Should I get a dog, even though my husband has a slight tendancy to violence?
December 9, 2011 7:40 AM   Subscribe

My husband has anger issues. We are considering getting a dog, but I'm not sure I trust him to appropriately express his anger around the dog. What should I do?

My father was an angry man. He never hurt me or my sister physically, but he would get angry about the slightest thing (like one of us spilling a drink) and yell at us, break things, throw things, mess things up, punch the walls, kick the trash and be generally menacing. My mother has never said that he hurt her, but I wonder. These were everyday occurrences. As a result, I have significant issues around anger -- I don't deal with it well, and I don't know how to evaluate it. I don't have a good sense of whether a certain level of anger is appropriate for a given situation, because I either shut down completely when I'm around an angry person, or I rush around trying to fix everything and make it better. Either way, I feel panicked and out of control when I'm around an angry person.

As things have turned out, I've married an angry man. He is not at all in the same league with my dad. He occasionally gets angry (maybe once every 2-3 weeks), and will growl at me and sometimes hit things. He's aggressive when he hits things. He broke a kitchen appliance once by hitting it. He broke the inside of the car door once by hitting it. He got into a small fight on an airplane once while deplaning (it was limited to shoving). I've never seen him hit anyone, and he's never hit me or hurt me psychically. He did threaten to hit me once (I left the house with my cat and didn't go home again for a month, until after he started therapy and we both started couples therapy). After a lot of hard work, I feel safe around him. He has made significant changes to his behavior, and recognizes that these changes are good for him -- he's not doing it just for me. It's very, very rare that he hits things these days (I've seen him do it once in the last year), but I still see that his anger is there. I'm ok with that. I'm not asking him to not be angry, as long as it is expressed appropriately.

We are thinking of getting a dog. We've had cats before, but don't have any pets now. He was very good with the cats and never hurt or threatened them. They loved him, and he had a special bond with them. For various reasons, a dog would be a better choice than a cat for us right now. As children we both had dogs and liked them, but neither of us have had a dog as an adult.

Here's the problem. My dad physically abused my sister's dog. My dad would get angry at the dog, and would corner it and grab it. He would beat it. One time he kicked it so hard it flew through the air. The dog became aggressive. It bit one of my sister's friends pretty badly, and had to be put to sleep.

I'm really excited about the idea of having a dog, but I'm completely terrified that my husband might be violent with it, just like my dad was. Because I don't deal with anger well, I don't know how to evaluate the likelihood of this happening.

What should I do? Should we go back to the therapist before we get a dog so that we have some help talking about this? Am I being unreasonably worried? My husband is different enough from my Dad, that I really think this couldn't happen -- but I can't be sure. Do I have to be sure, given the small (I think) likelihood? Is anyone really sure that their spouse won't abuse a pet? I mean, is this even a consideration for most people?

Other details: We do not have kids and are not going to. We probably won't have any other pets except the dog. If we don't get a dog, we will probably get a cat, even though that's not our preference right now. Dog would be an adult rescue, not a puppy, and I won't adopt a dog that isn't crate- and house-trained already.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What should I do? Should we go back to the therapist before we get a dog so that we have some help talking about this?

Honestly, I think you should still be going anyway- not, perhaps, as often as before, but certainly to check in. It sounds like your husband has made progress, but I think you should maintain a relationship with the therapist for reasons exactly like this. And if he really has changed he won't blame you for wanting to do that.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:47 AM on December 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

Please do not bring a dog into this situation. He needs to work out his issues before you potentially give him a target (or victim) of his anger.
posted by amazingstill at 7:48 AM on December 9, 2011 [19 favorites]

Animals are wonderful. But they are also frustrating because there is no way to reason with them. For someone with anger management problems, as your husband clearly has, taking away one great resource (reasoning), is a huge deal. I think your concerns are well-founded. I think your suggestion that you make this decision 1) together; 2) in therapy; and 3) after first addressing potential anger scenarios, is spot on. During that process, I think you should also develop an agreement about under what circumstances the dog will need to be re-homed (ie if your husband in any way acts out his aggression toward the dog). This should be a very bright line rule, with very little room for interpretation or rationalization.
posted by jph at 7:49 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is anyone really sure that their spouse won't abuse a pet?

