The split was horrible. The division of household objects, furniture and all those souvenirs of a once happy relationship, an ordeal. The essential decisions about the kids, painful and heart-rending.
But you never thought he’d fight you for the dog. He just wouldn’t do that, would he?
As a canine and feline behaviour specialist, my first case of a ‘custody battle’ over a pet was more than twenty years ago. Jason and Marie had been together for seven years, and – having decided not to have children – they had invested every bit of their parental energies into the happiness and welfare of their two Weimaraner dogs.
Sully was already a fixture in Marie’s life when the couple met, and after they married, they added another of these beautiful dogs – sometimes known as ‘silver ghosts’ on account of their stunning, shimmery coats – to their family.
Years later, when things went awry, neither one of them wanted to live without their beloved pets, and a bitter conflict was born – Jason understood that Sully was Marie’s but claimed ownership of Sapphire – the younger dog. Marie contested this, saying that the dog’s microchip ID was in her name, and that made her the legal owner. Jason asserted that he’d paid for the dog when they’d bought her as a puppy, and her food and vet’s bills since.
With neither party prepared to back down, and things becoming increasingly unpleasant between the couple, it was Jason’s solicitor that approached me and asked if I would assess the dogs and make a recommendation.
To be honest, he was of course, gunning for the dogs to be separated, so that the couple had one each. In his eyes, and the eyes of the law, this was only fair. Right. A straight-forward division of assets.
But, as the law in the UK has just attested in its recent change of stance on ‘dog theft’ to ‘dog abduction’, to their owners, dogs are never merely ‘property’ – they are living, feeling, sentient beings – with emotional and welfare needs of their own – and these need to be taken into consideration when life changes so dramatically for them as a result of a break-up.
Meeting the family
I met with Jason, Marie, Sully and Sapphie. I can’t say it was the most relaxed or enjoyable consultation of my career, but it was one of the most decisive.
Within minutes of me meeting and greeting these lovely dogs, and seeing the bond that they had – not just with their owners, but with each other, it was clear that whatever happened to their people, these dogs needed the stability of staying together.
Sully and Sapphie were stressed beyond belief
They climbed onto my lap in relief to have someone who understood their body language and facial expressions. They clung together like little twigs tossed about on a stormy ocean, following each other and licking each other’s mouths for reassurance. They panted and whined and paced and nibbled. They engaged in attention-seeking behaviours of the most upsetting kind, stealing things just to be shouted at, scratching at the door to go out when they had no intention of leaving the room, and trying their best to get the focus of their adored humans, just to alleviate the emotional tension between them. Dogs really do want harmony in the household, and will often work to try and achieve it – even to the detriment of themselves.
The welfare of the dogs had to come first
I’m sure you can imagine what my recommendation was. And no, it did not please the solicitor. Nor Jason, who was moving into accommodation that wouldn’t allow two dogs, only one.
However, my opinion wasn’t based on what the owners wanted. Or the legal or financial side of things. It was based entirely on the emotional welfare needs of the dogs, who had been together for so many years that their relationship was like that of siblings, not just friends. They needed each other, and I was going to help them stay together if I could.
In subsequent years, I have been asked more and more to help make assessments about dog (and cat) ownership where their people are parting company – and I consider it a privilege to be able to help. My experience is that once people know and understand what it is that their pet needs, they stop putting their own agenda above it, and that this can lead to some truly heart-warming generosity and kindness between them, which is always a good thing where the rest of the landscape seems bleak and self-centred.
Dogs don’t lie to me
Through their attitude, their body language, their health and their behaviour patterns, they tell me what they need. This is not some spurious Dr Dolittle ‘communication’ – but fact-based and scientifically-backed information, which – with my 30 years’ of experience as a canine behaviour specialist – I can assess and place in context. And reduce everyone’s stress and upset as a result.
Sully and Sapphire stayed with Marie, in the family home. Jason came and walked them whenever he could, and looked after them when Marie went on holiday. When Sully passed away at the ripe old age of 14, Jason dug the hole in the garden to bury her ashes, and the couple comforted each other and hugged Sapphie close.
Our pets are meant to pull us together. At a time when everything else seems to be pulling us apart, they can be both a lifeline, a friend to hug, and reason to be reasonable.
Find out more about Sarah Whitehead, BA(Hons), MSc, Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist in THE HUG DIRECTORY
Sarah is an internationally renowned speaker and lecturer, best-selling author and a global leading authority on canine behaviour and training. She is also a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT, 0156) and a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB) and an ABTC Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist.
Sarah was also the official behaviourist of “The Dog Rescuers” on Channel 5