'Who keeps the fur baby?' How not to traumatise your dog in a break-up

Carly Gibbs

Weekend writer

‘Who keeps the fur baby?’ It can be a contentious question when couples separate. Does one partner take the dog, or do you share custody?

When radio stars Jay-Jay Feeney and Dom Harvey split seven years ago after 18 years together, there was no discussion about custody of their fur baby, Kanye.

“It was just known,” Feeney says of who would become the Sydney Silky’s primary carer. “He loves Dom more than me, even though he was my birthday present,” she quips.

The celebrity exes, well known for their amicable split, live 3km from each other. They catch up for coffee most days, or Feeney watches the dog while Harvey exercises or is out of town. They have a joint bank account to pay for the dog’s expenses.

When they separated, Harvey initially stayed in their house while Feeney went to an apartment. Six months later, she moved from Auckland to Christchurch for a year. It made sense for Kayne to stay put.

Their amiability is impressive, given that pets can be emotive and contentious for some separating couples.

Jay-Jay Feeney and Dom Harvey share the care of their fur baby, Kanye. Photo / Supplied
Jay-Jay Feeney and Dom Harvey share the care of their fur baby, Kanye. Photo / Supplied

Pets and the law

Rotorua family lawyer Jodie Foster, of OSC Law, points out under New Zealand family law, pets are considered chattels — items of property like cars or couches — and are subject to equal division.

The sorts of things judges look at in terms of making arrangements for kids aren’t what they necessarily look at for animals. However, the court’s main consideration is the pet’s welfare. Lawyers NZME spoke to say specialised mediation or going to court over an animal is rare. There are less than a handful of national case law examples, and in most, the dog or dogs were awarded to the complainant who had already settled the animal in their care post separation.

While pets are family chattels, they obviously cannot be equally divided and generally, couples themselves work out who will retain the family pets.

Rebecca Savage, partner at Holland Beckett Law in Tauranga, says while it is rare for lawyers to negotiate the terms of sharing family pets or who will retain them, it can occur. If it does, then a relationship property agreement can be used to either document who retains the pet or to record a schedule that is similar to a parenting agreement.

While it’s common for couples to butt heads over the division of relationship property, most are “pragmatic” over their pets, Savage says.

“Often the pet will stay with the person who either took it straight away or the person who has stayed in the family home or the person whom the pet has a closer relationship with.” She says it is “very unusual” for a couple to share a family pet post separation because, practically, this requires a high level of co-operation and ongoing contact that neither party may want.

Foster agrees most clients try to be practical with pets, and often there are reasons for a pet to stay with one party. This could include a specialised dog for hobbies such as hunting.

A relationship property agreement can record a schedule similar to a parenting agreement. Photo / 123rf
A relationship property agreement can record a schedule similar to a parenting agreement. Photo / 123rf

‘Put your grudges aside’

Feeney and Harvey advise fur parents not to be selfish.

“Step back and put your grudges aside,” Feeney advises. “This is a living being that has feelings, needs love and is affected by everything around it.”.

Harvey says they would never squabble over Kanye, with Feeney joking that she even wanted to buy the apartment next door to Harvey so they could have a “doggy door” in the wall, but the lady who lives there wouldn’t sell.

Harvey initially didn’t want a dog, but Feeney says he must have run out of gift ideas because, for her 40th, he gave her a dog lead. “I went on Trade Me and saw Kanye. I wanted a low-shedding, low-maintenance, small dog, and well, he is a little bit high maintenance.”

Their 10-year-old “diva” pooch, who was originally named Benji but renamed because Harvey loved singer Kanye West at the time and wanted a name with “attitude”, can be moody, a fussy eater, dislikes other dogs, and hates being left alone. Still, they are “fortunate” in more ways than one.

“I understand not every relationship ending is the same [as ours],” Harvey says. “We’re lucky. Not as lucky as Kanye, though — he’s the luckiest of everyone.”

Time for a pet prenup?

One way to protect a pet you had before a relationship is to include it in a prenup, known in New Zealand as a contracting-out agreement.

They are pricey — $2500 to $10,000 depending on the complexity of your situation — but can specify that your pre-existing assets remain your separate property, and this can include that your pet will not be shared in the event of a separation.