I came from a genuinely abusive home. My girlfriend had her own issues growing up. Before we got the dog, we were both 100%, utterly, completely sure the other person would never take their anger out on it, or try to "punish" in inhumane ways or anything like that. So, yes, you can be completely sure your spouse won't abuse a pet. And, unfortunately, it has nothing to do with a person's actual love for an animal (or another person) either. A dog, especially an adult rescue, will make you frustrated. It will make you angry. It can be house-trained and crate-trained and polite and it will still, once in a while, do something you can't stand. Or have a behavior that is really, really hard to train it out of.

From what you say, your husband has made genuine progress and that is great. What's even better is that two are handling it together, and you have a good sense of boundaries and expectations and so on. However, until a professional can say "okay, your anger issues are under control" as a statement of fact, please don't bring any animals into the relationship. Even if he doesn't take it out on the dog, the dog will annoy him and until he's really and truly learned to handle his anger constructively, it's just not a good idea to add another stressor into the mix.
posted by griphus at 7:56 AM on December 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

What should I do? Should we go back to the therapist before we get a dog so that we have some help talking about this?

showbiz_liz is right, you should be in therapy regardless. Your husband still has anger issues, and you are still rationalizing and minimizing his behavior. ("He got into a small fight" does not mean "he has never hit anyone" ... and what is a "small" fight anyway?)
posted by headnsouth at 7:58 AM on December 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

I can't speak on the get/don't get part of this, but if it's between a dog and a cat, a cat will create a recursive cycle of frustration as his reactions fail to teach it what behaviors it should avoid. It doesn't take much for a dog to get "I shouldn't do x y or z" and still be happy with the rest of its structured life.
posted by MangyCarface at 7:59 AM on December 9, 2011

Get a divorce??? Really, the poster expresses no interest or intent in leaving a marriage that she has worked hard to improve. She states no recent threat and handled the single threat well by leaving immediately and requiring therapy to continue the relationship. Most adults have flaws and/or are damaged goods, both my wife and I certainly are, yet we find ways to work around and minimize them and have a happy marriage.

To the question posed, I think dogs can be a wonderful addition to a household and may even help his anger management issues. Certainly regular dog walking could help him.

I would,

1)restart couples therapy, as above, not as frequently as before but to maintain the progress that you have made and continue to find ways to improve the relationship.

2)get a house trained dog that could be returned to given away.

3)make sure your husband knows that a single attack from him on the animal means it goes away.

The potential improvement in your lives if this works out well is a bigger benefit than the negative of a single bad experience the animal might encounter from your husband.

Good luck! It sounds like your have already done a great deal of work towards having a long and happy marriage.
posted by BDoyon at 8:04 AM on December 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

If he could handle being around cats and treated the cats well, he can probably also handle having a dog. It seems to me that you're worries stem from the fact that your dad abused a dog, and so to you a dog seems a more likely candidate for abuse, when really there's no difference between the two species.
posted by orange swan at 8:08 AM on December 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think I know what you're getting at when you say that you're not asking him to not be angry, just to express it appropriately. However, I'd like to gently question your premise.

There are people who fear any expression of anger, who think that getting angry and expressing it in even a healthy way is dangerous and to be avoided. Obviously that's unhealthy, and it's good that you don't hold that expectation for your husband,

However, being an angry person--having anger constantly or nearly so, even if you don't express it inappropriately, is unhealthy. Anger is a healthy and good thing when it's in response to something worth getting angry about. Anger as a default emotional state is unhealthy. I know, because I've lived with anger as my default emotional state. I'm doing better now, not perfect, but better. I can't tell you how much better I feel, how much happier I am now--and I can't tell you how hard it was to learn that my husband felt (in many ways still feels) like he had to walk on eggshells around me, avoiding certain topics, anticipating what would provoke my anger. I suggest you ask yourself if you walk around on eggshells at all, if you feel like some things are better to avoid lest your husband's anger bubble up to the surface and ruin an evening.

Then I suggest you and your husband to return to therapy. Talk about the anger you see in him and how it makes you feel--obviously you need to acknowledge and encourage the work he's already done and the progress he's made, but don't accept a near constant state of anger as "healthy as long as he expresses it appropriately." Get a dog when you feel like your husband isn't just holding back a torrent of anger, but rather when your husband experiences anger as an emotional response rather than a default state.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:14 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

What should I do? Should we go back to the therapist before we get a dog so that we have some help talking about this?

