When you're going through a divorce, there's so much to sort out. You've potentially got assets, such as your house, bank accounts, and retirement accounts to divide up. Of course, if you've got a canine friend in the house, you'll also be wondering what to do with your dog in a divorce.

In fact, this point is often one of the most contentious. With dogs being such a close part of the family, deciding who gets custody of your dog(s) can add more fuel to the fire.

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Remember, divorce isn’t just tough on you and your family; since your dog is part of the family, it can be hard on them too. Below, you’ll find guidance on what the law says about dogs and divorce, and some more useful advice.

Dogs and Divorce: What the Law Says

While it's a lesser-known fact, in the eyes of the law, the family dog is treated as property. The question of who takes the dog can be settled with a notarized pet agreement, though only when both parties agree. In the event of a dispute, a judge will determine to whom the dog belongs, much in the same way as the rest of the property to be divided.

How Laws Regarding Dogs and Divorce Have Changed

Pet custody hearings have been on the rise for at least the past decade. More recently, new developments in the legal system allow for more control over who gets to see the family dog. In some courts, shared custody agreements and visitation rights have been put in place. In others, some people have even been demanded to pay "pet alimony." Certainly, dogs are fast becoming treated in a similar way to children in the event of a divorce.

How Do Judges Determine Custody Agreements for Dog Owners?

One of the biggest influencing factors here is whether your dog is considered separate property or community property. Separate property is that which was acquired before the relationship began. Community property is seen as anything that belongs to both former partners equally; in other words, you bought the dog together.

In the event that your dog is treated as community property, the judge is likely to apply many of the same reasonings used in child custody disputes:

  • What kind of home (i.e. physical environment) can each parent offer to the dog?
  • Who has spent the most time taking care of the pet during the relationship?
  • Which person has the budget to support looking after the dog?
  • What kind of schedule does each potential owner keep? Or, how much time can each person commit to looking after the dog?
  • If children are involved, who will have custody of the children? (this may sway the decision in that person’s favor)
  • Does either person have issues with drug or alcohol misuse?

Helping Your Dog Adjust After Divorce

Countless canines enter the shelter system each and every year as a result of divorce. It's a heart-breaking statistic, but it's understandable that people think they're doing the best for their dog.

However, a dog thrives best when remaining with loved ones in their stable home environment. Even in the event of a split, they'll be better off with at least one of their owners, rather than being sent to a shelter or rehomed.

Dogs are entirely aware of such serious disturbances in their normal, functioning household. So, you need to be prepared for the fact that your dog will be in mourning for the loss of a loved one. Your pet could become clingy, never leaving your side, even when you sleep. They could even regress in their training and suffer accidents inside the home.

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Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help your dog adjust after divorce. Here’s our advice:

  • Don’t disturb your usual routine. With the exception of the split, try to keep everything else as routine as possible. Spend time playing with your pet, exploring your new environment if you've moved out, and taking them for long walks. In essence, keep them distracted, and while things are likely tough on you too, try to avoid wallowing in despair in front of them.
  • Use food toys to distract your dog. Pretty soon, you're going to have to help your dog to adjust back to periods of being alone. Start small, such as closing the door behind you when you need to use the bathroom. In the meantime, distract him or her with a chew toy or treat-filled dog toy. Within a couple of days, you can extend these alone times to get back to your usual routine, and your dog will begin to adjust. Still, keep it small, such as taking a trip to the store.
  • Extend their alone time gradually. When you need to make longer journeys or return to work, begin extending the time windows in which your dog is alone. In addition to the food-filled toys, you can also leave the television on or music playing. You can also take them for a super-long, early-morning walk to tire them out as much as possible.
  • Avoid introducing any new pets. You may be feeling lonely after a divorce. Or, you could be worrying that your dog is feeling lonely and in need of a friend. However, avoid bringing a new pet into the household at this time. This is another layer of disruption that could potentially worsen their behavior and attitude.

If your dog is still showing signs of failure to adjust after some time, it might be worth considering an animal behaviorist. You can also turn to your family vet for advice on calming supplements that could help any anxious behaviors.

Dogs and Divorce: It Affects Us All

Divorce is a difficult time, and it can often feel like you’re going through it alone, but that’s far from the truth. According to the CDC, the divorce rate in the US, in 2020, was around 2.3 per 1,000 people. What’s more, it affects everybody, celebrities included.

Here are a few examples of stars in the spotlight who have had to fight for custody of their pets when their relationship ended:

  • Kristen Stewart & Robert Pattinson: The Twilight lovers had quite a public breakup that involved two adopted dogs, Bear and Bernie. Pattinson ended up taking custody of both dogs.
  • Kirsten Dunst & Jake Gyllenhaal: The actor and actresses have had huge careers over the last two decades, but their split happened way back in 2004. At the time, their dog, Atticus, was torn between the two. It was Jake who eventually won the custody battle.
  • Drew Barrymore & Tom Green: This pair's Labrador, Flossie, was pretty special. In 1998, she saved them both from a house fire by waking them up in time. When they divorced in the early noughties, Barrymore won the case as Flossie was considered separate property.
  • Amber Heard & Johnny Depp: One of the most recent court battles to hit headlines around the world, Depp and Heard's case included a custody battle for their dogs.
  • Britney Spears & Kevin Federline: Britney Spears has been through a lot of personal and family difficulties, including losing custody of her children to her ex-husband, Kevin. Later, PETA petitioned Kevin to file for custody of their pets, and he did so.

Remember, you’re not alone, but your dog is also going through a difficult time and needs your love and support. The best place for him or her is to remain at home, whoever’s home that happens to be.