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Who Gets the Dog in a Breakup?

It’s complicated... We talk custody battles and co-pet parenting with a lawyer and three people who’ve been there.

by Madeleine Aggeler
August 11, 2021
Lesbian couple with a dog
Sergio Marcos / Stocksy

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Even the best breakups are the worst. One minute you’re sharing your life, your love, and your bathroom with someone, and then the next thing you know, the two of you are dividing up your furniture, friends, and neighborhood restaurants. Throw a beloved pet into the mix, and things get even more complicated and emotionally charged. 

When Claire (a pseudonym) and her ex broke up, one of the biggest points of contention was figuring out what to do with the dog they had adopted together. They tried joint-custody at first, but it was too fraught. Eventually, they decided to take the legal route, and ended up in court. As she prepared, Claire said she struggled to get a straight answer from attorneys about how to secure custody of the dog. Plus, she said,  “a lot of people think it’s silly.”

After many long, expensive months of negotiation, Claire was finally granted legal ownership of her dog. But she wasn’t alone in her confusion. To get a better idea of how to navigate this complicated question, we spoke to several people who have been through the process themselves about what they learned, and what advice they have for other couples trying to figure out who gets the dog.

First, what does the law say?

“It’s a developing area of the law,” says Siobhan Beere, a family law attorney in New Jersey. Each state has its own laws about pet ownership, so the rules vary. Except for California, which recently passed a “pet custody law” that differentiates companion animals from other types of property, most states legally view pets as property, like a TV or a car. 

Siobhan notes that, in New Jersey, the vast majority of divorce cases are settled out of court, and couples are encouraged to make agreements amongst themselves about what works best for them, including in terms of pet ownership. Should your case end up in front of a judge, like Claire’s did, the first thing a judge will look for is some sort of agreement, written or otherwise, about the dog’s ownership. If no such agreement exists, it’s a good bet to bring as much documentation as possible showing that you are the dog’s primary caregiver, like adoption papers, vet bills, or doggy daycare bills.

What about joint custody?

Tim (a pseudonym) and his ex-partner Jack (also a pseudonym) adopted their dog, Sadie (doggy pseudonym), together. When they broke up six years later, they brought in a legal mediator to help them work through some of their disputes, including the question of who would care for Sadie. They ended up settling on a joint custody agreement in which Tim and Jack would both get Sadie for two weeks at a time, and split medical expenses 50/50. Since Covid, the agreement has evolved slightly — now they each keep Sadie for a month at a time, and Tim has completely taken over her medical expenses — but overall, Tim says it’s been a success. 

“It can be challenging to be a single dog dad,” he says, but with their set up, both men have a built-in dog sitter whenever they need to travel. Sadie, for her part, seems happy with the arrangement. Tim and Jack both home cook food for her using the same recipe, and when one of them will drop her off with the other, they’ll often leave some clothes so that their scent is there with her. Still, Tim concedes that this set up doesn’t work for everybody, and that it was pretty tough, especially in early days. Now, he and Jack are friendly, and will sometimes get dinner when they hand off Sadie to each other, but when they first started sharing dog custody, their interactions could be tense. “Rather than a breakup where your ex is completely out of the picture, we have been able to evolve to the point where we are very friendly together,” he says. “And that’s specifically thanks to Sadie.”

For those considering joint ownership with an ex, Tim says the most important things are to try to take the emotion out of every discussion about the dog, and to respect the love your former partner has for the dog: “What I did when we were breaking up was ask, How would I feel if Jack took the dog away from me? I would feel miserable, and he would feel the same way. That is the no. 1 piece of advice, because if you have that empathy, you can work it out.”

What’s best for the dog?

Sometimes, a dog will make the decision easy. When Emily and her ex-husband separated, they shared four dogs together. Because one of the dogs was especially bonded with her husband, and a second was especially bonded to that first dog, those two went to live with her husband, while the other two stayed with Emily. If dogs seem equally bonded with their owners, consider who has a living space best suited for a dog, and who has the time and financial ability to best care for them. 

Ultimately, as uncomfortable as it may be to talk about with your partner while you’re in a healthy, happy relationship that you hope will never end, the best way to avoid a messy pet custody battle is to talk about the ownership question before the potential breakup happens. “It’s a conversation that should be had before that dog is welcomed into the home,” says Emily. “Have a plan. And realize that if you don’t get the dog, there is going to be a sense of loss. But there’s always dogs out there that they can go and rescue.”

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Madeleine Aggeler

Madeleine Aggeler is a freelance journalist and copywriter in Austin, Texas. Previously, she was a writer at New York magazine’s The Cut. She lives with her dog, Cleo, who works primarily as a foot warmer.