life with dogs
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Enhancing the neighborhood one house at a time
I love my neighborhood because it is unpretentious, the wide streets have sidewalks and it’s full of dog lovers. Besides the large number of dogs out on walks, the most obvious sign of that is the popularity of dog-themed welcome mats. My favorite is the one that says, “We’re so excited to see you we don’t know whether to pee on the floor or tear up the couch,” though the classic “Wipe Your Paws” is a close second.
My next door neighbors recently purchased the fashionable, “Ask not for whom the dog barks, it barks for thee.” Around the corner I just saw a doormat that reads, “Please remove your shoes. The dog needs something to chew on.” I got a chuckle when I visited a neighbor who was just putting out a new mat that reflects the state of things in her house: “Our dog flunked out of obedience school. He’s back, living here at home.” I laughed a little harder when she told me that she almost bought the one that said, “Ring the doorbell and let me sing you the song of my people. –The Dog”.
We’ve come a long way since the only dog-related expression one saw outside of someone’s door was “Beware of Dog”. Today, you are far more likely to see a welcome mat that says, “We like big mutts and we cannot lie” or “It’s all fun and games until someone ends up in a cone.” It’s quite common to welcome people into a house with a mat that says, “Welcome Diversity” and features a graphic with dogs of different shapes and sizes. Another option I’ve seen multiple times is the one that lets people know the inhabitants value “Peace, Love & Muddy Paws”.
Does your welcome mat pay homage to the canine members of your family?
[What We Are Reading]
There was a very interesting piece in a recent Washington Post advice column by Carolyn Hax. With a headline of “My girlfriend is crazy (maybe literally?) about her dog”, you can probably guess where this one is headed. A 32-year-old guy writes about the girlfriend he loves and hopes to marry but is complaining about the attention she is paying to her beloved 10-year-old dog who has an incurable kidney disease. But instead of having her dog put down, she is, as he writes:
“… spending insane amounts of money every month on “supportive care” (specialty vets – yes there is such a thing, meds, supplies, etc.) and plans to keep him alive as long as his “quality of life” is good.” She is even “she has to give him fluids under the skin every day, cook him special food and so on.”
And according to him, he thinks her level of care is misapplied, because, as he believes, he can’t help “but think of all of the worthwhile things she could be doing with that money rather than throwing it away on her dog, who as I said, is going to die anyway.”
And he then asks the advice columnist if girlfriend Amy has her priorities “screwed up” or if he is being insensitive.
Carolyn’s response was spot-on, leading off with “You’re going to die anyway. Should anyone cook you special food? Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.”
She then explains that the same argument for putting this level of care into a dog can also apply to discussions surrounding human health care. Why have palliative treatments or hospice care, if in fact someone is about to die? These are ethical questions that can apply to both species. She then explains that the compassionate relationship many people have with their dogs is based on the responsibility to provide care for them, in all phases of their lives. Some people, like Amy, take that responsibility and commitment very seriously.
And she explains that Amy “has her priorities, you have yours. A crucial area of compatibility is in respect for each other’s priorities where they differ. If you can’t, then you and Amy can’t.”
She wisely continues in analyzing his rather binary position—he had suggested that perhaps Amy was loving the dog more than she loves him:
“Instead of looking at it as a place to be right or wrong, try looking at the possibilities for acceptance. Is there room in your relationship for both of you to be right in your own ways?"
Love certainly is not a zero-sum game, in fact, many experts believe that opening your heart to loving animals can make us more accepting to loving and being loved by others. We don’t have a limited supply of “love” and expressing compassion and care just expands our ability to love and to be empathic. I do hope that Amy’s boyfriend took this wonderful advice to heart.
What advice would you have added? Have you experienced something similar yourself where a friend, lover or family member thought you were too over-the-moon for your dog?
News: Guest Posts
The importance of evaluating the responses
Kids are taught to ask permission before petting a dog with some variation of “May I please meet your dog?” This simple question has the potential to avoid unpleasant interactions, but only if kids are taught how to interpret the possible answers, especially those that are nuanced. The answer might be a simple, “Yes.” It could also be a straightforward “No” for any number of reasons: it’s not safe to pet the dog, the dog will feel uncomfortable if the child attempts to interact, or even that someone is on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time for a meet-and-greet. The person may also seem hesitant but not actually say no, or give an answer that conveys serious concern.
