjoy fitting into the curve of one of your body parts and generally position themselves on you or around you. They will willingly accept your strokes and often try to lick you with gusto in their version of care taking. They will look longingly into your eyes and melt you with their adoring expression. You can have this almost any time you want it.  After the honeymoon period, human partners will do this only on anniversaries or Valentine’s Day. Your dog will do this with the same intensity until extreme old age.
  6. Endless playfulness. Sad but true, we humans lose our silliness over time. We do play sports but we tend to get serious about them. We are more like the Boston Celtics than the Harlem Globetrotters. When we were kids, we romped, but as we get older, we become more self-conscious. We are unlikely to just run around in circles from sheer exuberance. We create goals for our running like training for a marathon. Our dogs, though, encourage us to stay silly, to jump into water just because the puddle is there. To run a zigzag course just because it feels good. To play keep-away or fetch with no point except that it’s fun together. They keep us young and moving. Some partners live this way, but more dogs do it. They keep us playing with them until they are too rickety to get up.
  7. Bravery and protectiveness over and above their own safety. Your dog not only has your back, he or she has your front. A dog will defend you without a second thought. Even if you believe your partner would defend you, you are not so sure about the ability to do it well. If you have a big dog, that’s selfless protection. You are their Homeland. They would die for you. Granted, this bravery has its downsides. Your dog does not know that the guy from Amazon just has a job to do and is not coming on your porch with evil intent. But if you let someone in your house, they will go with your decision, however foolhardy they may find it. Yes, having a partner with a black belt in several martial arts can also provide protection but really, would your partner stand up to a bear?

I could go on but you know what I mean. I am not saying that one species can sub for another do not run out and immediately trade in your spouse for a German shepherd. However, I am saying that we human partners could take a closer look at our pet’s contributions to our lives and learn something from these adoring, playful, grateful, joyous and brave family members  and copy some of what they so generously deliver

I can’t get a compliment out of my husband to save my life. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but he never tells me I look pretty or it’s a great dress. When I complain and ask for a compliment, he says he feels manipulated. Maybe I shouldn’t need the compliments, but I feel like I do. Advice? Well, first of all, join the club. We all need compliments. It’s not too needy, unless of course, you ask everyone you know 10 times a day. It’s entirely fair to want affirmation of your best efforts to look good for yourself, him and the world.

One way to do this is to sit down over coffee [wine, seltzer?] when you both are in a nice mood and tell him why you would like him to notice when you have a new dress on, a new haircut or recently lost weight. Tell him how much it means to you to know that he appreciates your physical changes as well as listen to the things you say. If he says something like, “Of course I like how you look. You should know that even if I don’t say anything,” don’t let him off the hook. Tell him that the fact is this: you want to hear that compliment, even if it’s only, “You look really nice in those glasses.” Lay it down very clearly: “It’s a small thing, I know, but an important thing to me. Even if it doesn’t seem necessary to you, could you do this for me?” If he forgets [because he has to retrain his habit of not saying anything], you could gently help him by saying something like, “I got this amazing price on this dress. What do you think?” Even someone with a severe lack of social graces should get the hint.

I know this seems like a bit of work you shouldn’t have to do, but remember, people come from cultures where a lot of compliments seem inauthentic or mere flattery. Some people grow up never hearing a compliment and so do not have a cultural affinity for emotionally rewarding people. You can change that, but it will take time and patience. Try hard, and I know this is hard, not to get angry or petulant when he forgets to do this even after your conversation. Keep helping him until it’s natural for him. Remember, you are working to undo what might be decades of being compliment-impoverished.

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