Divorce comes with a whole slew of problems to solve: Who stays in the house? Who keeps the car? And of course, who gets the dog?
With dogs increasingly considered “part of the family,” divorcing dog owners face particular challenges. Care and custody arrangements, division of expenses, and arguments over who the family dog prefers can make an already tough situation even tougher.
But splitting up the family doesn’t have to mean disaster for your dog. Read on to learn what divorcing couples can do to make divorce as painless as possible for the dog and themselves.
How Divorce Impacts Pets
According to the ASPCA, divorce is one of the most common reasons people rehome or relinquish their dogs.
Hundreds of thousands of dogs enter the shelter system each year because of divorcing couples. It’s important to note that these people aren’t monsters for rehoming their dogs; they’re going through an incredibly stressful time, and more often than not, making a decision that they believe to be in the best interests of the dog.
But studies have proven again and again that what’s best for the dog is a loving, stable home with an established routine, and giving up a dog to a shelter or uncertain future is not in their best interest.
The stress of domestic discord and joint custody can also lead to anxiety or misbehaving in your pet. Dogs are creatures of habit, and divorce may mean a big disruption in routine. Your dog has been used to sharing a home with two people, and now they’re likely splitting time between two homes and two different schedules. A dog who has always been perfectly house-trained might have a few accidents, or a formerly quiet dog may develop an anxious barking habit.
It’s important to be patient and loving with your dog, and remember that she’s not being “bad,” she’s simply having a natural reaction to a confusing situation.
Dogs aren’t able to tell us how they feel, but they often show us with their behavior.
Do what you can to ease your pet’s transition during a divorce, and be patient. You’re all going through a difficult time.
How the Law Treats Dogs of Divorce
Although pets are family to those of us who love them, in the eyes of the law, family dogs are still treated as community property. For divorce cases that go to court for a custody dispute, it’s unlikely the judge will consider who took care of the dog or whose side of the bed the dog sleeps on.
Judges will likely care about who rightfully “owns” the dog, i.e., who paid the adoption fee at the shelter or whose name is on the majority of veterinary bills.
A 2014 survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found a 22% increase in pet custody hearings in divorce court, which shows how important (and heated) this issue is. But if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of dissolving a marriage, you don’t have to take it to court. Having a signed and notarized pet agreement in place early on in a marriage can help prevent bitter custody battles and heartache in the unfortunate event of divorce.
Plan Ahead with a Pooch Prenup
Nobody gets married thinking they’ll one day divorce, and it can be uncomfortable and sad to broach the subject of what to do about the dog if your marriage doesn’t last. But having that awkward conversation early on will minimize heartbreak down the line. Think of it as planning for an emergency that will hopefully never occur: You have a fire escape plan and an earthquake preparedness kit, so why not be prepared in case of divorce, too?
There are several points to consider when making a divorce plan for the family dog:
- Which spouse works longer hours than the other, or travels more often?
- Who had the dog first? In many cases, it makes sense for the dog to stay with the person who brought him to the marriage.
- Does the dog favor one spouse over the other? This may be a tough question to confront, but for your dog’s sake, it’s important to acknowledge if she’s more bonded with one person in the relationship. Remember, this is worst-case-scenario planning, and your dog’s well-being has to come first.
- If you have multiple family pets, a split may be in order. Perhaps one dog favors you, and the other favors your partner; in that case, it would make sense for each of you to take a dog.
- Consider the possibility of re-marriages, new pets, kids, etc.; it’s impossible to fully predict the future, but making even a general plan for the lifespan of your dog can make it easier to navigate new challenges as they arise.
You could simply talk all this over with your partner and come to a verbal agreement, but for extra security, seal your agreement in writing.
Consider Splitting Dog Custody
Different dog care arrangements will work for different people after divorce. I know a couple who separated several years ago but still maintain a friendly “dog share” that allows each plenty of time with their beloved pet, one month on, one month off. Of course, their dog is an easygoing guy who does fine with all the back-and-forth; if the dog was more particular about routine, they might have made a different arrangement.
Some people may find it works best to have one person remain the primary caregiver for the dog, with the other acting as “petsitter” so they can have regular, if limited, time with their old friend.
Whatever the specifics of the arrangement, in relatively amicable divorces, sharing custody of the dog can be a great way to keep your pet active and satisfied, and let each person maintain a relationship with their beloved pet.
As a bonus, sharing the dog can help a divorced couple remain friends. After all, if you loved and respected each other enough to get a dog together in the first place, chances are you can reframe that love and respect as dog owners even in the wake of divorce.
Always Put the Dog First
However friendly or acrimonious your divorce, whatever custody arrangement you’ve worked out for the dog, it’s important to always prioritize your dog’s best interests during a divorce. It can be hard to think kindly of the person with whom you’re breaking up, but it shouldn’t be hard to think kindly of your dog and make decisions based on what’s best for her.
Think how comforting it can be to focus on your dog when you’re not feeling well, to have a loving, trusting creature to care for and give you positive feedback about the world. Dogs can be a healing influence in our lives and can make the sad fact of divorce a little bit easier to bear.
The truth is, though divorce can be painful, in most cases divorce is a good thing for the people involved. Many divorced people agree that it’s better to seek happiness individually than stay unhappy together, and for dogs in the middle of an unhappy relationship, divorce can mean the end of a home filled with tension and stress. With a little foresight, and by keeping the best interests of your dog at heart, you can help make the difficult process of divorce a little bit more bearable for the whole family, and everyone will come out happier in the end.