How to do what is best for your dog in a divorce

How to do what is best for your dog in a divorce

Divorce is never an easy or simple topic to talk about.

The divorce process can last months or even years and cause immense stress on everyone involved.

Including your dog. 

Deciding who will take care of the dog during the divorce process is a hot topic and can become the center of heated arguments. 

It’s important to realize what’s at stake. We’re not talking about a piece of furniture after all we’re talking about your loving furry family member.

The key with deciding what’s best for you dog in a divorce is to put the egos a side and think clearly about your dog’s future. As hard as that may be the best thing for your canine is to put their needs first. 

It was a difficult thing for me to do and one I still struggle with to this day but one that I’m ultimately okay with knowing my poodle, Parker, is where he should be. Hopefully you can take something away from my story to help you and your dog get through a difficult divorce. Here’s my story.

An unexpected announcement

On a hot July afternoon, I was in the kitchen, pouring myself some coffee. Susan (not her name, but that’s what I’ll call her here) came into the kitchen and quietly said “I’m giving you a heads up. I’m moving, and you’re not invited.” I was stunned.

I was blindsided by it. Admittedly, I had paid little attention to the marriage. Looking back, I realize our marriage had become just another habit. We rarely did anything together. We’d stopped seeing movies together. Once, we’d talked about politics and work, and that had faded away. I let that drift and didn’t think about it.

I usually had my nose in a book. If anyone had asked me, “Do you still love each other?” I would have had to pause and think about it. Nobody asked, and I didn’t think about it. At that point, we had been married 28 years.

There was some love in the house. The focus of that love was a large Standard poodle named Parker. We had gotten him as an 11-week old puppy from a breeder specializing in Standards. A male, Parker had a coal-black coat and an engaging personality. He had grown into a very handsome dog. He was three years old and grew to about seventy pounds. He was our second poodle.

Our first dog was also a Standard, a beautiful dog with an apricot colored coat. He’d been a good companion for both of us. Those were our last good years. We had to have him euthanized at age eleven because he was in real pain from inoperable cancer. Parker came into our lives a couple of months later.

Warning signs from our dog

Susan and I had shared dog-related tasks through his puppyhood. That lasted for maybe a year until once I was walking him, and he pulled so hard he got away from me. He joyfully ran up and down the neighborhood streets. My wife was frantic. We finally got near enough to grab his leash. Susan took over walking him and never let me walk him again. That should have told me something, but it didn’t.

Parker had some issues. He sometimes seemed anxious, and now and then had pee or poop incidents in the house. His anxiety would come and go, but never entirely disappeared.

He appeared to continue his puppyhood way longer than average. I could not figure out why Parker seemed to be so anxious.  It never occurred to me that a smart dog would pick up on troubles in the marriage before either partner did.

Susan and I would clash over money or sometimes just absurdly little stuff like me not filling up ice cube trays enough. The clashes became more and more frequent, and sometimes they were furious.

The marriage had already probably gotten beyond salvage, although I was unaware of that. Love and affection leaked away and after all those years, and not much was left. Poor Parker grew up in the midst of this.

Then there I was that July day when Susan told me she was moving and I was not invited.

cute beagle with puppy dog eyes

This face is too cute to have suffered through a divorce. Image: Eddie

Our poodle gets caught in the middle

All of our marriage, Susan had controlled our money, with everything I earned going into our common account. I had no savings or much in the way of resources. I never anticipated that there might someday be a problem. Susan was much better managing money than I was.  

Anyway, I had to save up some cash to be able to leave. It took me a considerable length of time to save up enough to move out. When I did set up my separate account, Susan exploded. She had my name taken off our common account.

During the months before I saved enough to move out, our relationship went from bad, to awful, to unbearable. Susan and I argued, sometimes bitterly, always angrily.

We both did something that we should never have done: used the dog as a way to get at each other.

Susan would whisper insulting things about me loudly to Parker, to be sure I would hear. “Parker, your dad’s an idiot,” she might say. And then I would loudly whisper to him, “Parker, your mom is going crazy.” 

Parker and Susan are still living in that rented house. There’s no sign she’s moving anywhere. 

Parker’s behavior changes and things get worse

Standard poodles are extremely intelligent. Parker had picked up on cues that the marriage had problems long before I did. For him, our household was his dog pack. His pack was breaking up.

Everything we understand about dogs tells us that thousands of generations after domestication, dogs remain pack animals. Parker understood that his pack was collapsing.

He developed anxiety, and sometimes in the morning would greet me as if I had just returned from a long trip. Susan found him increasingly hard to control. He was needy and insisted on attention. Lots of attention. His anxiety just made us grouchier.

As our relationship became increasingly bad, Parker became a way we’d pick at each other. “Your dad is a _________,” Susan would say to him, loudly enough for me to hear. (Fill in the obscenity of your choice, it got that bad). I’d say to him, loud enough for her to hear, “Your mom is becoming an alcoholic.” He couldn’t understand the words, but he certainly understood the anger and ugliness. In marriages in trouble, parents sometimes play that hurtful game with children. That’s child abuse, and what we were doing was dog abuse.

