If you are going through a separation or divorce – it is hard enough, but if there are pets involved, it adds a layer of pain you probably didn’t anticipate. How do you decide who should get your dog in divorce, especially if you both feel you want this treasured family member? First, make sure you are asking the right questions.
Hopefully, even though you are in conflict or crisis, there is a bigger part of you that can ask “What would be best for the dog?” Is the dog equally bonded to both partners? Does the dog seem more attached to one person than the other? Are both of you moving, or is one person staying at the house or apartment that the dog has come to know as home? Some dogs are very attached to a specific house, others could move anywhere as long as their person was with them. Will the dog still have freedom, exercise, and the ability to relieve himself in the new environment?
Although healthy, balanced dogs can handle change, there is no question that they feel stress, anxiety and sadness due to separation. Gone are the days when we looked at dogs as simply instinctual responders, without rich interior emotional lives. The new studies in animal cognition and emotion are giving strong scientific evidence for the fact that animals experience a range of complex emotions. Animals can handle change if a loving caregiver they are bonded to remains constant, protective and supportive. But it would be unwise and unkind to think that they will not experience some suffering because of a complete disruption of their family pack and living circumstances.
Did one of you bring the pet into the relationship? Whose name is the dog license under? Laws regarding property (and pets are considered property in most states) will vary, so if you are unsure about your legal rights, consult an attorney or expert in local pet laws. In some parts of the country the name on the license will dictate ownership, even if you both adopted the dog or cat from a shelter at the same time. This was a heart-breaking situation for one couple who adopted together, and without giving much thought, he put his name down on the adoption papers and the license was under his name. In a very unfriendly split, he demanded the dog, got the police involved, and they took his side.
You want to make sure that whoever has custody of the dog has the chip registered in their name for emergencies. When some dogs or cats move to a new location, and are missing an owner, they may try to escape to return, so making sure you have both a microchip and up to date contact information (with you registered as the owner) should be a top priority. If a dog or cat escapes (cats often do this) and are picked up by animal control, and they don’t have a chip, they may be euthanized in a couple of days (every shelter has different rules, so you need to be informed about your local rules and contact them immediately if your pet is missing).
Should you split time, with the dog at one person’s house, then the other’s? This can work. The question you must ask yourself, is “What is best for the dog?” For some dogs this sharing arrangement can be the best of both worlds, with two people doting on him. And it can be a good plan for back-up help if one of you has to travel, or work demands prevent a good walking schedule. Try to not be selfish in terms of your own emotional needs, and look at the arrangements from the point of view of the dog. You also have to make sure the two humans will do well with continued contact after a split. You also have to make sure that dog-napping is not a concern in this situation, as that happens all too often, and then depending on the laws in your area, possession may be challenging to fight. Some people will try to use a pet to control their departing partner, so be on guard for this.
“I am not property!” Your dog might say if he had a voice. He should be treated as a member of the family, like a small child, in terms of thinking and planning for his future after a separation. Dogs are loyal and loving, and at the very least we owe them as much consideration as possible, even if we can’t find a way to keep two humans under the same roof.
Be prepared for a process of grieving if you are the one who doesn’t end up being able to keep the dog or cat. It is painful, and it takes time to heal. But when it is the right time, the only cure is to go to the local shelter and give a new dog a chance to live and love again. The perfect new love of your life may have four legs.
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