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Dog Care

What Happens to Your Dog When You Divorce?


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Okay, let’s take it on faith here that no one ever wants to see relationships break up, but they do, and with alarming regularity. We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that half of all marriages will end in divorce. I’ve searched a number of online sources, and it’s not quite that bad, but it’s bad enough – the actual figure is more like 42%. With first marriages, there is a 40% chance that the couple will divorce within 10 years.

Then, of course, there are all the long-term relationships that don’t end up in matrimony, but that also don’t last. I’ve never felt all that disposed toward taking the plunge into wedlock, but I’ve been in a couple of relationships that lasted several years, and some that barely made it to a couple of weeks. There are 7 billion people in the world, and I still haven’t found “the one.”

Maybe I’m a bit “gun shy.” Maybe I’m avoiding commitment because I really don’t want to have to go through the trauma of another breakup. Maybe I’m just hopelessly set in my ways, and disinclined to upset what has become a very satisfying way of life for me – I have friends, a job, and wonderful dogs. I spend my free time as I choose, and I don’t have to adjust my habits to accommodate anyone else.

Where is This Going?

I’m sure that by now you’re wondering why I’m pondering relationships and breakups. This morning, I received an announcement in the mail from a young friend, Rachel. It seems she just got married, for the second time. Her first go-round didn’t turn out all that well. The man she married was controlling and jealous, but she chose to overlook all his faults. Personally, I think that she was more in love with the idea of a big wedding than she was with him.

Rachel’s parents and siblings weren’t all that crazy about her fiancé, but they threw her the lavish wedding she wanted. Then two years later they paid for the divorce. Mr. Not-So-Right had moved from being controlling to outright abusive, and when he punched Rachel in the stomach in the seventh month of her pregnancy, she left him. Her child has never seen his father.

Now, being childless by choice, I’ve never had to worry about how a kid would be affected when a relationship ended, but I’d imagine that Rachel’s son is going to have a lot of questions for her in the years to come. He’s going to want to know why he never sees his birth father (It’s because his birth father has a new family, and no interest in seeing the child he had with Rachel). He’s going to want to know if his father left because of something that he, the child, did wrong. He may suffer self-esteem issues. I wouldn’t be in Rachel’s shoes for anything.

What About Dogs?

I’ve been fortunate. Any time a relationship has ended, my dogs have always seemed to take it in stride. Maybe because I did – I’m not exactly the kind to take time off work, bury myself under the blankets, drink myself stupid, or make late-night, tearful phone calls to the ex. I pretty much just roll with it. Does that mean I don’t have feelings? Of course not. But during a breakup, I’ve always asked myself, “Would I really be better off with this person, or am I better off without them?”

Maybe this sounds simplistic, but the answer has pretty much always been the same. “If the relationship is over, then obviously there were serious problems, and if a relationship has that many problems, then, by definition, I am better off without that person.”

Obviously, though, not everyone reacts to breakups quite as pragmatically as I do, and when a split is acrimonious, or hearts end up being broken, then dogs within the relationship can experience trauma. They are, obviously, pack animals, and they bond to their humans. When people are screaming at one another, arguing, or maintaining a stony silence, dogs will pick up on the stress, and they will suffer. When a dog is a casualty of a human breakup or divorce, it can lead to emotional harm, mental suffering, and even physical illness.

What an Animal Behaviorist Has to Say

My research on the topic of dogs and divorce led me to several websites, including that of David Klein, known as David the Dogman. He is a canine behaviorist from Marbella, Spain. In addition to his work with animals, he also publishes frequently, and has his own TV and radio shows.

David says that whenever he is asked to evaluate a dog that is showing symptoms of anxiety and poor coping skills, the first thing he wants to know is if there has been a recent divorce or separation. He says that he has even seen situations where dogs will move as far away from the house as possible, huddling against the back fence or garden walls – behavior that is often seen in dogs that are about to die. If the dog has no medical issues, then this is an expression of extreme anxiety, and almost certainly due to the breakup.

Things Fall Apart; The Centre Cannot Hold

That’s a quote from William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” and it seems to me to state far better than I ever could how a dog must feel when his household is in turmoil due to a bad breakup.

In addition to the arguing and the slamming of doors, the household schedule is likely to be thrown into tumult, with one member of the troubled couple avoiding the other. The heightened atmosphere is fraught with tension, and a battle could break out at any moment. Naturally, the dog is frightened by the sounds of human aggression, and if things get physical, it’s that much worse. Some couples will consider the feelings of the dog, and may put him in another room when tempers flare, but here’s the thing – the dog can still hear what’s going on, and probably thinks that he is somehow being punished by being isolated. He also probably feels horribly stressed because, from another room, he’s not able to protect his humans. And for that matter, which human is he supposed to protect? He loves them both!