However, drawing up a contracting-out agreement for a pet you adopted during the relationship would be unusual. “That’s like doing a parenting agreement when you are still together,” Savage explains.

Massey University associate professor and senior clinical psychologist Kirsty Ross says when couples adopt a pet, sometimes as a precursor to starting a family, it’s sensible to discuss whose responsibility it would be if the relationship were to end.

It’s also advisable to consider what might happen if circumstances change, including re-partnering. “A new partner may not feel comfortable about ongoing contact with a previous partner over a dog,” she says.

If you forgo custody but feel strange about your ex’s new beau loving on your pet, know that’s okay.

“You’re allowed to feel distressed and experience some grief around that. It’s not something that is validated very much in society,” she says. “Sometimes, redirecting the connection and joy to another pet can help.”

She says it’s not replacing the animal you no longer have with you, but providing an outlet for that emotion.

“That pet represented many hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future.”

World-renowned animal behaviourist and dog trainer Mark Vette shares his tips for how not to traumatise your dog in a break-up

Mark Vette's top tip: Put your emotions aside and focus on the dog’s welfare. Photo / Supplied
Mark Vette's top tip: Put your emotions aside and focus on the dog’s welfare. Photo / Supplied

Don’t argue in front of the dog

Be considerate, and leave the room first.

Dogs are sensitive to social disruption through tone, pheromones and body language. “Long before you’re heading down the track of separation, your dog experiences the family disruption,” Vette says.

Chronic anxiety from living in “fight or flight” can have the same negative health side effects on dogs as it can on humans. This can make dogs more reactive and lead to behavioural issues.

Who loves who the most?

A contentious question, but “Who is the dog’s favourite parent?”

Invariably, dogs will have different attachment levels to their owners.

The person who’s been their core carer and strongly bonds with them is their “primary bond”.

“That primary bond would be better maintained if possible because that would be the dog’s first choice,” Vette says. “They’ll settle into that relationship easier and suffer less separation distress once the separation occurs.”

If your dog doesn’t go with the primary carer, it could be at risk of anxiety, going off their food, chewing themselves, getting distressed, defecating, and running away.

Separation distress often needs to be treated with therapy supported by an animal behaviourist or veterinarian.

Should you set up shared care?

This often depends on how amicable the separation was.

As important as it is for a dog to stay with its primary caregiver, sometimes that doesn’t match with who has the time, house and money to maintain the dog.

“So, that does need to be considered too,” Vette says.

If the primary caregiver isn’t given full custody, whether you stay in touch is different in every case.

“If they suffer from separation distress every time they return, it’s best for the dog to close that relationship down. It’s hard in the short term for both of them, but it’s often better for the dog long term.”

How often should visits occur if all is going well with shared care?

For the first period after the separation, the person with the dog long term should have them for a couple of months or so to establish themselves as their primary caregiver and settle the dog.

“If the relationship between the ex-couple is good enough not to have arguments and issues when the dog is present, then once every couple of weeks or once a month is fine for a weekend away together.”

Would the dog appreciate a video call between shared visits?

There are “slight” benefits, but a FaceTime call probably benefits owners more than dogs.

Dogs don’t know what a phone is and visually don’t see what humans see because their flash rate differs from ours, but they engage somewhat. Watch for signs from your dog to see if it’s helpful or not.

Can an ex’s new partner be stopped from spending time with the dog?

Separate human and dog psychology here. Dogs themselves are polygamists.

Vette says dogs are not privy to subtle intimacies that humans would be worried about. Their focus is just on whether the new partner is a decent person.

“Most dog owners will ensure that the person they date is good to their dog. Until the relationship becomes long term, it’s just another person in their life. From the dog’s point of view, that’s not an issue unless they’re being abused.”

Top tip: think rational

Put your emotions aside and focus on the dog’s welfare.

“Put the pet first, just like you’d put the kids first. What’s best for the kids is what is best for the animal.”

# If you are in a relationship where pets are being weaponised or used as bargaining chips, seek help. Go to: nnfvs.org.nz and petrefuge.org.nz. If it is an emergency and you feel you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Carly Gibbs is a weekend magazine writer for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post and has been a journalist for two decades. She is a former news and feature writer, for which she’s been both an award finalist and winner.