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Features April 2018 Issue

For the Sake of the "Child"

How to break up with the dog's best interests in mind.

© Daxiao Productions | Bigstock

What starts out as “forever” doesn’t always end up that way. Often, the dog gets caught in the middle.

Alison Murphy and Jesse Hlava were over. After six years together, there were “a lot of conversations about what we both wanted,” Ms. Murphy says, “and we weren’t having the same idea of what the future would look like.

“It was a pretty civilized breakup,” she comments. “In fact, we still lived together for a couple of months after we broke up so we could figure out who was going to move where.” But there remained the issue of Murray, their basset hound.

They had gotten Murray in 2009 when he was still a puppy, about a year into their relationship. And he had now been with them for five years.

“Jesse probably bonded with him a little faster than I did,” Ms. Murphy says. “Murray was super anxious, but when Jesse would get home, he would calm down.”

Then, not long after the couple had Murray neutered, he became very sick, and it wasn’t clear at one point whether he would even make it through the night. Ms. Murphy sat with him all night with towels all over the floor, “sticking IV bags into the back of his neck,” as she explains it, and after that, she reports, “we were very bonded. It still took him a few months to figure out that we weren’t going to abandon him or give him away [as his previous owners did],” but he “settled into a routine. Things were nice for him. He went from being a very anxious dog to a very chill dog.

“We had a big backyard,” Ms. Murphy relates, “and Jesse and I split tasks pretty equally. Murray seemed to love us equally, too. We also had a neighbor who happened to be a dog walker, so she would take him out in the middle of the day when she had other dogs to take out. And it was great to see Jesse getting into having a dog because he had never had one growing up. He was a good dog parent.”

How, in the face of those five secure and happy years for Murray, were the two going to broker his continued sense of security and happiness, sparing him the trauma of being shunted from household to household that he suffered before he came to them?

Many dogs’ lives upended by couples splitting up

Roughly one in two marriages in the U.S. come to an end, as do many relationships involving cohabitation where the couple is not married, and there are about 90 million dogs living as pets in American households. It’s not hard to do the math: many dogs end up with significant changes in their home lives because of couples breaking up.

So much so that on January 1st of this year, Illinois enacted a new law that gives judges in divorce proceedings latitude to consider pet dogs’ well-being when deciding whether to award joint custody or sole custody when a couple breaks up. That’s right. Whereas before, dogs were considered property, like furniture or anything else in a divorce that goes to one household or the other, they are now being treated more as children. Illinois state senator Laura Holmes, a self-proclaimed animal lover, sponsored the legislation (which bears similarities to legislation about pet dogs passed in Alaska).

Granted, most couples are able to reach an agreement about pets outside of court. That said, 96 percent of disputes that do arise are about dogs (with cats and horses accounting for one percent each.) Disputes that cannot be absolved between the parties themselves occur perhaps most often in the case of two-income couples with no children who both feel attached to the dog. They need help deciding where the dog will live as well as who will pay for medical care and so on.

What’s at stake

The Head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, has never been asked to broker dog custody/responsibility solutions between couples breaking up. But she has seen dogs whose owners have split up and gone their separate ways, and she has seen how that has made any behavioral issues the dogs might have had even more difficult to deal with.

“I think behavioral problems among dogs can be aggravated by the fact that when the two parties of a couple who has taken care of them go their separate ways, a dog is living in less stable circumstances,” which affects their mood and sense of well-being, she says. “A lot of dogs find environmental changes difficult. They’re not a party to the divorce; they just want to get on with their lives.” In other words, the break-up in itself is an emotionally fraught disruption for the dog that can affect how he acts.

But it’s more than that. It’s about consistency in day-to-day life, something dogs crave. “Everybody has to be on the same page as far as the dog’s routine” once the break-up has occurred, the doctor says. “Otherwise, they’re doing the pet a great disservice.” The problem is, they often don’t see eye to eye.

Even in the best of circumstances, Dr. Borns-Weil points out, there are frequently issues in a household around the fact that the two partners don’t view dog parenting the same way. It can be hard to get a dog to behave agreeably because of the difficulty of getting everybody on board with one set of rules, which dogs need so badly to understand what’s expected of them. With a divorce, it’s even harder. When a dog goes back and forth between two homes, or at least is taken care of by two people who are no longer sharing their lives and therefore have little incentive to be consistent, not being on the same page can be taken to a new level, making the pet’s life that much more difficult.

For instance, Dr. Borns-Weil says, one person might want to confine the dog when visitors come to the house, while the other ex-partner gives the dog free access to people when they visit, even in cases where that approach is not entirely safe. In other cases, one of the exes will not administer medication on their watch. “I even had one situation where someone gave different doses of medicine on her watch than her former partner did on his,” she says. That’s not always dire. “Some of the medications do have a range,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. But “it’s never a good thing with medication” to be changing doses based on where the dog is on a particular day.

Chicago or bust! Alison Murphy and Murray the basset hound in the U-Haul that took them from Boston to the midwest some time after a break-up. Because of good co-parenting even after the split, Murray handled the move without emotional trauma.

