Who Keeps The Dog In The Divorce?

By Ashley Tyler

You and your significant other went down to the rescue shelter, picked out an adorable pup together, and you couldn't wait to get him home. The last thing you want to think about while your new furry friend licks your face and wags his tail is: What will happen to the dog if you and your husband/girlfriend/friend/whatever decide to call it quits one day?

French bulldog with two hands divorce
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The Humane Society reported that in 2015-2016 65 percent of households (79.7 million) include at least one pet, with 77.8 million of those being dogs. Combine that with the estimate that 50percent of all marriage end in divorce, and that means there are a ton of pups stuck in the cross fire of divorce and separation all over the country.

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The Lied Animal Shelter in Las Vegas, Nevada told the Review Journal that in each 2010 and 2011 "about 45 impounded animals annually were brought there for the specifically cited reason of an owner's divorce." And that's only counting the people who wrote down separation or divorce as the reason at the time of surrender. There are likely still others who either cited a different, less personal, reason or who had someone else handle the unpleasant task.

They Can Feel It, Too

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By now we know that dogs are capable of experiencing things like love, jealousy, and fear, which means they also can sense the shift occurring between owners. Even if you keep the fighting to a minimum and pretend everything is peachy, there's no fooling your dog.

Kate Mornement, animal behavioralist from Pets Behaving Badly, told ABC that she does encounter "quite a few cases of pets with behavior problems following separation or divorce... most commonly separation anxiety in dogs."

It's no wonder since dogs are creatures of habit so the sudden disruption that comes with a divorce or separation, no matter how civil, will be a shock to your dogs senses.

What To Consider

Bride and groom figurines standing on two separated slices of wedding cake
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It's important to try and keep the dogs schedule as close to normal as possible, at least in the beginning since "any big disruption to their normal routine or breaking of attachment bonds affects them a lot," said Mornement. So even if you'd rather your ex be on the other side of the world instead of stopping by to take the dog on their usual evening run, you have to put your four-legged friend first.

Some things to think about when deciding who gets primary custody of the dog:

  1. Who is the dog's primary care giver? It's best if the dog can stay with the person who is typically responsible for the feeding/bathing/grooming/walking, so the pup feels at ease and knows what to expect.

  2. Will either of you remain in the previously shared house? If either person is going to stay in the house, that's where the dog should probably be too. He'll feel most secure with familiar surroundings and will be better equipped to help comfort you, too.

  3. Who works longer hours? If the dog is used to your S.O. being home in the afternoon and now they're suddenly alone until you get home at 8 p.m., they may start acting out by doing things like chewing, urinating in the house, and refusing to eat.

  4. Do you have other pets? The stress and change that comes along with a divorce is bad enough; don't rip your pup away from his furry BFF's too. If there's more than one pet in the house and they have all formed a special bond, it's wise to keep them together.

What Do The Courts Say?

Just because you treat your dog like your first-born child doesn't mean the courts will agree with you. While the official law varies from state-to-state, most see pets as nothing more than a piece of property. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, "animals are considered to be property and traditionally, in divorce proceedings, judges would divvy them up in much the same way as they would the furniture."

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If at all possible, it's best to sit down with your ex and come up with a reasonable and civil agreement based solely on the best interest of the dog, because it's clear the courts want no part in it — unless you live in Alaska.

In 2015 Alaska became the very first state to require courts to "take into consideration the well-being of the animal" and empower judges to assign joint custody of pets if that's what they see as the best alternative.

At the end of the day, divorce sucks. But it's part of life, and hopefully it's always for the better. Your pup has been there for your through all the ups, downs, and in-betweens, and just when you thought you needed them the most, you realize they need you, too.

Man with his dog
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