Avoid a Canine Custody Battle

Like many caring dog owners, Stanley and Linda Perkins of San Diego, Calif., dote on their pointer-greyhound mix, Gigi. But in the late ‘90s when the couple decided to split, a two-year canine custody battled ensued, racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees and taking up almost half of the three-day divorce trial.

In an effort to clinch the case for her client, Sandra Morris, a family law attorney representing Mrs. Perkins, decided to use a tactic that worked in several successful child custody cases. Morris shot a day-in-the-life video of Gigi, showing the adopted pooch going for walks, sleeping under the desk and playing on the beach. It worked. A superior court judge awarded Mrs. Perkins permanent canine custody.

Fighting for Fido
The fight over Gigi is just one of a growing number of pet custody cases around the country. Within the last five years, members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) report that pets are increasingly representing a new kind of battleground as couples attempt to work out divorce settlements.

Dogs are often the animals caught in the middle, but the organization’s attorneys say they’ve also handled custody disputes involving cats, horses and even boa constrictors. The spike in cases has to do, in part, with society’s changing attitude toward pets as family members, says Adam Karp, an attorney of animal law in Bellingham, Wash. “It’s become more legitimate to make a claim for sharing a life with a companion animal,” he says. “There’s nothing unreasonable about asserting a deep and profound emotional connection to another being if that being is not a human.”

Recognizing the importance pets play in people’s lives, and to address the increasing number of custody disputes, politicians in Michigan and Wisconsin recently introduced the first bills in the U.S. outlining how divorcing couples, or those legally separating, must handle the placement of animals.

Ownership Agreements
Most pet custody cases involve married couples or domestic partners, but another common situation is where roommates, who are agreeably co-owners, split up and need to figure out an arrangement. Karp says that often takes the form of establishing a visitation schedule or buying out the other person to become sole owner. Roommates and unmarried couples thinking about adopting or purchasing a purebred can avoid future heartache, though, by creating an ownership agreement outlining what happens to the animal if they part ways. You can do this with the help of an attorney or just on your own. If you do an Internet search for “dog ownership agreement,” you’ll find a few examples online. Books covering legal issues for dog owners, like Every Dog’s Legal Guide: A Must-have Book for Your Owner and other titles from Nolo Press, can also provide tips and guidelines for this sticky scenario.

Pets are Property
If you wind up in the middle of a canine custody dispute, you’ll need to prove you’re the legal owner -- not the better caregiver -- in order to win. That’s because pets are considered to be personal property, just like your T-shirt, toaster or television.

Proving legal ownership entails showing that your name is on some, or all, of the following paperwork:

  • Adoption application or sales contract If you didn’t save the paperwork, contact your breeder or the shelter for a copy. Also dig through your files for a canceled check or credit card statement showing you paid the adoption fee or purchase price.
  • Veterinary records Obtain medical records from your veterinarian’s office. Show that you’re financially responsible for your dog’s ongoing care by producing cash receipts, credit card statements and canceled checks. 
  • City licensing forms Most cities and counties require that you license your dog annually. Ask for a copy from the department you went through to buy the license.
  • Microchip documents If your dog is implanted with an identification chip, call the manufacturer’s registry for the records.

In situations where ownership status is in question, Karp says it’s best to avoid going to court because a judge may not understand the strong connection you share with your pet. Instead, if both of you want the dog, try to compromise early on in the proceedings by having an attorney help you negotiate a private contract for co-ownership or possession. Then ask the court to enforce the agreement.

Emotional Distress
If you go through a divorce and wind up hammering out legal details, don’t forget about the emotional toll it may take on your dog. Nancy Williams, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Manchester, Md., has had many clients come to her and say, “I just got divorced and now my dog’s a mess.”

Rarely, though, are dogs actually upset because of a person disappearing from its life, she says. Instead, signs of stress -- such as pacing, restlessness and panting -- usually appear because of moving into a new home or losing a canine brother or sister to the estranged spouse.

To reduce your dog’s anxiety level -- as well as your own -- Williams suggests a combination of daily distractions and increased exercise. Three easy ways to reduce this stress include:

  • Go for more walks Take your dog for a stroll on a retractable leash for maximum freedom, making sure to provide ample time for sniffing.
  • Play hide-and-seek Instead of putting your dog’s meal in a bowl, hide small portions of dry food around the living room for him to find.
  • Enroll in a class Positive reward-based training classes are offered almost everywhere in the country and run the gamut from basic obedience to doggie sports.

