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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 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

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