The clear “Yes” answers are easy to figure out. It’s common for people to reply to a request to meet a dog with some variant of “Sure, she loves people!” “He would love that!” or “Absolutely, thanks for asking!” In that case, there is a good chance that the person expects a positive interaction between a child and a dog. They might be wrong, but there’s no sense of worry or concern being expressed, which is encouraging, and it makes sense for kids to approach the dog.
Similarly, a definite “No” from the person is also clear. If a person declines the request, kids should respect that and not approach the dog. Common ways that people prevent an interaction are by saying, “I’m sorry, but she doesn’t like kids,” “She’s too shy, it will upset her,” or “I think not because everything scares her.” They might even say, “No, because she’ll try to bite you.” People who answer in this general way know that the dog can’t handle it and that it would be a mistake to let a child meet the dog.
Unfortunately, there are two general categories of answers that can be ambiguous, and too few children have been taught to understand them. The first set of such answers is generally positive with mild reservations. These usually indicate that the people are not concerned about their dog being aggressive, but they feel embarrassed about some aspect of their dog. These replies are along the lines of, “Okay, but she’s very excitable,” or “Yes, but she may jump on you.” Sometimes people just offer a warning that is not behavioral, such as “If you don’t mind getting a lot of fur on you!” In most cases, these responses are not deal breakers for a meeting, but it does depend on the size of the child as well as the size and enthusiasm level of the dog. If the person expresses that their dog is unruly or shedding, it’s okay to answer, “I don’t mind dog hair,” or “I don’t think jumping up will put a dark blot on her character!” as long as the dog is not so powerful or out of control that someone could get knocked over. This requires a judgment call, and the most conservative approach is for kids not to meet dogs after such replies. At the very least, kids should proceed with caution.
Another set of answers can be more worrisome, and kids need to learn that they should not pet a dog if the people say things along the lines of, “That would probably be okay,” or “Well, she’s shy, but we can see how she does,” or “If she’ll let you. I’m not sure because sometimes she can’t handle it.” All of these replies show that a person is in the hope-and-fear zone. (“I hope it will be okay, but I fear that it will not be.”) There is a great risk that the interaction could be troubling for the child or the dog. Kids should be taught that the correct action upon hearing such remarks is not to approach the dog. A simple, “Oh, that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to upset her, but thanks anyway,” is a good phrase to teach kids for such situations.
There are endless possible answers when a child asks, “May I please meet your dog?” The “Yes” and the “No” replies are easy to understand. The former tells you it’s likely to be a positive interaction and the latter lets you know that the person knows the dog can’t handle it and has clearly said so. It’s those intermediate answers that require more careful interpretation. I’m always in favor of avoiding risks and erring on the side of caution when it comes to meeting dogs whose people seem hesitant about having anyone—especially a child—approach. If the answer gives any hint that it might not go well or might distress the dog, it’s best to decline.
Of course, all of this general advice assumes that people have the right read on their dog, and that is not always the case. They may think the dog loves all people, even when the dog’s body language reveals that the dog is terrified and wants a child to go away. That’s why it’s still important for kids to learn how to tell that a dog is behaving in a fearful and/or threatening way. The people’s responses to a request to meet a dog are only one stream of information we can use to decide whether to approach a dog. Still, there’s often a lot of truth in what they say, which is why children should be taught to evaluate those responses and act accordingly.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Diesel the Chihuahua steals everything
To say that Diesel is one of those dogs who is toy motivated is an understatement, as is saying that he is interested in all sorts of objects around the house. Since he was a puppy, this Chihuahua has been taking things from the other members of the household and stashing them where they can’t find or reach them. His guardians call him a hoarder, and that is one way to describe his behavior, which involves taking toys, soda bottles, holiday decorations, socks and underwear, bills, credit cards, flip flops, towels, plastic bowls and gardening shears.
I’m more fascinated by the people in this video than the dog. Yes, this dog is at the high end of the spectrum for dogs who steal and stash “treasures”, but I’ve met quite a few dogs over the years who are similar in that way, and some of those were also quite aggressive over their possessions. In all cases, the people were exhausted by the endless hassles of living with a dog who constantly took everybody’s stuff and were desperate to change the dog’s behavior.
