Shared Custody for Dogs

 Karis Nafte
September 4, 2020

Shared Custody for Dogs.

Karis Nafte

Are you getting divorced and wondering how to share your dog with your ex?  For dog owners, custody is a difficult issue because it is challenging to separate your dog’s needs from your wants. Karis Nafte, a pet custody consultant, discusses the importance of understanding your dog when making a custody decision, and the benefits and pitfalls of shared custody.  This article originally appeared on medium.

When couples get divorced, there is often a dispute about who should keep the dog. To avoid conflict in these situations, there has been a growing trend towards granting separated couples shared custody of dogs. I believe this move should be discussed with more awareness about dog behavior before it becomes the new normal.

We love our dogs. Part of really loving something is learning to understand it. Overly humanizing dogs and putting them in the same category as children not only does them a disservice, it can cloud decision-making about them. For almost all dogs, having only one home is easier. Do not choose shared custody out of concern for the dog. Be clear that it is a decision for the benefit of the people instead. In which case, the question to ask is, can the dog tolerate it?

My job is to help separating couples decide on the best custody arrangement for their pets. Together, we work to distinguish gently, but clearly, the animal’s needs from the people’s wants, and to make sure the pets are not used as a weapon in a conflict. After working for more than two decades as an animal behaviorist I have seen over and over again that owners have a much harder time saying goodbye than their dogs do.

Letting a beloved dog go can be one of the hardest things to cope with in times of stress, and this is why shared custody may seem like the best option during a divorce. Then no one has to say goodbye. However, to be fair to the dogs, I believe couples should only pursue a shared custody option under specific circumstances, that is, when everyone including the dogs have a very special, easy-going nature. There are certainly exceptions to every rule, but in my experience this is rare. For most dogs shared custody creates a very unsettled life of stressful separations and reunions, and of not knowing where they ‘live’.

You may think saying goodbye to a dog is cruel, however, dogs handle leaving people they have bonded with, moving to a new home or having new owners better than you might think. Just ask anyone who has adopted or rehomed a dog.

There will naturally be an adjustment period when a dog’s life situation changes during which they are a bit stressed or confused. But this will pass, and dogs are pretty good at living in the moment and enjoying their lives. Unless there is some major trauma involved, my rule of thumb is that dogs normally need about two weeks to settle with a new owner, a new roommate (human or animal), new city or new house.

What is stressful for dogs is living with people who are too worried about them or when they allow the dog to hold too much emotional weight. Dogs pick up on our moods. They are like walking emotional radar devices, primed to notice if something is ‘off’ in the pack. If you are not at peace, your dog can’t be either.

Dogs won’t settle when they don’t know who to bond with, what their life routine is, or when the people around them are not in harmony with the situation. If, instead of saying a clean goodbye to a dog, there is an emotional yoyo of moving back and forth between two people who are sad to see them go and overly emotional when they come back, the dog can get distressed by the whole arrangement. Then you end up with dogs who stare at the door for hours on end waiting for someone to pick them up because they cannot settle long-term into one house.

I would only suggest pursuing shared custody if:

Both parties are the type of people who can let the dog come and go between them peacefully, without simmering angry emotions, resentments, guilt or frustrations. Dogs pick up on these emotions and become stressed.

The dog is a super-duper easy-going, relaxed individual, who isn’t overly attached to any one person and without a lot of trauma in their background. It is difficult to speak generally about which sort of dogs fit into this category. They are all individuals and have all had different upbringings. However, for some broad guidelines, working breed dogs (anything bred to guard property or move livestock), rescue dogs who have come from a difficult past, smaller breed ‘nervous’ type dogs or dogs with any sort of behavior issues, are less likely to cope with moving between homes.

And finally, if both people can agree to revisit the shared custody arrangement in three months to see if it is truly working for the dog. Love the dog enough to observe their behavior honestly. Are they becoming destructive, withdrawn, overly hyper? Have they developed skin troubles or behavior problems? All of these can be signs of stress in dogs. If the dog is not coping with living in two houses, one party should be willing to say goodbye. The biggest kindness you can show the dog you love, might just be to let them go.

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