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When 'stay' is no longer an option for dog owners

An author and pet expert offers tips for making a divorce less painful for the family pooch.

June 01, 2008|Denise Flaim | Newsday

For many of us, dogs are substitute children. So it should come as no surprise that when marriages break up, the decision over custody of the cockapoo can lead to a pitched battle.

There oughta be a book, and there is. Jennifer Keene, a dog trainer from Beaverton, Ore., wrote, "We Can't Stay Together for the Dogs: Doing What's Best for Your Dog When Your Relationship Breaks Up."

Keene says she and her ex were the "pet parents" of Moxxy, an Australian cattle dog, and Sixxy, a pointer mix, until they divorced in 2005. Along with dividing the china and the furniture, they had to decide who would take which furry charge when the moving truck pulled up.

As with children of the two-legged variety, Keene says, the custody decision should first and foremost center around the needs of the dog. That doesn't jibe with the legal perspective, which sees animals as property, to be dealt with in the same manner as a toaster or television set.

"You need to work together to look at your dog -- his personality, age, breed, activity and stress level, and any special needs," Keene says.

In her case, Moxxy had bonded more strongly to her, and Sixxy to her husband, so they decided to "split their pack" and each take full custody of one dog. The clincher was the fact that the two animals tolerated each other but were never best buddies.

Though her ex now lives out of state, they communicate regularly about the dogs, sharing stories and photos.

In families where there is only one dog, the tug of war can grow more heated. In such cases, shared custody can be a viable solution, as long as the dog can handle it, Keene says.

"All dogs thrive on routine, but some are more control freaks than others," she says. For dogs that are more happy-go-lucky, the back-and-forth soon becomes routine.

Another variation is what Keene calls "part-time pet parenting." One half of the former couple becomes the dog's primary owner, but the other half is available for occasional sleepovers or vacations. When executed maturely, this more informal strategy benefits everyone: The full-timer gets a baby-sitting break, the other gets quality time without any of the responsibility, and the dog isn't relegated to a kennel or other strange environment.

One thing divorced owners often aren't prepared for is the impact of being newly single.

"Being a single pet parent is definitely more work," Keene cautions. "People don't realize how nice it is to have another person to let the dog out or get up and feed him if you feel sick. Now you have to be the one that takes the dog to the vet and the groomer and picks up the poop in the backyard. It can be kind of a wake-up call."

As with anything involving the dissolution of a relationship, keeping emotion at bay is Job 1. Keene recommends communicating via e-mail as much as possible: Not only can it help keep the exchanges matter-of-fact, but it serves as a record of agreements or arrangements you made that your not-so-better half might forget or misremember.

"And," she adds, "it gives you time to think about your answers if your ex says he's going to Bora Bora with his new girlfriend."

Most important, keep refocusing on the dog during all the turmoil. "Try and prevent stress and resulting behavioral problems by strengthening your leadership role through positive training," Keene says.

That will communicate a clear message to your rattled Rover: "I may be stressed, but I am still in charge, and I will take care of everything."

And if you ever dare slip a ring on your finger again, consider the wave of the future: "pupnups."

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