Neither of Diesel’s guardians believe that anyone could change Diesel, and they are fine with that. His mischievous ways amuse them, and they appreciate the excitement he adds to their lives. Though they both recognize that his stealing is bad behavior, they consider him a wonderful dog. He makes them laugh and they enjoy him. They love Diesel for who he is, and don’t want to change him. That’s pretty remarkable because living with a dog like Diesel can be a real headache.
Besides the general irritation of having your stuff regularly go missing (including your towel when you need it after a shower!), there is the concern that Diesel will take something that could harm him. Anything sharp, breakable or toxic could cause serious trouble, and it’s a real worry with dogs who constantly pilfer items that are not theirs. Another cause for worry is the quality of life of the other two dogs in the house. They are mugged by Diesel with such regularity that I imagine they are rarely able to enjoy a toy or something to chew on for more than a few moments.
If you’ve ever lived with a dog who regularly helped himself to whatever he wanted, how accepting of the situation were you compared to Diesel’s family?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips on easing the stress of moving
Move is a four-letter word. (So is “pack” by the way, but that whole issue is subsumed within the horror of the move.) It’s not just you who hates moving—everybody does. The misery associated with it affects our dogs, too. There’s no way you can avoid some of the unpleasantness of moving, but there are ways that you can ease your dog’s transition to a new home.
Keep old routines. All of the changes associated with moves are inherently stressful, so do what you can to keep some things the same. If you can maintain the same general routine as before, that is helpful to dogs. So, if your dog is used to getting up, going into the yard, eating breakfast and then going on a walk, try to follow that same pattern in the new place. If you have to change things up because of a new job or other commitments, try to keep as much of the old routine in place as possible for at least a couple of weeks. Once your dog has settled in, additional changes will be easier to handle.
Don’t buy new gear right now. It is natural to want to buy new stuff when you move to a new place. For your dog’s sake, confine those urges to your own gear—towels, furniture, trash cans etc.—and leave his stuff alone for at least a few weeks until he is used to the place. Yes, I know it’s discouraging to bring a nasty, fur-covered old dog bed and water bowls with dings in them into your new home, but those things are comforting to your dog, so don’t take them away. If your urge to buy new things for your dog is overwhelming, indulge it with new toys or things to chew on, but resist the temptation to replace his regular gear for now.
Lots of loving. Giving your dog lots of attention and spending time with him playing, walking and just being together sounds simple. After all, that’s what you normally do, right? The problem is that when you move, you can become overwhelmed with so many details to attend to and all the work that has to be done. Of course, you never think you are someone who would ignore your dog or skip his walk, but a move can make anything possible. It’s unrealistic to think that you will be able to do as much for your dog as you could if you weren’t moving, but commit to spending quality time with him every day and that will help him out a lot.
Leave treats, stuffed Kongs and familiar things when you depart. Even dogs who have been perfectly comfortable for years being left alone when you leave may struggle in a new home. Most dogs are extremely place sensitive and need to learn to be okay when left alone at the new house. Try to wait as long as you can before leaving your dog alone at the new house, even if that means awkwardly taking him everywhere for a few days or so. If you’re moving with other family members, one option is to take turns staying home with him for those first few days so that at least one of you is always with him. When you do have to leave him, start with short departures if you can. Always leave him with something he loves such as a Kong stuffed with treats or something new (and safe even without supervision!) to chew on. If he has his usual dog bed, crate or blanket that he knows from the old house, these may comfort him.
Spend time on the floor with your dog. One of the things that helps dogs to feel at home someplace new is familiar smells. You can add those familiar smells to your house faster by spending time on the floor with your dog. Being on the floor together also adds to the time you spend giving him the loving that he needs during this stressful time.
Be patient. This may be the most obvious advice of all, but being patient and letting dogs adjust at their own speed is wise. Some dogs will be perfectly comfortable within a few days, many take a few weeks to settle in and some dogs can take months or more to feel at home in a new place. No matter how long it takes your dog to adjust, your patience is more likely to speed things up than impatience ever could.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
And a time for every purpose under heaven
It’s fun to watch dogs enjoy snow, especially the first one of the season. Some dogs truly come alive in winter weather, and are never more joyful than when they are plowing nose first through the drifts and leaping around in snow that is up to their shoulders or even higher. For dogs who love it, snow brings out their most playful tendencies.
Other dogs clearly love the springtime when the weather begins to warm up and they no longer have to decide between the misery of heading outside to pee and the misery of continuing to cross their little legs. There are plenty of dogs who do not enjoy cold weather, even if they do have a lovely coat, but especially if that coat is quite short. These dogs could all be named Crocus or Daffodil, because they perk up and become cheerful when the snow melts and the ground thaws.
