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Our friend’s dog is ruining our relationship

The question

We've been good friends with a couple for years. The problem is the wife is obsessed with their dog, more so lately than ever – maybe because their daughter recently left home. When we're at their house, she pets him, scratches him, feeds him tidbits from the dinner table, treats from the hors d'oeuvres, wipes the "tears" from his eyes with her hands – all without hand-washing, in the midst of preparing, serving, and eating food. It's gross! Then the dog is always begging, sniffing our food, and trying to grab it off low tables, all of which she thinks is "naughty but cute." He's included in conversations and cards and letters as if he were one of their children. We try to get around the problem by inviting them to our house or restaurants. Recently they invited us to their winter vacation spot, but we said no because they're bringing the dog. I feel I can't talk to her about it because she'll be hurt. But we can't keep avoiding the issue. Help!

The answer

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Well, you're probably right that her child leaving the nest has something to do with it.

We've all seen friends – often right before they become parents – go through a phase where they dote on their pets so much you think: "Oh, for God's sake just have a kid already."

I've been guilty of it myself. In fact, once, in a moment of weakness (who knows, I might have had a cocktail or two), when my wife Pam was pregnant with our first son, Nicholas, I said: "I just don't know if I'll ever be able to love a child as much as I love Squirly [our cat]."

I'm not afraid to admit it. On the contrary, I say it loud and proud: Sometimes I say dumb stuff, along with the smart things.

Pam mocked me for that statement for a solid decade. If I said I loved Nick or one of our two subsequent kids, J.J. and Adam, she'd cock an eyebrow and say: "Really? As much as Squirly?"

(Poor Squirly: After we had three kids and a dog, she found herself bumped from centre of the household universe to a distant fifth place, a creature we were only vaguely aware of at the best of times, who was heaved aside like a football if she occupied your spot on the couch. When she finally shambled off to The Great Litter Box in the Sky, she was, I think, grateful for the sweet release of death.)

I've just never heard of it happening at the other end of the child-rearing spectrum before. But it makes sense.

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Think of it, first of all, as a sign your friend has a big heart, and a lot of love to give: She just doesn't know what to do with it. That's a good thing.

But, as with children, you are doing an animal a disservice when you spoil it.

Dogs, particularly, are at heart pack animals. They need leadership, a firm sense of direction, a sense of who's boss – who's (vroom vroom) "the leader of the pack." (I say this not as some sort of canine expert, just as a dog owner.)

And maybe you need to be a bit more forceful and "leader of the pack"-ish with your friend.

I understand she's got a good heart and you don't want to hurt her feelings. But you are also doing her a disservice if you spoil her. You need to establish some boundaries – and say "heel!" to all this dog-foolishness.

Be gentle, yet firm. Tell her you understand she loves her dog and you love her for that. But maybe the dog could be a little less in-your-face during social occasions? Because it sometimes makes you uncomfortable.

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I don't think you need mention hygiene: It's too judgmental-sounding and potentially a hot-button issue. Nor would I reveal you declined their vacation invitation because of their dog. That might ruffle her fur unnecessarily.

But keep those thoughts close if you find your resolve to have her dog kept in (say) another part of the house when you visit starting to flag – because you have a right to dog-hair-free entrées and unlicked canapés, in my opinion.

And though your friend may growl and snap at you for the unwelcome treat of your honest opinion, I hope in the long term she'll prioritize human over canine comfort, and manage the mutt when you come over so you don't even have to think about it.

What am I supposed to do now?

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