Karen B. London
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Canine Custody
Who gets the dog when a couple splits?

Divorcing couples may fight over anything and everything—the house, retirement funds, electronic equipment, cars, music collections, kitchen appliances, baseball cards, furniture, season tickets to sporting events and, of course, custody of dependents. Custody battles used to be over human children only, but that’s not the case anymore. Dogs and other pets are now regularly the subject of many contentious fights among couples who are separating, and shared custody is even an option.

Though most people consider them family members, in legal terms, dogs are viewed as property. A few states now have laws that view dogs as more than mere property in cases in which domestic abuse has occurred.  For the most part, though, they are considered no different than cars and TVs—just part of what must be divided up between people going through a divorce.

Mediators and lawyers are often involved in sorting out canine custody. Though many understand the seriousness of the decision, not all of them seem to grasp the importance of the issue to the people involved.

Attorney Cathy Gorlin notes that, "People will cede $20,000 to a spouse, plus attorney fees, for a pet that could have been replaced for $500." Doesn’t that seem like she missed the point—that no matter how they are viewed by the law, a dog that is loved is priceless, and cannot be replaced? Hopefully understanding will continue to spread both in and out of the legal profession.

Have you had an experience with canine custody?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Shari B | April 15 2012 |

Yes. In 1989 before such things were common.

Submitted by mary | May 11 2012 |

I've experienced the canine custody issue twice. First when I got divorced. He and I agreed that since I was moving out of state, he should keep the two oldest dogs and I would take the younger one who had been abused by a family member before we took her back. I lost two parts of my heart that day...for the dogs I left behind. But it was in their best interest to stay with their dad.

The second time when a boyfriend and I split after several years and four dogs. He tried to take them from me and I fought for them. I won. Losing was not an option as he only wanted them to hurt me. No amount of money was spared to keep them with me.

They are not property, and the sooner the legal world realizes this, the sooner more pain would be spared and the stigma of fighting for animals will be done away with.

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