Canine custody disputes take an emotional toll on both two- and four-legged family members. But, by working out a compromise before tempers flare and making sure you’re clearly listed as an owner on important records before a breakup occurs, you’ll avoid a lot of heartache -- not to mention hefty legal fees -- in the future.

Benefits of Owning a Senior Pet

Older dogs might not fill a home with happy chaos as energetic puppies do, but these senior pets still enrich our lives in so many ways.

Adjustments Make for a Happy Senior Dog
Panda, a 15-year-old beagle, was just a 7-week-old puppy when owner Cathy Perry Glass brought her home. “To me, she is like my first teddy bear, which is still cherished after so many years,” says Glass. “Like my bear, Panda has aged over the years. Her once-svelte beagle figure now has myriad lumps and bumps. We communicate through sign language and touch, but to me, she is more beautiful than ever.”

Just as life with a new puppy takes adjusting, you and your senior dog will fare better if you make accommodations, says Glass. “Living with a senior dog can be a joy. Making a few changes as your dog ages can keep you both happy,” she says. For example, Glass uses a pet stroller to take Panda on outings. Teaching Panda signs helps Glass continue to communicate with her. She is vigilant about taking Panda for regular veterinary checkups. Owners of senior dogs need to stay on top of age-related health conditions, says Glass.

Pay attention and you’ll find benefits to living with an older dog. “Older dogs focus well and can learn new things,” says Glass. Panda still loves a good snuggle and scratch under the chin.

Still Sharing the Love
Linda A. Kerns’ 12-year-old Shetland sheepdog, Stormer, still accompanies her everywhere she goes. “He comes to work with me every day and rests in his bed next to my desk,” says Kerns, who maintains a law practice in Philadelphia.

Stormer serves as both inspiration and support to those around him. “I am a divorce lawyer, and Stormer earns his keep by greeting clients and providing everyone he meets with loyalty and love, something that a divorce client desperately needs,” says Kerns.

You might be surprised to find many senior dogs still bring energy to everyday life. “Even though he is in his golden years, he still acts with the enthusiasm of a puppy.”

Learning From a Senior Dog
Magic, a golden retriever mix, turns 16 on March 15. “He’s not as spry or as sharp as he was, but he’s still the great teacher he has always been, just different lessons now,” explains owner Debra Atlas, an environmental journalist based in Northern California.

As a young dog, Magic would sneak toys in and lay them beside her chair as Atlas worked. “When I was ready to take a break, I’d move and suddenly see it. The lesson was: There’s always time to play!” says Atlas. Now, it is her turn to remind Magic about playing. “When I say ‘playtime’ and bring out a toy, he suddenly lights up with joy,” she says. As Magic has grown older, he has become more affectionate.

“As he’s become old this year, I’ve realized how much he’s taught me over the years and how important those lessons have been to the quality of my life, my inner strength and to my ability to give and receive love,” says Atlas.

Saving Seniors
David Hendrickson, CEO and founder of skateboard company Hendrick Boards, believes in the value of older dogs so much that he works to aid their adoption. His company supports adoption programs such as those that match senior dogs with senior citizens.

“To me, it is all about providing a senior dog with love and companionship during their last beautiful lives,” says Hendrickson. “It is all about giving them love and being loved in incredible ways back.”

Adopt a Mixed Breed or a Purebred?

The fundamental question when deciding to welcome a canine companion into your home is whether to adopt a “mutt” or a purebred dog. Mixed-breed dogs often populate animal shelters and need good homes. Purebreds can be purchased from a breeder and are sometimes available for a small fee through dog rescue organizations.

“This is a very important decision, especially for first-time dog owners,” says Lisa Peterson, communications director for the American Kennel Club (AKC). “Regardless of what you decide, you first need to look at your own lifestyle when deciding to get a dog.”

Questions to Ask Yourself
Before you select a dog, Peterson suggests asking the following questions:

  • Do you have time to walk the dog for about 30 minutes, twice a day?
  • Do you have financial resources for unexpected veterinary bills?
  • Do you have the time to train and socialize your dog?
  • How much time can you spend grooming your dog?
  • Do you have space in your home or yard for a large dog?

Now that you have a better sense of what size dog you want, what activity level you can live with and what type of temperament you seek, you can take a better look at the attributes of purebred dogs and mixed breeds.

