by: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
You asked, so I wrote about it!
I actually get asked about this rather frequently at appointments, usually in embarrassed, hushed tones. I am honored that my clients trust me and feel comfortable enough around me to ask questions on this sensitive topic. Despite this topic being somewhat sensitive, it is nonetheless something that affects a significant number of US households. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reported in the 2017-2018 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook that 38.4% of U.S. households have at least one dog. So if your dog and love life are colliding, you are far from alone in this.
Before we talk about why dogs may interrupt love lives, it is important to consider what they understand about intimacy and sex. Their perceptions drive their behavior. There is no evidence thus far that dogs actually understand what is happening when two people have sex. They likely recognize the smell of pheromones when people become aroused and other scents associated with people engaging in intimacy. At this point, there is no evidence that dogs understand that what is actually happening is affection and/or intercourse. Because of this, dogs may have intense curiosity about what is going on. They may stare, move closer to watch, or smell around to gather information about what is going on.
How dogs perceive intimacy between two humans will vary based on the dog's relationship with each human, the living situation, their feelings of security and access to resources in their environment, and the behaviors they were originally bred to perform. A mastiff breed who lives with a single female owner may (unsurprisingly) perceive a new intimate partner as a threat when he approaches to embrace her. A dog who is especially bonded with one owner and less so with the other may view intimacy between the two owners as a threat. Some dogs may be unbothered about the intimacy until there is a lot of vocalization by one or both partners, at which point they may become concerned that something bad is happening. A concerned dog may attempt to interrupt the event or prevent intimacy in the future.
Dogs are very perceptive about how much attention we are giving to other dogs, children, our partners, our phones and computers, and how much they are receiving from us. Jealousy in dogs is a very real phenomena. Some dogs may become jealous when their favorite human is giving attention to someone else, whether it be a dog, human, or smart phone. Other dogs may simply think that two people having sex looks like a really fun game, and they want to join. They may jump in the middle or bring over a toy to add to the fun.
Guarding behaviors can appear as a body blocking stance between two people, pushing between them, a dog using his head to push a partner's hand/arm away, growling, or other agonistic behavior. Guarding behavior can appear at the very start of intimacy, such as two people approaching one another, or may appear during sex if the dog perceives his owner to be in danger. A dog may also begin to guard a bed if he thinks intimacy may be imminent (smelling pheromones, observing precursor behaviors in the humans that the dog recognizes as leading to intimacy). This is more unusual, but it does happen! More commonly, dogs may bark, jump, or nudge their owners to draw the attention back to themselves. They may jumping into the middle of it and offer play behavior such as play bows or bring toys. Other dogs are simply curious and may stare and/or sniff.
How does one work around this? The particular way to handle interruptions to intimacy varies widely based on the behaviors exhibited. Guarding behavior can be serious and may involve extensive counter-conditioning and teaching new behaviors, as well as management. There is nothing wrong with dogs watching if you are comfortable with that and it is non-disruptive. Otherwise, it is best to pick your boundaries and stick with them. If your dog knows "Place"/"Bed"/"Crate" you can send him to that location and ideally, have something you can quickly toss to him to keep him occupied. Bully sticks, other natural chewing items, and interactive toys are great for this. You can also put the dogs in another room or cover a crate if the sight of you with another person causes him to bark. Removing the visual sight of the activity can be helpful in some cases. This is something you will want to have practiced so your dog is not stressed being in a strange location separate from you. Most importantly, do not respond to your dog's barking or other interruptions if he is seeking attention. Scolding and/or pushing your dog away from you are still attention and can be reinforcing for certain dogs. Pick your boundaries and stick to them while attempting to make your dog comfortable with the situation.
Feel free to reach out if you need help with your unique situation.