Nancy S. Caplan, Esquire

Nancy S. Caplan, Esquire
Bend Don't Break- Mediate!

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Getting A Dog- Veto Power


Getting a dog is a decision that will impact the whole family.  To many people, like those who grew up with an ever-present dog member, getting a dog may seem like a no-brainer.  What’s a home without a dog, he or she may wonder?  But the true no-brainer is that the choice to get a doggie family member, needs to be an enthusiastic mutual choice.  Each spouse must have absolute veto power.

Dogs, and the time, attention and expense they require have a huge influence on the family dynamic and lifestyle.  Being tethered to one’s home (or conversely the expenses of the dog-walker and/or kennel) may lead to substantial lifestyle changes.  Add in a dash of destruction (i.e. the soiled carpet, the holes dug in the back-yard, the chewed up pair of shoes) and you’ve got the makings of a catalyst for a serious and on-going, couple dispute. 

A mutual desire for a dog may or may not be enough to overcome the negative aspects of canine ownership.  Sometimes the mutual desire arises from the loneliness of the marriage and simply provides a temporary distraction from brewing discord.  In such cases, dogs may be invited into the marital bed, or otherwise suck up what is perhaps an already low-level of interpersonal nurturing between the spouses.  Even the most dog-desiring couple may end up putting vet expenses on a credit card to their marital detriment.  Suddenly the dog may be the last nail in the coffin of a marriage that was merely weathering an emotional or financial storm.

As a divorce mediator, this warning may come too late to my readers (at least for this relationship, but there are likely to be other relationships in your futures.)  I can only offer this warning from my collective experiences about divorce.  I have seen far too many dog-interference issues aggravate marital problems.  Thus I have one piece of advice:  If there is a doubt, DON’T.  A spouse should have veto power about the choice, even as the other spouse swears that he or she will be the sole care provider for the pet.  Perhaps I should modify that advice- If there is a doubt, and you care about preserving your spouse/in-tact family- DON’T.   Even if becoming single sounds appealing to you, will you be able to care for the dog you love in terms of time, expense and other practicalities such as whether a rental will accept pets? Do you wish to limit your choice of future dates/spouse to those accepting of pets? Suddenly you may be worried about your prospective date's children's allergies!  If separation and divorce are your secret or not so secret goals, what is the harm in waiting until that monumental life-change actually happens before you make your doggie dream come true? Is your dog dream more weighty then dreams of accord with your romantic partner?  Life is full of trade-offs.

The idea that a reluctant dog-acquiring spouse will “fall in love” with the new critter is a roll of the dice. Having a puppy means entering the puppy stage of house-breaking, a time when many puppies are destructively chewing, whining at night, and this creates a whole slew of new family chores which means that the hardest part of having a dog happens immediately on the heels of the reluctance.  How is this a healthy formula for marital success? 

Even among a couple of dog-lovers, timing is critical.  Sometimes dog-lovers suffer extra stress from the lack of time he or she may have to attend to the dog which truth drives a dog-lover to deny him or herself of the pleasure based on practicality and not based on desire.  From my experience as a divorce mediator I observe that getting a dog has a disproportionate impact when a couple has small children, because like it or not statistically speaking, this is one of the most vulnerable and expensive (in terms of child care or the sacrifice of an income) times of a marriage.  It is also the time when love and nurture is diverted from spouses to the children, only to be further diluted by puppy needs.  On the other end of parenthood is the couple (or one of them) who was looking forward to post-college freedom to travel, only to acquire a sudden replacement doggie-child to fill the empty nest and quash those long awaited dreams.

Sad but true, pets often are a huge unexpected expense.  Whether we are talking about building fences, routine vet care and vet meds, replacing puppy-ruined carpets, kennels or dog-walkers, or animal illness costs, the true cost of owning a pet is probably a subject pet-lovers try not to think about.  Take it from a mediator who happens to have a old, beloved diabetic dog whose monthly costs equal a modest car payment. However, when the choice is heartworm prevention medication or funding a school lunch account or field trip, well...you can imagine the agony. 

I’m often asked to comment about the prevalence of animal “custody battles” in divorce negotiations.  Many times such disputes arise where the couple has been childless and the couple has jointly and emotionally invested in the animal.  Often in these cases the couple starts off with a joint sharing of time and expense, but usually that is merely a weaning process for the person who will eventually move out of the pet’s life or become a fringe player.   Far more often is the circumstance where one party insists on the other spouse “taking” the dog so that dog-resentful spouse can finally wash his or her hands of the obligation.  How many stories must I hear where one spouse surprised not only the children but the other spouse with this wonderful gift, only to have the reluctant spouse be the sole party-pooper?  When the party-pooper is also expected to be the doggie caregiver, think muddy paws, cold temperatures and busy mornings and tell me how that's going to wear on the marriage?

So when is a good time to get a dog during a marriage? The short answer is when you both enthusiastically agree, and both have time, energy and money to devote to the dog resources you will need to fit your other lifestyle choices.  The time not to get a dog during the marriage?  When there is reluctance from a spouse; when financial resources are scarce or variable; where travel and life away from home is common; or when children are young, expensive and needy of emotional devotion.  

Do you think a dog is unlikely to be a negative tipping point during a stressful time in a marriage?  Think again.  Please. A dog is never more expensive then when it is the catalyst for a divorce.