Purebred vs. Mixed Breed
The great thing about rescuing a mutt from a shelter is that you’re giving a home to a dog that otherwise may never be adopted. Second, you don’t have to pay the $500 to $1,500 that many purebred dogs will cost. Adopting a mixed breed from an animal shelter can run at $50 or less, usually to cover the cost of vaccinations or spaying or neutering. Third, mixed breeds have more genetic diversity, which can help them avoid some of the hereditary defects that plague purebreds.

The great thing about purebreds is that they are very predictable in terms of what you can expect when a puppy grows up. These canines were developed as a result of selective breeding, meaning that dogs with certain traits or genes were bred, and other dogs with less desirable traits were not. As a result, the 161 different breeds recognized by the AKC have specific genes for physical traits, such as color, coat and size, as well as temperament. Also, you are more likely to be able to see the parents of your purebred dog and make visual assessments.

Comparison Shopping
Here’s how mixed breeds and purebreds stack up on key attributes:

  • Size Most purebreds have standard size ranges, which you can review on the AKC Web site. So if you only have space in your apartment for a small dog, you can select a breed that just grows to 20 or 30 pounds. With mixed breeds, you’re often more likely to be rolling the dice. “A mixed breed that you thought would be 20 pounds might end up at 200 pounds,” Peterson says.
  • Coat Purebreds are also predictable in terms of what type of coat to expect in your adult dog. If you have lots of time to brush and groom your dog, you may do well with a collie. But if you don’t want to be bothered by finding clumps of dog hair around your home, you may be better off with a short-haired dog, such as a Weimaraner. Unless you know for certain what your mixed breed’s parents were, it is hard to predict what type of coat a puppy will have as an adult.
  • Behavior and activity level “Purebred dogs were developed usually for a specific purpose. There are hunting dogs, pulling dogs, cattle dogs, guarding dogs and so on,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association. The Labrador retriever, for example, was bred to retrieve game for hunters, and as a result, is a very “mouthy” dog, prone to chewing in a domestic setting, Dr. Beaver says. You may not know the parentage of your mixed-breed pup and therefore you may have little idea about its likely behavior and activity level.
  • Health Because of inbreeding, certain purebreds have become subject to hereditary health defects, some of which can be crippling and potentially fatal. These defects include bone and joint disorders, eye diseases, heart disease, cancer and more. Mixed breeds have greater genetic diversity, so the chances are better that both parents did not have the same defective genes.

There may be ways of getting around the unpredictability of a mixed breed. “In terms of mutts, we see so many cute ones,” says Sophia Yin, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in San Francisco. “If you’re adopting them when they’re 6 or 8 months old, you will have a good idea of what they’re going to look like, including their size, and you can observe them a little to evaluate their temperament.

Whatever your choice is, the most important factor is making sure your lifestyle includes giving lots of love.

Volunteers Who Make a Difference for Dogs

Across the country, volunteers work to improve the lives of dogs in need. No job is too big or too small. Dog lovers staff adoption fairs, nurture dogs in their homes and scoop poop at animal shelter kennels. They do it for love rather than recognition, and they make a difference, one four-legged friend at a time. Here are the stories of just a few.

A Friendly Face
One afternoon each week, retiree Kay Bauer stops by the Tri-City Animal Shelter in Fremont, Calif. She knows how to feed the dogs and cats at the shelter. She can also prepare kennels with bedding and clean cages, should the need arise. However, the teenaged volunteers usually take on those tasks, so that leaves Bauer with a happy chore.

“What I mainly do is just socialize with the dogs,” says Bauer. “I always think the dogs will want to just get out and run and play in a larger space than their kennels, but really all they want to do is sit by you and be petted and given some human attention.” Bauer says that while the animals are cared for, they are still in need of a little extra TLC.

For the Love of Labs
Nancy Riggle can’t resist the enthusiasm of Labrador puppies. Riggle and her husband have fostered more than 50 dogs in the last three years through their work with Atlanta Lab Rescue. While Riggle serves on the board for the organization and helps organize fundraisers, her love for working with rescued dogs is evident.

“It has been an amazing experience,” says Riggle, who owns two 7-year-old black Labs. “We like the younger dogs with more energy. When they come to us, they are so sweet and just want to be loved.”