Yes, this is a great plan and you should absolutely do this!
posted by DarlingBri at 8:15 AM on December 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

You should be going to occasional therapy to keep checking in, your husband should be able to tell you if he thinks he needs the dog to leave because he's too angry at it to live with it (not that I think this will necessarily happen, but it should be discussed before you adopt the dog, that he has an out), and if he actually abuses the pet you should be leaving with the dog, not giving the dog away.
posted by jeather at 8:15 AM on December 9, 2011

I think you'd be fine getting a dog. Your husband is not your dad. It's more logical to think "my husband was great with cats, therefore he'll be great with dogs" than "my father was horrible with dogs, therefore my husband will be horrible with dogs."

Having issues with anger is not a black and white, yes or no issue. Your husband will probably never be the Dalai Lamaa but he has moved steadily along the continuum to become a much less angry person. He's a lot better than he was, has never hit you even at his worst, has proven he's willing to work to improve his anger management and has made significant progress.

It sounds like you both have a lot of love to give a dog and there are a lot of dogs out there needing good homes who would be blessed to come and live with you. And based on the way you handled the incident where you moved out with the cat, I think in the very rare event something bad did happen you'd handle it appropriately and do what was necessary to protect the dog and yourself.
posted by hazyjane at 8:16 AM on December 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

Mod note: Couple comments removed.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:18 AM on December 9, 2011

As a couple, I don't think you are ready for a pet.

Please continue therapy.

Could you possibly volunteer at a shelter or with a rescue group until you have built up your confidence and you husband has learned how to respond to frustration?

There's nothing in your question that indicates your household can handle another creature - not right now.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:18 AM on December 9, 2011

What does your husband say about your fears about his behavior, about your childhood dog experience, and about his feelings about his ability to control anger around a dog? What does he know about disciplining dogs and what kind of doggy behavior is within normal ranges? Because talking to him about this would probably be the first step.
posted by bq at 8:21 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Dogs and cats are a lot of work. It can be frustrating - they go to the bathroom in the house, eat things that you don't want them to eat, bark when you're trying to have a nice meal, etc.

That said, you know your husband better than any of us do. And you say he has made progress and that he is good with cats. If that is truly the case and you set good ground rules for behavior with the dog (i.e., we will only use positive reinforcement with them), then I do not necessarily see a difference between dogs and cats.

If he is violent/aggressive with the animal(s) even once, then I think that allows you/should/could lead to reevaluation. Not only in terms of the animals being in your home, but for potential risk for you, as well, and how he has progressed/or not in addressing his anger. Violence in the home and violence towards animals has a strong correlation, unfortunately. (I am not saying this will happen, but just inserting some reality in terms of the "statistics" out in the world).

To answer this question: Is anyone really sure that their spouse won't abuse a pet? I mean, is this even a consideration for most people?

Yes. I am as completely sure as humanly possible (the universe has its own ways of teaching use lessons) that my partner would not abuse our pets. It is not something I think about. I have not been in a relationship with someone with "anger issues" though, so I cannot speak from that position.

From all that you say, however, this is not the direction that things are going, and that is a wonderful thing. I would just consider setting some good dog/cat training ground rules as a couple and setting some internal ones for you in terms of warning signs. And I agree that in response to your fear of violence, due to your childhood experience, and past "anger" behavior by your husband, considering therapy could be a good thing. Perhaps a positive experience with you and your husband can help you work through some of those childhood feelings. Again, I am not a psychic and you know what is best for you. But these are my $.2.
posted by anya32 at 8:21 AM on December 9, 2011

I think going back to the therapy is a great start. My dad was an angry guy when I was a kid, of the trashkicking, mess-making, thing-breaking (but not hitting) sort and we got a collie when I was about 11. It mellowed him out a lot. He never hit or yelled at the dog. Also, when he started yelling the dog would get very protective and start barking at him, which really broke the tension and made everyone just start laughing.

It sounds like he's working on himself, and you're working on the marriage. I think when you grow up in that sort of environment it takes a long time to shake it off and learn how to deal appropriately when people are getting angry. Good luck. I think more therapy and then dog would work out great.
posted by sweetkid at 8:26 AM on December 9, 2011

Foster a dog first. Let him see if he can deal with the frustrations and trials without committing to a dog for life.
posted by whalebreath at 8:34 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

By this I do not mean let him take out anger on a foster dog!!! Just...a pet can represent a new kind of frustration and it would be good for him to get a realistic picture of what feelings and tendencies that might bring up for him. And yes, therapy.
posted by whalebreath at 8:36 AM on December 9, 2011

I would not get a pet until you are as sure that your husband won't intentionally hurt it as you are that you yourself won't intentionally hurt it. Because you're sure of the latter, right? You trust yourself and your methods of dealing with anger and your reactions to frustration enough to know that you wouldn't react violently against an innocent animal, right? That's how sure you should be about your husband.