Saying goodbye to Parker

I realized that he was much more closely bonded to Susan. She may hate me, but she’s a good dog person. Her income is much higher than mine, so she could afford vet care if needed, that I probably could not. He’d stay with her and at least keep on living in the only house he’s ever known.

So I left. When I moved out, I decided that a clean break was in Parker’s best interest. I hope that does not sound cold-hearted. I miss him.

Susan and I have long since lost any objectivity about each other. I’ve tried to be objective about Parker, though. If he could have told us his preferences, it would be to try to repair the damage to his pack. I would have no answer for him, except to say no, the damage was not repairable. I moved out two months ago, and the divorce is still working its way through the courts.

Dogs and divorce by the numbers

We know that about 50% of married households have dogs, and that a married household with dogs averages about 1.6 dogs.  We also know that about 40% of marriages end in divorce, down considerably over the last several decades, but still high. We also know that those marriages that end in divorce average about eight years of marriage. 

There are about 850,000 divorces in the United States in each year, according to the CDC. There is some evidence that households with dogs are more stable. Also, people with dogs have been found to have lower blood pressure, and get more exercise.

It’s quite possible that families with dogs have a lower divorce rate. It’s probably a safe assumption to make, although there is no reliable information on the subject. 

If we assume that the marriages involved in divorces have the same characteristics of dog ownership as the general population, that is of 50% having a dog, with an average of 1.6 dogs per family, that would mean that about 680,000 dogs a year find themselves in household breaking up from a divorce. Parker has lots of company.

There’s no way to calculate what percentage of dogs will experience divorce in their family. The majority of marriages still end with the death of one partner, not in divorce, and those marriages on average last more than 40 years. My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that somewhere around five to ten percent of dogs in their lives will be part of a divorce.

What to expect from your dog while going through a divorce

Divorce is going to be traumatic for a dog. The dog will know there are some problems, probably before the married couple does.

Arguments will cause stress. One partner moving out will cause stress. The emotional toll a divorce causes on the people involved will reinforce the dog’s anxiety. If the dog moves out of the family residence with one of the partners, there will be stress caused by changing home.

A divorce may be lengthy, and the whole span will be disruptive for a dog. A new home is going to take time for your dog to adjust to. And since a sizable percentage of divorced people remarry, an average of three years later, that will also cause major disruption in a dog’s life.

Expect the various kinds of stresses to show up in your dog’s behavior. Your pet may show anxiety or nervousness. There may be the loss of appetite and loss of enthusiasm for playing and walking. There may be incidents of peeing and pooping inside. The dog may become listless.

The laws governing your dog in a divorce

There are some other things worth mentioning. One is regarding the law. A dog is merely another form of property in the governments eyes.

The law itself takes no account of the fact that a dog is a living member of a family, a companion, and friend.

An individual judge may take note of who brought the dog into the marriage, who paid vet bills, who trained and walked the dog.

Another is that many dogs caught up in a divorce are given up for adoption. This is probably the most stressful outcome for a dog. If the dog stays with one of the partners in the marriage, it will be stressful enough. Dog adoption centers say that divorce is one of the most common reasons that dogs are given up.

The thing to remember is that a divorce is not just between the two partners in a marriage. Divorce is rough on everybody in the house, children and dogs included.

Tips for helping your canine through a divorce

Irreconcilable problems between marriage partners cause the divorce. Your dog is a victim of the situation, not the cause. I know it may be difficult to do, but it’s important to be objective.


  • You may love your dog, but don’t get into a the-dog-loves-me-most contest.
  • Ask yourself which person your dog bonds to the strongest.
  • Which partner brought the dog into the marriage?
  • Does one of you do most of the walking and care-taking?

If so, that’s likely your answer, the dog best stays with the primary caretaker.

Consider if there are children involved

It gets more complicated if there are children in the family. Children often bond strongly with family pets, and when there is family trauma, children find affection and support from the dog. If there are children, the dog should go where the children go.

If you and your spouse fight over the dog, try to sit back for a minute. Are you sure the best thing for the dog is to go with you? If you are sure, go ahead. But be very sure you’re not using the dog as a way to get back at your partner.

Whatever you do, for the dog’s sake try to keep up a routine. Your dog should find the routine comforting. Don’t pull your dog away from its home, unless there is some compelling reason. If you have to do that, try to maintain a familiar routine in some way, such as walks during the same time of day. The dog should keep toys and a bed they’re familiar with.

Be patient. This is stressful for you, and it’s stressful for your dog. Expect some behavioral issues. The dog is going to have to rebuild its life, too.

Me? I miss Parker. But he’s where it’s best for him.


Greg is a family man who went though a recent divorce.

Feature Image: Jeff Sandquist