“Who gets the dog?” is a question more divorcing couples are dealing with today. The L.A. Times cites a 100-fold increase in pet custody cases in the last 15 years. Joyce Tischler, founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, reports that 1 in 20 divorce cases involves a pet. This issue is not going away and you’re not alone in seeking a way to leave your wife but maintain a relationship with your dog.

Let’s face it, dividing assets is hard enough, causing some of the most hellacious arguments in and out of court, but what happens when the “property” you are fighting over is more like a beloved family member? Deciding who gets the dog can be a much bigger battle than who gets the dining room set.

What the Law Says About Who Gets the Dog

In all 50 states, the law classifies a family pet as property. The problem arises when ex-spouses are fighting over the family dog, since the dog is not a piece of furniture or a car whose value can be quantified in a dollar amount.

Is your hairy buddy a mutt? Good! To the horror of many dog-loving couples, some judges have ordered expensive pets to be sold and the money split 50/50 down the line. Not a good outcome for you or your dog.

Some courts are becoming more sensitive to the importance of pet custody in divorce, and mediators are handling negotiations to determine who gets the dog in ways similar to child custody negotiations.

Nancy Gabriel is a Divorce and Family Mediator who has seen multiple cases where custody of the dog is a huge issue for couples. She advocates treating disputes over family pets in the same way child visitation issues are resolved, with each side required to submit a custody plan before working out a shared agreement with elements from both plans.

Gabriel suggests that when there is shared custody of children from the marriage, keeping the dog with the kids is a reasonable compromise that tends to work out well for everyone, especially the kids and dog.

She also advises clients to take into account whose place is more suitable for the dog. Are you moving from a house with a yard to an apartment?  Will you be traveling or keeping an erratic schedule for work? The decision should be made for the benefit of the animal.

While courts deem pets as property, and often do not want to get into questions of animal custody, mediation gives you a better chance to come to an agreement on everything from visitation to who pays for your dog’s expenses.

Sharing Custody of the Dog

Shared custody can sometimes be the best option for man’s best friend, and for the man. Coming to an agreement on who gets the dog will take some compromise, but it continues to work well for many divorced men.

Babette Gates and ex-husband Matthew McKay worked out their agreement for the benefit of their Great Dane, Bruce. Originally a gift from Babette to Matt, the dog was technically “his”.  Babette was also attached to Bruce, but realized she could not afford to feed the big dog on her own, and would not be able give Bruce the time and attention he needs, so fighting for her to get full custody of the dog wouldn’t make sense. Instead, the couple came to an arrangement that allows Matt to keep his dog, and Babette gets to visit Bruce and to keep the Great Dane during Matt’s military assignments.

The Attitude Toward Pet Custody is Changing  

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) says that although courts still legally classify pets as “property” they are now recognizing that the bond between people and their pets is very different than their attachment to their other property. “This changing attitude toward companion animals is reflected in an increased number of custody battles and in the willingness of judges to consider the welfare or best interests of the companion animal when determining which party should get custody.”

There is a plethora of information about custody and co-parenting for children during divorce but there is not much help for those dealing with the hot-button issue of who gets the dog. What factors should be considered when determining the best interests of the dog and hammering out an agreement?

Six factors to consider when negotiating who gets the dog:

1. Financial Support

Who can best afford to keep the dog? This includes: veterinary care, food and other supplies, grooming, and preventive care such as flea treatments and dental chews. Expenses for the dog can be divvied up, such as an arrangement where the person who is most financially stable covers vet bills and food but the other party pays for grooming, treats and toys.

2. Living Situation

Which living situation is more suited to the dog’s needs? Are you moving into a condo and the ex is keeping the house with the big yard? Or is your ex moving into an apartment where pets are not accepted? Just as with kids, disruption is stressful for a dog, so moving a dog into a new environment, on top splitting his family into two households will make it harder for him to adjust.

3. Attachment

If the pet belonged to one spouse first, or if the dog bonded with the spouse who spent the most time with him, the dog will be distressed to be separated from that person. Dogs can grieve for loved ones and may develop health or behavioral problems.

4. Lifestyle

A dog needs love, attention and exercise throughout its lifetime and will be better off with the person who will consistently provide for those needs.

5. Co-parenting

When you are co-parenting, it just makes sense, for the dog and for the kids, to keep them all together. Logistically, things will run more smoothly if visitation is a kid/dog package deal.

6. Other Pets

When your dog is bonded to other pets in the household it can make things less stressful if you keep them together. With all the new changes, your dog deserves to have as much comfort and companionship as possible.

The Benefits of Sharing the Dog

Getting caught up in the downside of sharing custody of your dog is easy, but resist this pitfall by focusing on the positive aspects. As long as you keep the focus on what is best for the dog, you should be able to come to terms with your ex. After hammering out an agreement that both of you can live with, you’ll see the advantages for you and for the dog.

When you go on a quick trip or a vacation you can leave your pup with someone who loves him, rather than at a strange kennel.  You’ll have someone to share expenses with, which will come in handy for those astronomic vet bills. You’ll still get to have your relationship with your dog even though the marriage didn’t work out, and you won’t be depriving your dog of all the love and affection your ex has to give him.


Who got the dog in your divorce? Tell us what happened in the comments below.

Does your dog have tracking skills?  If old Blue can’t help you, read What To Do If Your Spouse is Hiding Assets During Divorce.  Be sure to check out the ultimate guide on Marital Settlement Agreements: How to Divide Your Assets.


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