Summer dogs are often swimmers and if hot weather allows them access to lakes and streams, that could explain why they are so happy in the heat. Other dogs who love the year’s warmest weather may simply enjoy basking in the sun and taking it easy—like the proverbial hound dog on a southern porch, though they need not be either hounds or southern.
Fall dogs become more energetic when the summer heat fades away. These dogs draw energy from the crisp, cool air and many of them consider piles of leaves the best toy in the world. It’s a pleasure to watch a dog dive into what humans have raked together and come shooting out the other side. I’m sure if they could shout out, “Wheeeeee!” they would do so as they frolic in this way.
Not all dogs have a favorite season. Does yours?
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
Muddy paws are no problem in this new multipurpose room
Ken Perrin, owner of Artistic Renovations of Ohio, says he’s being asked more often to make accommodations for the furriest members of the family. “We aren’t asked to do remodels just for dogs and cats,” he says. “But if we are hired to do a remodel, we are often asked to include elements based on the animals.” Case in point: When Perrin was hired to redo the kitchen, dining area and utility room of this Akron, Ohio, home, the owners asked him to include a dog shower in the mix. “They have two dogs, and there’s a large lawn and a creek on their property,” Perrin says. “They were constantly cleaning the dogs’ paws to keep their floors and carpets clean. At some point, they had had enough.”
Room at a Glance
In the new room, the washer and dryer, which had been side by side, are stacked, which freed up room for a dog shower. “The shower is designed to do almost everything a utility sink can do, but it can also be used to wash dogs,” Perrin says.
The shower and the bed are the territory of Roxy (pictured) and Bella.
“Both dogs share the bed,” Perrin says. “They seem to like being near the washer when it’s running. I think they like the vibrations.”
Roxy is seen here (she looks bigger in the previous picture, due to the camera angle); her bunkmate, Bella, was out running in the yard when the photo was taken.
“If you have an animal, these kinds of spaces are great to have,” says Perrin. “Anyone who has a dog knows how hard it is to clean their muddy paws. This space makes it easier.”
The homeowner requested that the hand shower be the kind of industrial sprayer restaurants use to quickly wash pots and pans. It’s operated by squeezing a handle that looks a bit like the hand brake on a bicycle. “She wanted to be able to fill and wash out buckets here,” Perrin says. “The problem was that the force of the water was so strong, the dogs didn’t like it.” Perrin and his team solved the problem by drilling more holes in the sprayer head, creating a gentler water stream. Once that happened, tails wagged. “They love getting in it now,” Perrin says. “They jump right up in there.”
The homeowner also requested handrails that were petite, so they would not take over the space. Perrin installed a corner hand rail that doubles as a hanger for the sprayer and a straight rail that hangs a bit higher. “They help steady the homeowners as they are washing the dogs,” he says.
The countertop can serve as a landing spot for items used in the shower or for the laundry. Perrin installed undercabinet lighting so there’s plenty of illumination when needed.
By Mary Jo Bowling - See more Home Design Photos
BEFORE: The utility room has three doors; one leads outside, one is for coming in from the garage, and one goes into the kitchen. In addition to the coming and going, this is where the laundry gets done. “With dogs running in and out, the grout had gotten really dirty and stained,” Perrin says. “The homeowner had stained the grout a dark color so stains were less noticeable.”
Plus, the washer and dryer took up a lot of real estate.
From the dining area, you can see how the utility room is often on display. Perrin had the dog bed crafted in a fabric similar to the covering on the bench seat around the table.
Tell us: Where do your dogs sleep and get bathed? Share your ideas and pictures in the Comments.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Persuasive strategies to consider
You’re all ready to adopt a dog! Perhaps you’ve been dreaming of this moment for years, or maybe it just occurred to you today that you need—really need—a dog in your life. There are so many wonderful dogs waiting for a home and the love of a family, and your life may soon be enhanced by a new best friend of the canine persuasion.
But what if you need to convince your partner—husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend—to get on board with your obviously fantastic plan? Well then, you have some work ahead of you, and it may not be easy. Your dream of adopting a dog is on hold. How can you proceed?
