Who gets to keep the dog is a central issue in many divorces
Breaking up is hard to do.
“Regardless of whether the husband and wife love each other, they both love the dog,” Victoria Shroff says of couples splitting up.
Shroff is a litigator who devotes part of her practice to animal law. “People will fight tooth and nail for their dogs. It’s a real flashpoint issue – especially because the animal is so neutral.”
She has even encountered a case where ex-roommates fought for a pet they purchased together.
“Animal laws harken back to a time when we were still an agricultural and farming community,” Shroff says. “But, we don’t live on farms anymore. If you have a sheepdog, chances are, it’s not chasing sheep. They’re at home, waiting to greet you.”
In most custody cases, whoever can provide the bill of sale gets the dog.
When exes fight like dogs, the teeth come out.
“When people are hurting they do mean things,” David Lewry says, a social worker and counselor.
Lewry has heard of pet owners, who after a bitter breakup prohibit their exes from seeing the pet, withholding visitations from the person who really cared for it.
Or, they use the pet as a bargaining chip. You get the TV and I get the dog, or if I keep the coffee table, you can have the cat.
After her nine-year relationship ended, Selina Oakley lost her dog, Cleo, to her ex.
“He really loved her. Like a lot,” she says. “He used to refer to her like one of our children. So it seemed excessively cruel to leave, take the kid and the dog.
“So the dog stayed.”
However, Oakley’s ex wanted her back. In his efforts to retrieve his ex, he’d appeal to her love for the dog – albeit without success.
“He would phone me and be like, ‘You should hear your dog. She’s running around the house crying for you. You’ve abandoned your family. You need to come home.’”
Oakley says she felt she was being blackmailed and chose to cut ties altogether. Thus, in her new home she has the cat.
And yes, her ex kept the dog.
O, Romeo, Romeo!
But, not all separations end on a bitter note. For those that end harmoniously, sharedcustody of the pet is a possibility.
Romeo is a six-year-old, five-pound Yorkshire terrier owned by Sherrisse Fischer and her ex-husband, Dan Austin. He was a Valentine’s Day gift from Austin to Fischer when they were still dating.
Despite the demise of their 10-year relationship, they get along amicably.
Although Romeo now permanently resides with Fischer, she says her ex is welcome to visit the dog whenever he wants.
“Picking up mail really means coming over to see the dog,” she says, laughing at the euphemism they have created.
“I can tell the dog actually misses him too. If I let him know that ‘dad’s’ coming over, he gets very excited.”
Jodi Cantafio, a dog trainer with Calgary’s Clever Canines, confirms that dogs are impacted by the emotions expressed by humans.
“Our dogs are so sensitive to what we’re feeling and that’s part of why we love them. They know when we are feeling down and also when things are going really well.”
When a long-term relationship ended between her and an ex, Cantafio’s own dog, Luca, responded by showing regressive behaviours.
Cognizant of not being an emotional mess around her dog, Cantafio refrained from weeping into its fur or being extra affectionate. But still, Luca was affected by the change.
“Dogs are always looking for patterns in their world. When something changes so drastically, it throws their world for a loop. The pattern’s gone. They don’t know what to expect anymore and that’s when it’s very stressful.”
Cantafio has seen her share of clients who after a breakup come in with their dogs not associating the problem behaviours with the split.
“A lot of what we do is counseling in a way because in order to help the dog, we need to stabilize the owner’s emotions. If the owner’s emotions continue to rollercoaster, the dog’s behaviours will follow that.”
Who ought to get the dog?
Cantafio suggests that when owners do split up, they assess who will provide better care for the dog.
“Even if it is a nasty divorce, take a second and evaluate each other’s positions and answer, ‘Who’s in a better position to walk the dog, fulfill its training, and who will have support if you go out of town?’”
Calgarian couples’ counselor Mary-Jean Malyszka agrees.
“I always advise people to not make any quick decisions, and try to get to a place where they can look at decisions in terms of what is the highest good.”
“Divorce and separations can be really contentious. And, they can also just be sad. It’s so important for people when they are separating to look at the bigger picture.”