We all know pets are great for getting us out of our funk when we’re sad or stressed. So what happens when we’re going through a breakup and we share our pooch with our soon-to-be ex? Is it better for one person to walk away, or is successful shared custody possible? Many of us are finding creative solutions to this potentially heartbreaking dilemma.
I confess I’m no stranger to the question of how-do-we-split-the-dog. I first met Lorna Doone (a.k.a. The Doone) while she was tugging on the leash attached to the man who would later become my boyfriend. I grew up with dogs, but there was something different about Lorna, and I fell head over heels in love.
When my boyfriend and I decided to split up, I knew it was for the best, but I was devastated by the thought of breaking up with Lorna, too. She was my friend, exercise partner and world’s best cuddler. Weathering a breakup without her seemed impossible. The problem was, she wasn’t my dog—my ex had adopted her from a Pit Bull rescue organization in San Francisco when she was six months old. So I didn’t have much pull in the ownership department.
Luckily, our split was amicable and my ex and I managed to bumble our way through a joint custody agreement, sans mediator or lawyer. Sure, some (okay most) of my friends thought I was crazy. And, I’ll be the first to admit, the sailing wasn’t always smooth—like the time he had to reschedule The Doone’s drop-off day because he was spending the weekend with his new girlfriend. But I stuck it out, and little by little, my ex and I fell into an easy back-and-forth based on courtesy, kindness and a mutual fondness for our sweet girl Lorna Doone.
While joint custody isn’t for everyone, or every dog, I have since met a whole pack of people who are blazing their own pet-sharing paths as they navigate this increasingly common nuance of modern love. Some of the arrangements work and some don’t, but more than the outcomes, what’s interesting is what these arrangements ultimately say about our relationship with our companion animals.
Not so long ago, the idea that pet custody would become a prominent part of divorce cases across the country would have been dismissed as ridiculous. The law has always regarded pets as property—the same as the family car or couch. But the last decade has seen animal rights activists, legislators and legal scholars working together to change the way animals are viewed by the court—and in the process, redefining the age-old legal boundaries between people and their property.
In an unprecedented case in Tennessee last spring, a court appointed a legal guardian to represent the interests of a dog in a custody dispute. The L.A. Times has reported a 100-fold increase in pet custody cases in the last 15 years, and Joyce Tischler, founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), cites that one out of every 20 divorce cases now involves a pet.
“Clearly, society has changed, and pets are becoming a more intrinsic part of the family,” says Tischler. “There is increasing evidence that Americans view their companion animals as being inherently different from other forms of property.” She points out that more than half of companion animal guardians would be “very likely” to risk their lives for their animal, while the same percentage would prefer the company of a cat or a dog to that of a human if stranded on a desert island.
Charles Regal, a pet custody mediator who specializes in helping ex-couples decide who should keep the furry charges, says, “Our culture is trained to be adversarial, as in ‘Let’s fight and win!’ instead of sitting down and working out our differences. The irony is, going to court rarely makes people happy, especially when it comes to their animals. Unfortunately, mediation is often seen as a last resort.”
In Texas, there are several instances where judges have ordered expensive pets in custody disputes to be sold so the money could be split 50/50—often to the horror of both parties. “In these cases, everyone, including the animals, loses,” Regal notes.
The Many Faces of Joint Custody