The first step is to figure out what your partner’s objections are. Many people who are opposed to getting a dog like the idea in general, but are held back by one or more particular concerns. If you can come up with a solution to what your partner views as the problem, you increase your chances of successfully convincing him or her to adopt a dog.
Financial: It costs money to have a dog, and the prospect of extra expenses scares a lot of people. It’s important to figure out how easily your budget can accommodate an increase in spending. If you can save money ahead of time for the dog, that shows your partner that you understand the concern, that you are serious about budgeting for it. It also indicates that your household can make it work. Sometimes it’s necessary to cut something else out of your budget to convince your partner that financial concerns need not hold you back.
Lifestyle Changes: Many people worry that having a dog will make it harder to go out in the evenings, to go away on for the weekend, or to take vacations during holidays or time off from work. It’s a legitimate concern—having a dog means that spontaneous outings present challenges, so it’s important to have a plan to meet them. Find out who can care for your dog when you are away or if you want to go out after work. Consider professional facilities, dog walkers and neighbors you could hire to help you. Do some research on local pet-friendly cafes and restaurants as well as vacations that could easily accommodate (and even be enhanced by!) your dog. Whether or not you can convince your partner that this issue can be resolved depends a lot on your current lifestyle and what kind of trips you enjoy. Hiking and camping with dogs is great fun, but a tour of the great cities of Europe will involve arranging care for your dog.
Fear of failing the dog: Having a dog is a lot of responsibility, and that can make many people nervous, especially if they have never had a dog before. Find out about resources in your area such as trainers, behaviorists and veterinarians. Educating your partner about the basics of dog behavior and care will help you both feel more confident about bringing home a new dog.
Household Cleanliness: Not everybody is unbothered by muddy paw prints and (let’s be honest) nobody is totally okay with dog vomit or what happens to the carpet while housetraining is still a work in progress. The really gross things tend to happen rarely, but the slobbering by the water bowl and dog hair showing up here, there and everywhere are daily occurrences for many of us. If this drawback to getting a dog is your partner’s concern, you are not alone. Many people without dogs are somewhere on the scale of hesitant to totally freaked out about the prospect of a dirtier house. Whether you promise to step up your housecleaning or shell out the money to hire people to clean your house, it’s essential to have a solution to this problem. It’s also sensible to choose a dog who is less likely to drool and shed than the nightmare your partner is probably picturing.
Affecting Other Pets: If your partner is concerned about how a dog will affect your cat, for example, consider yourself lucky to have such a thoughtful and caring person in your life. It’s very sad when a cat who has been happy in a home is suddenly living under the bed or only in one room because it is terrified of the dog. A dog will fit into the family far better if you choose one who gets along with cats, so make that a top priority. Additionally, it is wise to commit to doing the initial introduction with a professional trainer or behaviorist to make success more likely.
Along with addressing any of the specific concerns that your partner has about adopting a dog, here are some additional tips that may help you convince your partner. Let your partner have the final say in choosing which dog you adopt, and a lot of input into what kind of dog to consider. There are so many variables (old, young, big, small, long hair or short, hound or terrier or other type). Since your partner is—at best—on the fence about the whole dog thing, you may be able to tip the scales in your favor by giving them a weighted vote on which dog to adopt.
Let your partner know how important this is to you, and be prepared to make the case that since it matters to you, it should matter to him or her. This is a tricky one. Although it makes sense that if you want a dog so much, your partner should consider agreeing just because it is so important to you, there’s obviously a flip side to that. If adopting a dog is so unappealing to your partner, you need to consider that simply because it matters to your partner. Feeling very differently about this subject can cause a serious rift in a relationship, and the only sensible advice is not to let this difference ruin the relationship unless it truly is a deal breaker for you.
Adding a dog to your life is a big step, and that can be intimidating. A trial run of sorts could help your partner feel more comfortable about it. Consider watching a friend’s dog for a little while or fostering a dog so you can try out what it feels like to have a dog in your life without the long term commitment. The joy of sharing your home with a dog temporarily—whether it belongs to a roommate, a visitor or a traveling friend— has convinced many people to adopt a dog of their own.
If you’ve ever persuaded a partner to adopt a dog, how did you do it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Izzy stayed after her guardian died
Izzy lives at an assisted living senior center in Tennessee, even though her guardian, Jim, died months ago. When Jim came to live at the Brookdale Kingston senior living facility, he was able to bring his dog Izzy with him. Izzy was friendly to everyone, and became close to many of the residents and to the staff.
