In casual conversations at the park, in pet stores and over email, I have met many people who have tried, or are trying, to make pet sharing work. Some stories have happier endings than others, but what comes through loud and clear in all of them is the love they share for their companion animals.
Doug started off sharing his dog with his ex, but their swaps were filled with jealousy and not-so-pleasant exchanges. “In the end, it wasn’t the drama that won out, but the reality that I am not home nearly enough to give my dog a life she deserves,” he says. Last spring he relinquished his visitation rights and dropped the pup off at the airport for her flight to be reunited with his ex. He misses his friend, but takes comfort knowing that she now has a big yard and new lab puppy “stepsister” to play with. “At least, that’s the story I’ve been telling myself and everyone else since she’s been gone,” he says.
Maria has been sharing custody of her Boston Terriers with her ex for the last year. They have remained close friends and share “the girls” literally every three days. “I have to admit that I have patted myself on the back a few times when commended by others for our strength and our graciousness,” she says of their arrangement. However, this fall her ex announced that she was planning to move to NYC, which would morph their current 17-minute walk between homes into a distance of 2,500 miles.“ When we first broke up, we agreed that we wouldn’t separate the dogs because their bond was too strong,” Maria says. But now they are faced with that prospect. “Who knows,” she muses, “I may follow my dog to NYC. Crazier things have happened.”
When Sue divorced her husband, she decided to keep two of her dogs while her husband kept the third. That worked for a while, until his dog took to escaping from his home (with its huge back yard) and finding his way to her flat, several miles away (with no yard).After she found him barking at her door for the third time, he moved in permanently and stayed until he died at age 14 and a half.
Inga’s ex, Dave, still takes her Lab/Pit Bull mix Jake for walks and weekends even though she retained custody. “Having someone else to help out whom I trust and who loves my dog as much as I do has been great,” she says. “Asking a friend to dog-sit can feel like I’m putting them out, but Dave is always happy to spend time with Jake.”
It Works for Me, But Is It Good for My Dog?
While growing up with divorced parents, I shuttled between houses every two weeks and hated it. So why would I potentially subject my dog to the same instability and stress? “This is a great question,” says Dr. Lore Haug, a veterinary behaviorist in Sugarland,
Texas. “Most people are too attached to assess the situation from the animal’s perspective.” And while she concedes that joint custody is an option, it may not be beneficial if the pet has shown difficulty adjusting to new environments.
As she notes, “If your dog gets anxious when you rearrange the furniture, living in two homes might be a stretch.” If you think your pet can handle it, Dr. Haug advises that you first determine your primary motivation for wanting to share your pet. “Is it because you travel two weeks out of the month and need reliable doggie care? Or is it because you don’t want to let go? It’s important to weigh the pros and cons before you decide joint custody is the answer,” she says.
Overall, routine and consistency are key for making it work. “If you and your ex have very different ideas about how your animal should be raised, it can send mixed messages to your dog and result in anxiety, depression or even aggression,” she warns. Agreeing on and maintaining a similar feeding, exercise and training schedule can help minimize unnecessary stress.