The two of you should go back to therapy. I say that not just because it sounds as though he still occasionally has the sorts of violent episodes that he's trying to learn to avoid, but also because it sounds as though you're still afraid of him. And it's completely understandable that you would be; this is a man who threatened to hit you and destroyed your belongings, and it's going to take a lot of time and effort to fully heal that. But I also think it might be useful to talk with the therapist and your husband about your childhood, about your fears that your husband will do what your father did. Which, again, are not irrational fears, but they're fears that you and your husband can talk through with the help of a trained professional.
posted by decathecting at 8:36 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

As others have said, it was your dad who was abusive to animals, not your husband - indeed, if he had dogs as a child and enjoyed and respected them then (albeit I presume this was before the anger issues emerged), I would suspect that this positive early conditioning with respect to animals might still be in place to a degree. Some very angry and aggressive people can be very gentle around animals, I understand - maybe they somehow rationalise an animal's "bad" behaviour in a way they can't with other triggers.

However, even if he only lashes out once a year nowadays, it would only take one of those episodes with a dog in the wrong place at the wrong time to have some pretty dire consequences. And what if he did blindly hit out and the dog bit him, in fear /defence?

My other half apologises profusely to her when he trips over our eldest cat (deaf and senile and good at sitting silently right behind you). No, he wouldn't hurt any of our pets. I know I didn't even get angry on the couple of occasions when my late and very much loved cat bit me so hard (during trips to the vet's) that I ended up having a tetanus jab and scars - anger honestly just didn't even register because I knew how scared she was. If your husband can't yet say the same with as much honest certainty as is entirely reasonable, then maybe you should hold off until both he and you are that certain.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 8:53 AM on December 9, 2011

You said you both had dogs as a kid. So he had a dog in his life previously. Did he abuse that dog? What reason is there to believe he would abuse a dog if he had one as a kid and had a great relationship with the cats?
posted by spicynuts at 9:01 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

2)get a house trained dog that could be returned to given away.

Under no circumstances do this. A dog is a living thing, not a defective piece of electronics. If you don't know if you can commit to the dog for its entire life, you should not get one.

If you're honestly worried if your husband would be violent toward a dog, you shouldn't foster, either. Just because you can pass the dog on to someone else shortly thereafter is no reason to think that possible abuse is okay.

Dogs can be very frustrating. I loved my dog very much, but there were times she made me blind with anger. But you know what? I never expressed that toward her, because one of the things I think about dogs is something people say about horses: it is never the animal's fault. If something happens that is bad, it's because the animal was set up to fail by someone who didn't think things through to prevent the animal from having the option.

So when my dog shredded the trash, ate a bunch of things out of it that made her violently, messily ill, that was my fault for not securing the trash. When she destroyed a book because she was anxious about a thunderstorm and I didn't have it put up where she couldn't get it. When she peed on the floor, she was sick, or I didn't pay close enough attention to her body language to know she needed to go out. She never 'did things to punish me' because she was not capable of that kind of thought process. I've noticed that a lot of people who get angry at their pets project this sort of adversarial relationship toward the animal, and it can lead to abuse.

I think that if you're worried enough about your husband's violent tendencies to admit it to the Internet, you probably know you shouldn't get a dog.
posted by winna at 9:20 AM on December 9, 2011 [17 favorites]

I would really suggest re-starting with a therapist or at least consulting a therapist on this before bringing an animal into the situation. It's great that he's seriously addressing his problems, but this could bring in a new stress (one that can't just be walked away from) and you should consider how he'll handle that.

On the one hand, I'd suggest getting a cat rather than a dog, because they're much lower maintenance and generally less obtrusive. The dog will require constant chores. Conversely, though, sometimes cats just don't give a damn about what you want...

Anyway. Again, I'm not saying this is a no-go, but you should definitely consider talking to a therapist about this specific topic before going forward.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:21 AM on December 9, 2011

If he could handle being around cats and treated the cats well, he can probably also handle having a dog. It seems to me that you're worries stem from the fact that your dad abused a dog, and so to you a dog seems a more likely candidate for abuse, when really there's no difference between the two species.