As Jim’s health got worse, other people stepped in to help take care of her. Staff members took her for daily walks. Other residents and their visitors spent time with Izzy, and she became an even more beloved member of the community. When Jim passed away, there were no relatives who could take care of Izzy, so she stayed at the assisted living center. Residents and employees said they were so glad that they didn’t lose Izzy, too, after Jim passed away.
At first, Izzy continued to spend a lot of time in Jim’s room, but over time, the staff began to move both Jim’s and Izzy’s possessions out of that room. Izzy eventually moved into the office of the facility’s sales and marketing manager. She spends much of her day visiting with residents all over the facility (except the dining room which is off limits to her). If she needs a break from all of the loving attention, she heads to the dog bed under a staff members’ desk to rest or nap.
Izzy’s job is “official greeter” and she is a good worker, making sure to welcome all visitors. She also attends social functions such as parties and socials. Besides playing with her rubber chicken, she loves to go door-to-door to say hello to each resident. She used to get a treat at each stop along the way, but when she started to lose her girlish figure and had some bellyaches, that changed.
If having Izzy live at the facility becomes a problem in the future, there are staff members who are willing to adopt her. For now, the plan is for Izzy to spend the rest of her life at Brookdale Kingston. She is happy there and makes others happy, too.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Legal pet custody issues continue to evolve in divorce courts.
We all know that breaking up is hard to do. It’s especially difficult when animal companions are part of what is distributed or shared between two newly separate households.
Recently, a divorcing Canadian couple could not agree over custody of their two dogs. After inundating the court with pleadings describing the several pets they had cared for over the years (and who had done most of the caring), the wife asked the judge to treat the dogs like children, awarding custody to her with visitation for the husband. Clearly frustrated with the request and the case’s drain on limited judicial resources, Justice Richard Danyliuk of Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan wrote a lengthy decision that made headlines in Canada and the United States.
The judge began his decision by declaring his love of animals. “Dogs are wonderful creatures.” He then went on to say, “Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live. But after all is said and done, a dog is a dog. At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.”
The same is true in most jurisdictions across the United States.
Animal law specialist Adam Karp of Bellingham, Wash., is familiar with the Canadian judge’s reaction and position. Because courts are overburdened, judges are reluctant to tackle issues they don’t have to, including custody of pets. Divorce trials are also low on the judicial popularity list, and asking for a ruling on pet custody sometimes pushes the limits of their patience. “The inexact fit of child custody statutes calls for ingenuity, what some reject as a type of ‘judicial activism.’” Karp says. “Judges may look for a cookie-cutter approach to quickly dispose of such cases, and categorizing an animal as mere ‘property’ allows that. But these issues go to the core of our hearts and hearths.
“Though the Canadian judge’s opinion was not entirely dismissive, and he assuredly spent a long time on it, one wonders if the time taken to author the opinion could have been better spent doing justice to the parties’ situation. Regardless, his attentiveness to the legal issue shows that animal lives matter and seriously elevates the dialogue within courts and society.”
Family vs. Property
Closer to home, I spent more than 30 years practicing family law in Washington and Idaho, focusing much of my practice on representing the interests of children whose parents were fighting over custody and visitation. For most of those years, I observed that family pets were the forgotten victims of divorce. Very rarely were they mentioned in property distributions, even though in both Washington and Idaho, as in most states, pets are considered property and so could have been listed along with household furnishings, vehicles and retirement benefits. If a divorcing couple had kids, typically their pets stayed with the parent with whom the children were going to reside the majority of the time.
More difficult are the cases where there aren’t any children and the couple lived together without the legal status of marriage. When they break up, they generally must reach agreements on dividing property, including pets, without court assistance. Perhaps they acquired a dog while together. Both bonded with the dog—and the dog with them— and while they’ve decided to break up with each other, neither wants to break up with the dog. What to do?
Some couples come up with informal agreements. For example, they agree to alternate custody, meeting weekly to make the exchange. It might work for a while, but just as with shared custody of children, all it takes to upset the plan is for one person to move a significant distance away (making traveling to exchanges a burden both in time and expense) or to become involved with a new human (setting off a storm of jealousy).
In a Washington state case, a couple who had lived together and then separated agreed to share custody of their dog. This arrangement was stressed when one of them moved, and broken altogether when the woman became involved with a new man. The former boyfriend not only refused to return the dog at the scheduled time, he took the dog and disappeared. The woman hired a private investigator to locate her dog, and an attorney to bring legal action to regain possession of him.