Depending on the composition of the household, though, it’s not necessarily all bad. When children are involved, the dog can be a stabilizing influence. Children are affected even during an amicable divorce, and a dog can help children to get through the most difficult periods. Even if the parents are managing to be civil with one another, there’s still the need for a best friend to talk to, cry with, and hug.

What About Custody?

Everything I’ve read seems to suggest that when a couple splits up, the best course of action is to allow the kids and the dog to stay together. They’re both going to have enough to deal with without adding the grief of losing one another.

When no kids are involved, the main custody issue will involve the dog, or dogs. Sometimes, kids adapt very well to shared custody – they have a cool bedroom at Mom’s place, and another one at Dad’s. They get to do things when they’re with Dad that Mom doesn’t allow, and vice versa. Then of course there’s the fun of playing one parent off against the other.

For a dog, though, the shared custody scenario is a lot more problematic. First of all, the dog is never going to understand why he’s being shuttled from one household to another. The smartest dog in the world isn’t going to have the same level of comprehension that a child will, so there’s going to be little point in trying to tell him “Mommy and Daddy think it would be best if they live apart, but we still both love you, and we will never leave you.” I’d imagine that when a “shared” dog leaves Mom’s house for Dad’s, every time, he wonders if Mom doesn’t want him anymore. Then, when he goes back to Mom’s, he thinks that Dad has stopped loving him. Imagine having to go through that week after week!

When couples break up, no matter how they feel about one another, I’d like to think that their love for their dog will lead them to make the right decision as to who will get custody. Is Mom home more often, or does her job require her to travel? Does Dad’s home have more room for exercise? Who will be more able to cover the cost of veterinary care?

And finally, who does the dog love more? This can be the deciding factor. Most dogs are “family-oriented,” and are equally comfortable with either partner in a relationship. However, sometimes, a dog will display a marked preference for one over the other.

In Is It Time to Let Go? I told you about my friend, Jackie, and her dog, Emil. She was given Emil by someone who decided they no longer had time for a dog, and Emil bonded so hard to Jackie that he never left her side by choice. I remember dog-sitting Emil one night when Jackie had to work late, and at the time she would usually arrive home, he sat at the front door and just howled for hours. Nothing I could do would soothe him – Jackie was supposed to be home, and she wasn’t, and poor Emil was just beside himself. Now if Jackie had found herself in a relationship gone sour, separating her from Emil would have been just cruel, because he was hers, heart and soul.

Visiting Rights

Keeping the dog in one home is always the best option. However, that’s not to say that a system of visiting rights can’t be worked out. Usually, I think it’s best that the dog live with whichever parent is going to remain in the “family home.” However, if the home is being sold and the proceeds divided, obviously some other arrangement is going to have to be reached.

The theory here is the same as it is with kids – it’s best that they remain in familiar surroundings, so that they have at least some measure of stability during what is going to be a very trying time for all concerned. And when it comes to visiting rights, I don’t think dogs have much of a grasp of time – anyone who’s ever stepped out into the yard for five minutes and been greeted with exuberant tail wagging and then drenched in kisses suspects that this is true. Five minutes, five hours, five days – it’s pretty much all the same. So, how does that work to the dog’s benefit?

I’m put in mind of friends of mine, Cherylle and Denise, who were in a relationship for seven years, and shared a beautiful Afghan Hound, Gus. When they split, Denise kept the apartment and Cherylle took a small rental cottage. Gus stayed with Denise, but Cherylle visited regularly. To Gus, it was “Wow, Cherylle’s home; hi Cherylle!” Maybe he perceived that she was “out” a little more than usual; maybe not. My point is that he had no problems with the breakup because both women made sure that his routine wasn’t disrupted any more than necessary.

Really Hard Decisions

Sometimes, custody decisions can be horribly difficult to make, and often, they can depend on the “pack” structure within the home. This is often the case where the pack dynamic revolves around one really strong Alpha.

I saw an example of this with two other friends. Shane and Beth had been having problems, and it was beyond the “We just developed different goals in life” scenario. They grew apart in a huge way when Beth became involved in a religious group that Shane considered to be not much better than a cult. Beth was no longer the fun-loving girl Shane had fallen in love with, and Shane was not the sort of man that the “new” Beth wanted to be with. They both loved their Husky mix, Sam, though, and both wanted him.