The major difference between them that I see on this issue is that it is much easier to ignore a cat until it's convenient for you to pet/feed/clean up after. A dog's needs are more immediate, and if there's any concern about whether a dog begging to go out *right that minute* no matter what the dog is interrupting would trigger an angry response, I'd be concerned. That's the major difference I see between dogs and cats for you.
posted by BlooPen at 9:24 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is anyone really sure that their spouse won't abuse a pet?

This statement hit me in the gut, because it totally clarifies how you have no appropriate frame of reference for how adult men with self-control behave. My father was a violent person, and I was terrified of him for most of my life. As he aged, he mellowed out and I have managed to maintain a relationship with him over the past several years. But I still have the emotional scars that were caused by his violence and aggression, and it affects my behavior to this day.

Can you talk about this issue with your husband or will he just blow up at you? If you can't even put it on the table based on his past history of totally inappropriate behavior, then I don't think you should get a pet.
posted by crankylex at 10:19 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is anyone really sure that their spouse won't abuse a pet?

Yes. Very simply, yes.

Moreover, you have explained that you default to soothing and appeasing behavior when things start getting out of hand - this is both not good for dogs and also a sign that you have some work to do.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:34 AM on December 9, 2011

Two people with anger issues should not be responsible for more living things until they deal with their problems. Get the pet as a reward for fixing the anger problems, after.
posted by rhizome at 11:03 AM on December 9, 2011

Let me list out a few of the things my cats have done that truly, truly have pissed me off, to the point I once I had to walk out of the house, take a walk and come back in:

1. Eat my plants. Every plant.
2. Climbed my cabinet and my fridge to get to a vase with roses to eat my roses
3. Climb up onto the kitchen counter (I did manage to curb this)
4. Ruined my favorite rug by scratching it
5. Is in the process of ruining my couch by scratching it
6. Knocked over a one of a kind vase (that's the one I had to take a walk over)

And, they are totally innocent and I can't yell at them or show any anger, because they don't know they did something "bad." I just got to roll with it.

I mean, look at this site, shit my pet ruined. One has to have the ability to either let it roll off of you, or go outside and blow steam out and away from the pet.

Can your husband do that?
posted by vivzan at 1:13 PM on December 9, 2011

I love my dog dearly - BUT sometimes she can make me so mad because she will do something she has been taught is a no no and I will scream at her and then I just shake my head. I am afraid anyone with a temper would lash out in one of these moments when the emotion takes over it and hurt the animal. Please don't expose an innocent animal to this.
posted by sandyp at 4:11 PM on December 9, 2011

No way. Not to be mean but this will lead to abuse when he shits on the accident.
posted by Bun Surnt at 5:23 PM on December 9, 2011

  • Husband has serious anger problems, but acknowledges them as problematic, and is making an earnest effort to handle them.
  • Husband was previously very good to cat. (By the way, what happened to previous cat?)
  • Your father was not good to pets, again unlike your husband
If these are true, and you haven't hidden/minimized anything, then I think you should go back to therapy and establish an ongoing, possibly-less-frequent relationship with this therapist. In these sessions, you should talk about your fears here. To me, they sound like that: your fears, although they are certainly reasonable.

After that, you should have a better idea of where you stand with this issue, and, importantly, clear communication with your husband about the issue. Personally, it sounds to me like you're going to be able to get a dog :).
posted by !Jim at 9:23 PM on December 10, 2011

The dog cannot defend itself and the dog will not be able to tell you if anything bad happens. For this reason, you need to be as close to certain as possible that your husband will not hurt the dog before you get one.

I think that you may think you are overreacting about your husband's potential for hurting the dog because you are projecting from how your father acted. I think that's a red herring and it's totally possible to evaluate your husband's anger by itself.

You said every 2-3 weeks he gets so angry that he "growls" at you. IMO it's not normal at all for you someone to get to angry that they're growling at their spouse every few weeks. You said he's not breaking things often anymore but his anger is still there. That may be acceptable for you to live with someone whose frequent anger is always there simmering under the surface, but I don't think it's okay for an animal. I think it's just a matter of time until it comes out.

And you probably try to placate him somewhat when he's in an angry mood, right? Like act quiet around him, try not to do anything to make it worse? An animal is not going to always do that or even realize that it has to. Animals are thinking about their own goals and what they want, and can be willful and stubborn. I love animals, the thought of an animal being harmed makes me feel nauseous, and I also think of myself as a more-patient-than average person, and yet I've been frustrated to the point of serious anger by things my pets have done before. I do not think it will be good for a dog to be owned by your husband, at all. He's not ready.
posted by cairdeas at 10:01 PM on December 11, 2011

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