The case opened with a temporary court order requiring both parties to “possess and care” for the dog on a week on/week off schedule pending trial. While it was shown at trial that both had been very involved in all aspects of the dog’s care, the court determined that the woman was the owner and possessor of the dog— the property—but would have to reimburse her former boyfriend for the amount he had originally paid toward the dog’s purchase. (The boyfriend’s unwise decision to hide the dog likely influenced the judge’s decision to deny him guardianship.)
What’s Best for the Dog?
Litigation is expensive and traumatic for all involved. “This is my area; I practice animal law,” says Karp. “While I do not endorse litigating custody disputes in a week-long trial while enlisting multiple experts and character witnesses, chastisement, as done by the Saskatchewan judge, does nothing to help the quite real emotions and investments made by the parties to the litigation. And, yes, there is a risk (as in many family law disputes) for litigators to turn such a dispute into a clownish fiasco. A sense of proportion and moderation are critical. But more importantly, all involved should do their best to objectively ascertain the perspective of the one who does not get to take the stand—giving voice to the animal’s best interests, something we often currently miss.”
Yet, there’s hope for positive change in this age-old legal approach of treating pets as property in family law cases. In January of this year, new statutory provisions with regard to divorce and legal separation in Alaska became effective, requiring courts to consider “the well-being of the animal” owned by the parties in final agreements or judgments. The provisions allow for sole or joint ownership post-divorce, and provide a broad a definition of an animal as “a vertebrate living creature not a human being,” which would include almost any companion animal or livestock a couple might own.
This language opens the door for Alaskan courts to make custody, visitation and cost-sharing provisions for family pets and any other animals owned by a couple, similar to those made for children. It may also allow the court to appoint special advocates for pets in particularly contentious cases, just as it does for children.
What if you don’t live in Alaska or a jurisdiction with similar statutes? If, instead of reaching agreement, the parties go to trial and leave the issue for the court to decide, the judge’s only option in almost all states is to award the property—the pet—to one party or the other. There are no provisions for visitation or shared cost because the law allows a court to make such awards only for children, not animals.
However, divorcing couples can agree to many things that courts can’t force them to do—either on their own or with the help of a mediator—and if those agreements are included in the divorce decree, they’re legally enforceable if one party breaches the terms.
Any good family law attorney will recommend trying to settle a case outside of court to avoid the trauma and expense of trial, and this is especially true when it comes to pets. You might get lucky and find a judge more sympathetic than the judge in Saskatchewan, one who will award custody based on the best interests of the pet. But without a legal basis for that award, it’s a risk, because the decision could easily be appealed, adding more trauma and expense.
“Resolving custody disputes through a third-party neutral or even mediation or arbitration might be best,” Karp says, because mediation allows everyone to focus on the best interests of the pet. “I was once asked to mediate a catcustody dispute,” he continued. “I brought the parties around to considering the cat’s perspective, thinking about who could best provide for him and [asking them] to suspend vengeful thoughts for one another.”
What if you’re not married but in a relationship and have (or want to add) pets?
What can you do to avoid a custody dispute if you split up? If your state’s laws allow, you can enter into a binding and enforceable custody agreement (if cohabitating), a prenuptial agreement (if contemplating marriage), or a separate property or community property agreement (if already married). Any of these contracts can set forth who is the pet’s owner if a couple breaks up; whether visitation will be allowed, and on what terms; and whether they’ll share costs for boarding, day care and vet expenses while together and post-split.
If you don’t want to enter into such a formal agreement, be sure to maintain very clear records that document any pet-related expenses you paid: purchase or adoption fees, licensing, food, training, exercise, boarding, vet care and so on. At least for the foreseeable future in most parts of the country, pets will continue to be treated as property that courts can’t force people to share if they don’t want to.
Given how many households have pets and how integrated they are into our daily lives—they are far more to us than a television or a computer, after all—we can hope that more states will quickly adopt Alaska’s enlightened approach.
Good news: more states are following Alaska’s lead. On February 16, 2017, legislators in Rhode Island submitted a bill that would add a new section to state laws regarding divorce and separation [PDF]. If passed, judges would be required to consider the best interest of a family’s domestic animals in divorce or separation proceedings where custody was an issue.
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