Welcome to Pet Detective, a new column where The Globe’s Amberly McAteer will find answers to the health and behaviour problems of our four-legged friends. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org (All questions will be published anonymously.)
The question: I recently split from my ex, with whom I shared our wonderful Jack Russell Terrier, aptly named Jack. We got him as a puppy three years ago. When we split, things were fine: We rotated two weeks with Jack, two weeks without. But now that I have a new girlfriend, things are tense. When my ex found out, she cancelled dropping him off at the last minute, and now I haven’t heard from her in two weeks. I know he’s happy with her – she’s a good dog owner. What’s best for Jack is my concern, but I’d really like to see him. He was like a child to me and I miss him.
The answer: Non-dog people, look away: This is about to get parental and, yes, I’m going to say that dogs are like children. I know the joy of dog parenthood very well and I can’t imagine someone taking my baby Ruby away. Honestly, I would go the ends of the earth for that bum wiggle.
You have every right to be upset that your ex is withholding visitation, and you have every right, in my mind, to force the issue. Take action, I’d say. But unfortunately, Canadian law doesn’t see it that way.
I asked Toronto lawyer and cat-enthusiast Donna Wilson to what extent dogs are treated like offspring in a custody battle. The answer was disheartening: “I get calls about pets and the law all the time. Basically, whatever the case, whatever the scenario, dogs are essentially property in a divorce or a split. So substitute the word ‘car’ for ‘dog,’ and figure out the legal outcome from there – who bought it, who took care of it. That is it.”
So, time for the tough-love advice. Now that Jack has hit the road, it might be best for him – and you, your ex and your new girl – if you backed away. If you can stomach it, realize that Jack is getting all the love and attention, plus a solid routine, in one place. I say this because a big part of me feels that Jack is luckier than most pooches. He obviously has two very loving humans who want him in their lives on a daily basis.
The logical, non-emotional advice is to get over Jack like you got over your ex – get a new one.
Look for a new guy, carefully and thoughtfully, with the full knowledge that you’ll never replace him. (Have I mentioned Pet Finder, a huge database of dogs looking for homes? And have you met Leroy?)
My old friend Sarah says it was best for her, and for her doe-eyed chocolate lab Juno, that her ex walked away.
Although they tried sharing Juno initially, Sarah’s ex soon stopped calling as, coincidentally, he started dating someone else.
“Trying to split her between us would have dragged the breakup on forever I think,” she tells me. “We both did love her equally, so battling for her would have been just horrible. I am so lucky I didn't have to.”
But would leaving Jack in your past be the best thing for him? Would he get over you in due course? Dog trainer, single dog parent and dog nut Alice Fisher says maybe.
If your ex finally answers your call (dear ex, stop using the dog as a pawn), look for signs of anxiety to see if little Jack can handle two homes. “Anxiety – pacing, drooling, crying, house soiling, constant licking – any of that, it’s time to stop trying to share him and decide who is better suited to be his owner,” Fisher says.
She says, though, there’s not one solution, and many of her clients have amiable doggie-custody arrangements.
Still, Fisher says only you know what you can and can’t handle, and how far you’re willing to go for Jack.
“Can he take the emotional turmoil for possibly the next 13 years? Does he want to be facing his ex for 13 years?” she says.
Ask yourself that. And consider, if your ex does come around, that you should offer to split vet and food costs down the middle if you really want joint custody.
Regardless of what you decide, let this be a learning experience for your next relationship and your next dog.
Have a written agreement when you get a dog – who will own him in the event of a split, how would custody work – since the law doesn’t acknowledge them as the little babies they are.
“I know, I know, it sucks the romance right out,” Fisher says with a laugh, but she also says having a plan, right out of the proverbial dog-gate, will solve these sticky, sad issues.
And maybe, once your ex moves on, stops hurting and finds a new human love of her own, the four of you (plus your pooches) can have a joyful doggie date.