What happens to dogs after a divorce?

When couples separate or divorce, deciding who gets the dog can often turn nasty. The law still regards animals as property, but there are ways to ensure a positive outcome for all parties – including the dog.

Ellen and Carl were married for ten years when they made a mutual decision to divorce. They had two golden retrievers, and each agreed to take one dog. In this instance, the decision was an amicable one, complete with visiting rights every other weekend, but that’s not always the case. Often, things can easily turn ugly when separating couples get down to the business of determining who’s going to get the pooch.

Even though dogs are now considered family members by many, and despite the fact there about 78.2 million dogs in the US, legislation in every state upholds the decision that dogs are property, and have no more rights than, say, an old lamp. It still regards companion animals as “chattel”, a word that refers to an item of personal property like a piece of furniture.

So, what happens to the beloved family dog when couples divorce? Do people lure the pooch to their side of the courtroom to prove to the judge that the dog likes them more? Do they walk in with a handful of receipts to demonstrate how much they’ve paid for the dog’s upkeep? Both these scenarios have occurred in some courtrooms.

Celebrity separations have shone a public spotlight on dog custody proceedings. Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren fought over custody of their three dogs. When Drew Barrymore and Tom Green parted ways, they too fought over ownership of her yellow labrador/chow mix, Flossie. Even Jennifer Love Hewitt and her ex Ross McCall, whose divorce otherwise went well, turned ugly when it came to the question of who would get the dog.

Protective orders

In march 2006, Protective Orders were enacted in Maine to include companion animals. It was the first state to establish such an act. Today, some 22 states have followed suit and enacted this piece of legislation.

What this means is that a court can order an abuser to stay away from the companion animal, or impose other conditions to protect the animal’s health and safety. When custody battles become bitter, it can unfortunately lead to instances in which the animals are used for retaliation and are deliberately injured, abused or victimized by one of the parties involved.

“Pet prenup”

In a recent headline, Craig Dershowitz, who lives in New york, filed papers in the Manhattan State Supreme Court stating that his ex-girlfriend Sarah Brega kidnapped their dog Knuckles and took the pooch to California. Dershowitz stated that he registered the dog in his name, thought of Knuckles as his son and wanted him back. Brega states Dershowitz gave her the dog.

This is an example of how complicated animal custody battles can get. So before an animal arrives in a relationship, take the time to sit down and discuss the downside of “what if”. bear in mind that courts rarely get involved with incidents like Dershowitz’s, because dogs are viewed as property. The only exception is when there are children involved; that will prompt the court to place the animal with whoever gets custody of the children.

While most people will dismiss the thought of a prenuptial agreement, in the long run it is definitely to your advantage to have your dog included in the terms of agreement. And it’s more commonplace now as many couples seek to protect their assets and property in case of divorce. This way, if the relationship dissolves, you are guaranteed that the cherished dog you brought into the relationship goes with you when you leave.

While online animal custody agreements laying out specific terms of agreement are available for a small price, you are still advised to visit an animal law attorney for advice.

It’s hard on the dog too

Despite the fact that lawyers and judges do everything possible to expedite proceedings, custody battles over animals take a considerable time to be resolved – sometimes more than a year! And not only does the case take its toll on you; imagine how hard it is for your beloved pooch.

“Dogs are aware of minute changes that make them exceptionally sensitive to emotional stress experienced by their owners,” says Clare Wilson, a veterinary surgeon who specializes in companion animal behavior. “This can in turn cause emotional stress in the dog and lead to behavior problems of anxiety or fear.”

During a separation, it is inevitable that your dog will sense a change in your mood or tone, providing him with enough telltale signs that something is bothering you. you in turn need to pay attention to his behavior. Look for signs of stress so you can help him out. Is his tail tucked down? Is he barking excessively? Is he restless, anxious or even howling?

Animal law attorneys are educating the system about the changes needed with regards to companion animals. And slowly but surely, judges are considering “the best interests of the animal”. but until legislation is created that says animals are not property, the best approach in the event of a separation is to negotiate an amicable out-of-court agreement.


Nadia Ali is a freelance writer who was born in London, England and now lives on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. She is inspired by Cici, her family cat. Her work has been published online and in print.