After much wrangling, Shane finally agreed to leave Sam with Beth. The trouble was that Shane had always been very much the Alpha, and although Sam loved Beth, once Shane was gone, he underwent something of a personality change. He must have felt confused and “leaderless,” because he decided that he would be a more suitable pack leader than Beth. He began challenging her, at first with soft growls, and later with snarling and barking. Things finally came to a head when Beth told Sam to go lie down, and he didn’t feel inclined to obey. So, she took hold of Sam’s collar to lead him to his dog bed, he turned and grabbed her arm. She needed 32 stitches to close the wound, and will require physical therapy for some time to come.

Sam is now with Shane. Beth has managed to conquer her fear of the dog, and visits him every couple of weeks. The visits are supervised by Shane, and there are no behavioral issues at all.

More Than One Dog

When a couple has more than one dog, it can be tempting to say “I’ll take Odin, and you take Freya.” Sometimes, this works. It really depends on how bonded the dogs are to one another. It can be especially difficult if the dogs are littermates, accustomed to always having been together. When they are separated, one or the other (or both) could develop destructive habits, or become depressed. When this happens, you really only have two choices –one of you is going to have to give up your dog so that the dogs can be together, or you’re going to have to live with the behavior issues and work hard to get them under control.

It’s Over and Done, and You’re Ready to Move On

Most people who end up divorced or separated eventually want to be in another relationship, unless, of course, the last one was so toxic that they’re just determined to swear off dating for the rest of their lives. This could open up a whole new can of worms. I’ve talked about some of the problems that can occur when you introduce a new partner to your dog in What to Do When Your Dog Hates Your Significant Other. The thing is, the routine is being upset once more, albeit not in the ways that it was during the divorce or separation.

Now, there is an intruder. And maybe that intruder is now occupying the side of the bed that the dog became accustomed to. Or the intruder is taking Mom or Dad out in the evenings, which used to be the time for binge-watching The Good Wife and sharing popcorn. For sure, the routine is going to be disrupted in some way, and it’s probably not going to be to the dog’s liking.

This is actually where things get a lot easier. The reality is that much of the time, a dog’s affection can be bought. If the new partner brings the dog treats, invites him to play, and doesn’t force the issue too early on, chances are that things will work out in little time. Unless, of course, you are trying to introduce a new significant other who simply doesn’t like your dog all that much – in which case, what the heck are you thinking?

If your new partner also has a dog, there could be issues between the two of them. You could find, for instance, that two dogs that got along famously when they were visiting one another’s homes become hostile toward one another when the lot of you finally move in together. This could be because the two of them respected one another’s territory before, and now that they’re sharing territory, there are dominance issues. You should supervise them carefully, and feed them separately. It would also be a good idea, in the short term, to put away any toys – that way they’ll have nothing, other than you and your partner, to be possessive about.

Possessiveness over the humans in their lives can, of course be another trigger for conflict. You may have a preference for your own dog over that of your significant other, and if that’s the case, it’s very important to try to put your preference aside during this difficult transitional period. Make every effort possible to give just as much attention to the “new” dog as you do to your own. If they growl at one another, simply separate them – don’t scold. Scolding can actually cause the situation to escalate, and then you can end up in the unenviable position of having to break up a dog fight.


A relationship breakup is hard on everyone concerned. It’s rough on the people involved, who are probably running the gamut of emotions – frustration, sadness, anger, fear at having to start over, and perhaps (in cases where one party has left to be with someone else) jealousy. When kids are involved, it’s hard on them. And it’s also hard on the dog that loves his family. Sometimes, people think “He’s just a dog; he doesn’t really know what’s going on,” but believe me, he does, and he’s going to be affected. Kids can at least ask questions, and get answers about what’s going on. A dog can’t, and he’s just going to feel sad, stressed and confused.

Fortunately, dogs almost always bring out the best in people. So even if things are going down in the most awful way, most couples will try to do what is best for their dog. In fact, I hear a lot more stories about people who use their kids as weapons against their ex than I do about people who make the dog a pawn on the battlefield of divorce.

If you’re going through a split, remember, your dog didn’t ask for this. In his perfect world, his entire pack would stay together forever. Sometimes, though, that’s just not going to happen. So throughout the process, consider your dog’s feelings. Make the breakup as easy as you can for him. And make the right choice when it comes to custody arrangements.

About the Author Ash

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