When Is It Too Early to Get a Dog Together? · The Wildest

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a white dog stares up at a pink dress and yellow dress waving outside in the wind on a clothing line
Illustration: María Jesús Contreras

Heavy Petting is a weekly column full of relationship advice for pet parents—so you and your boo don’t end up fighting like cats and dogs over the cat and dog.

If you’ve ever had a romantic whirlwind and moved in together after three weeks, you know everyone’s there with the judgment (suspicious, quiet, loud, coded, rambunctious, depending on your crew). But why? Who are you two really hurting, what are you really risking — except the potential of two broken hearts, which can happen even if you wait three years to move in together? Well, you’re totally right, and I agree! Except sometimes, other little souls might get mixed up in your move-fast-and-break-hearts dynamic — and sometimes one of those souls belongs to a dog. 

I’ve only witnessed this once. It didn’t end so horribly, so we can all breathe easily, thank goodness. It was during a particularly frantic time of 2020, a friend’s friend moved in with a new boyfriend after a few weeks, and they adopted a dog maybe a month after that (there was some scarcity mentality about dog-adoption at this time, if you remember — things felt very competitive). 

Their relationship seemed built on low doses of mushrooms, two successful careers in graphic design, and the love of their new dog, who was so cute with a little pale nose and wiry white hair. The couple split soon after vaccines were widely available. The person who had the apartment lease kept the dog, for stability. My friend’s friend was heartbroken, but she understood the terms. The dog didn’t, I imagine, but she watches them all the time whenever her ex goes out of town. 

A three-month rule?

“I’m gonna say, if it’s under the first 90 days, no — unless you’re also prepared not to co-parent,” says Leigh Siegfried the founder and training director of Opportunity Barks. This includes being able to afford it on your own, and also that you have the capacity and time to care for your dog. Maybe there’s another person in your life who could step in to co-parent — like a roommate or a neighbor, says Siegfried. 

One thing to consider: Did you want a dog before this relationship? Just because you started dating someone (congrats!), that doesn’t mean that a nascent relationship should stop you from getting a dog. But maybe you should get the dog. Even if you moved in together earlier than some friends thought you should have, you can still have things to yourself. You could be explicit that, even if your partner wants to share responsibilities and walks and play time, that this dog is ultimately your responsibility. 

The best sign of readiness (it’s a classic)

“My first impression seems like a wonderful gift to give a partner, to start a new endeavor together. I think the sentiment is really lovely — it’s a new phase of life,” says Dr. Faith Drew, a certified Gottman therapist specializing in couples therapy. “But there’s a very stark difference from the reality of what it takes to make that kind of decision.”

She also points out that some people, who grew up with dogs might have a much greater sense of the intricacies of pet-raising than the person they’re dating. A good sign of readiness: “If we can have some tough conversations — not just about the financial piece or the logistics piece — but like we can really talk about our values.” 

How to have those conversations

Jennifer Abrams, an animal behaviorist who works as a behavior consultant in Brooklyn, says what’s most important is that you have a conversation. “The same things would come up if you were having or adopting a child. It’s a life you’re responsible for more or less completely.”

So, you talk about who’s going to be home, who’s gonna be responsible for the basics of feeding. “And especially if it’s early on in the relationship, it’s important that you at least acknowledge that there is going to be a person who’s going to take responsibility, because it’s a life that needs to be taken care of, regardless.” 

Now, what if you’d never considered a dog before this relationship started — but all this intimacy and the stable satisfactions of cohabitation are having you think, Oh, a dog would be the perfect addition. If it’s a new thought, consider fostering, suggests Abrams. 

A very good alternative

I think fostering is fantastic, in any situation, particularly right now when the shelters are so full and there are dogs who need a break from the shelter for any length of time,” Abrams says. Fostering different dogs will help you figure out the personality of the dog that will suit your lifestyle. “It’s a great way to see what it’s like to have a dog full-time without feeling like you’re fully committed to keeping that dog if it’s not quite what you’d thought.” 

Abrams also says not to fret too much about the dog’s wellbeing if the relationship tanks, as long as you’ve made a plan for after. She’s monitored dogs who have gone through situations like this — and the dog will mainly get over it, if you’re gentle and attentive with them.

“One of the qualities of dogs that makes them such successful pets for so long is they are able to adjust to a lot of different living situations,” says Abrams. “They are able to form strong relationships with lots of different humans throughout their lives and they’re very resilient.” She points out that we don’t know how dogs interpret loss. “There’s no evidence they lie in bed at night wondering where a specific person is. That doesn’t mean they don’t experience the loss, but they’ll usually do well as long as the dog has someone there that they trust and feel safe with.” 

So, go forth with caution and responsibility and big conversations, even if it’s at full-speed. I tend towards the slow and pragmatic, but that’s boring. Some relationships fly fast; I’ve seen it, and it looks very fun. Of course, it’s a downer to bring in pessimistic conversations early — ones in which you might say, Well just in case we don’t work out, Luna’s coming with me, yes? I agree that sounds like a hard one to approach, but toughen up! And congratulations on your wonderful new life, dog and all. 

maggie lange

Maggie Lange

Maggie Lange is a writer, editor, and columnist. Her work has been featured in New York Magazine, Vice, Guernica, GQ, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Elle, and Bon Appetit. She lives in Philadelphia with her favorite brindle boy, Finn.

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