Making the dog’s experience of the break-up as painless as possible

Often, before couples make the decision not to live together anymore, there’s a period of not getting along, with harsh words exchanged and voices raised. Even after couples break up but share custody — of pets, of children — there is frequently fighting. Dogs take on all of that stress, Dr. Borns-Weil says, so “couples should not fight in front of them. Some dogs really can’t tolerate it,” she says. “I remember one case I saw at the beginning of my residency — the dog became very upset when the couple had loud arguments.

“Sometimes,” the doctor says, when couples come to the clinic for a dog’s behavior problem and start fighting, “we ask them to go in another room or go out for a walk to have their arguments rather than have at it in front of the dog. Some dogs really act out, wearing their dismay on their sleeve by barking their heads off or jumping at people and getting really upset in general. You can’t tell people not to argue, but you can remind them that if they are going to, they should at least put the dog in another room with a frozen Kong or go for a walk or drive in order not to have the argument in front of their pet.”

In those cases in which a dog moves back and forth between two households, what helps to make it seamless is that everybody involved works to meet the dog’s needs, Dr. Borns-Weil says. Each party has to do “a good amount of bending their own rules and their own expectations so the dog can get what he requires,” which is a uniform approach. “If one person brushes the dog’s teeth, the other person brushes the dog’s teeth,” the doctor says by way of example. “Everybody has to insure the dog gets adequate exercise, the same food.” It’s a matter of putting your own comfort aside sometimes, she comments. “You have to really communicate about it with the person you no longer want to be with,” she says.

When there are children for whom custody is shared, it can sometimes be helpful for everyone to have the dog move between the parents with the children, the doctor posits. The arrangement can provide a measure of stability for the dog and also make the children happy in the process because they are often very attached to the family pet.

In situations where the dog does not move back and forth between the two homes, Dr. Borns-Weil points out that he may go through a grieving period and get depressed. “A dog wants everybody together,” she says. “They miss the person they’re not with. It’s a real loss for them.”

How things went for Murray

Murray certainly had difficulty adjusting when Ms. Murphy moved out. “When he first lived with Jesse and me,” she says, “there was a lot of whining — these vague little whines. He had stopped doing that for years,” Ms. Murphy comments, “but for the first couple of weeks after I moved, when I would leave, he would whine again.” He was having difficulty getting used to the situation.

What helped him over the hump? Ms. Murphy and Mr. Hlava certainly behaved admirably by not arguing or otherwise acting out in front of Murray. But they also did more. “We split time with him,” Ms. Murphy comments. “Jesse was in law school at night and working during the day, so he took Murray on weekends, while Murray spent the work week with me. We lived only about a half hour away from each other. I started taking Murray to the office, too.

“Realizing that no one was leaving him was helpful,” she says. “And not only was he still seeing both of us regularly, he was now making other friends at work. He liked my new roommates, too. He calmed down pretty quickly.”

To make things a little easier for him, Ms. Murphy and Mr. Hlava would take Murray’s bed back and forth to each other’s house when they dropped him off. “He never even slept in his bed, but it just really smelled like him,” she says. “I think that gave him comfort. I moved around so much when I was growing up, and the first thing that would freak me out about a new house was that it smelled so different. So I think it was some kind of primal thing” that made us bring his bed back and forth. (Dr. Borns-Weil is all for bringing back and forth familiar toys and other doggie accouterments that are familiar and comforting, pointing out that scents to dogs are much more important than to people; it’s how they read their world.)

The two didn’t disagree about how to treat Murray, either. Neither was ever interested in having a perfectly trained dog, so they didn’t care in either house whether Murray went on the couch and things like that. “We didn’t have any conflicts about that,” Ms. Murphy says. In other words, everything Dr. Borns-Weil recommends fell into place instinctively for them — and for Murray.

And today? Today it is four years later, and Mr. Hlava has moved to western Massachusetts, hours from Boston. “I asked Jesse how he felt about Murray remaining with me, and he said he was okay with that because it wouldn’t have made sense for him to take Murray with him at that point, anyway.

“The day Jesse dropped him off for the last time, it was sad,” Ms. Murphy says. “Murray didn’t realize what was happening, of course — the sadness was ours. But I didn’t notice him being more anxious than usual after the fact. He seemed okay.

“At first Jesse would come visit Murray and I’d send pictures, but there was a gradual shift.”

A year later, Ms. Murphy moved to Chicago for another relationship. “I felt pretty strongly that I wanted to take Murray with me, but I put that conversation off,” she says. Finally, I checked in with Jesse, and he was fine with it. I was really grateful.”

Today, Murray lives with Ms. Murphy and her partner Charles Murphy (last-name coincidence) in Illinois. “Murray is a big fan of Charles,” Ms. Murphy says. “He warmed up quickly to him, and they really love each other.”

How’s Murray doing in general? The lovable basset hound, who came into Ms. Murphy’s life when he was 8 months old, will be turning 10 later this year. No one will ever know, of course, whether he still misses Mr. Hlava or ever thinks about him, but the amicable and civilized way in which the one-time couple considered Murray’s needs as they moved on with their lives was pretty much a best-case scenario.

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