What Riggle particularly enjoys is meeting adoptive families and seeing how much the dogs she has fostered love their new owners. “We keep in touch with many of our adoptive families. That is the only way we are able to give up the sweet puppies,” she says.

Groups such as Atlanta Lab Rescue need all sorts of assistance, even if fostering isn’t for you. If an organization can’t figure out how to fit you in at first, please don’t give up, says Riggle. “While we work to get people involved quickly, we work full-time jobs also. Keep trying.”

Finding the Right Role
Monica King realizes that not everyone can commit long hours to volunteer work. Since she works full-time, she spends about 15 hours a week serving as vice president and director of volunteers for German Shepherd Dog Rescue Group of Georgia. The organization has placed more than 200 German shepherds since King co-founded the group seven years ago.

King’s inspiration came when she visited a shelter with a family member who was adopting a dog. She was dismayed to see a bright-eyed, fit German shepherd in the shelter. “I couldn’t believe such a great dog was in the shelter,” she says. King values every effort the group’s volunteers make, no matter how small. “The more people we have help, the more dogs we can save,” she says.

It’s important to know that any contribution you make -- whether it’s writing a check, editing a newsletter or fostering a dog -- will be welcomed by organizations working with dogs in your community. “If you can volunteer a couple of hours a week, that’s more than enough,” says King. “Any time you have available is helpful.”

Photo: German Shepherd Dog Rescue Group of Georgia.

Senior Black Homeless Dogs in Crisis

For all dogs in shelters, the statistics are dismal. According to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year, with 3 to 4 million of those euthanized. Although some puppies are killed, younger animals most often steal the show at adoption events as adult dogs quietly sit alone. “Older animals, animals with special medical or behavioral needs, and the more plain and nondescript animals are more difficult to adopt than puppies and kittens,” says Inga Fricke, director of Sheltering and Pet Care Issues for the HSUS.

She further says that larger animals also tend to be more difficult to adopt than smaller dogs in part because of the “cuteness” factor, but also because many Americans tend to live in urban areas and perceive smaller dogs to be a better fit.

San Francisco SPCA spokeswoman Jennifer Lu says that her organization also has trouble finding homes for special-needs dogs, even if those needs are minimal. “Any factor adding a layer of responsibility may change the commitment level, with people concerned about the financial commitment,” explains Lu.

Black, Senior Dogs Are Often Overlooked
Stephen Musso, executive vice president of the ASPCA, says many shelters report that large, black dogs are often not adopted. Some shelters even have a name for the problem: “Big black dog syndrome.” Even if a black adult dog is in perfect health and has a sweet nature, it may still remain in a shelter.

One reason is simply that black dogs are more common, perhaps because this color is just genetically more dominant among canines. Old stereotypes may also be to blame, with “Beware of Dog” signs often showing big, menacing black dogs. Books and movies, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Harry Potter series, tend to present such dogs in a menacing light. The biggest reason may simply have to do with how well the dogs photograph. In this social media age, people often surf the Net before visiting shelters. Professional photographers aren’t always available to snap the most flattering shots of scared homeless canines, so some dogs disappear into dark backgrounds and poor lighting.

Turning the Tide
Groups across the country are trying to increase the rate of adoptions for all dogs, especially those that need the extra boost. Fricke shares that the HSUS has joined together with Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council to create the first-ever public advertising campaign to promote adoption: The Shelter Pet Project. Wyoming-based Black Dog Animal Rescue and other organizations are also building awareness while finding dogs homes.

There’s good reason to pay attention. As Fricke says, such frequently overlooked dogs often make better pets. “Older animals, for example, are beyond the annoying chewing stage, are typically fully trained and are much more ‘What you see is what you get’ than younger animals who have not fully developed their personalities yet,” says Fricke.

Christina Alvarez, executive director of Hopalong & Second Chance Animal Rescue in Oakland, Calif., adds that such dogs also tend to be:

  • Potty-trained
  • Reserved and well-behaved
  • Adapted to home life
  • Appreciative of love and care
  • Eager to bond with supportive owners

Lu, who has adopted three adult dogs, advises that anyone who desires a new pet “should go in with an open heart and open eyes. Rather than sticking to predetermined characteristics, make a love connection.”

Fricke agrees: “We would love for people to bear in mind that most pets wind up in shelters through no fault of their own -- not because they have problems, but simply because their owners had personal problems, such as they needed to move, had a new baby, etc. They are wonderful, family-ready pets who only need to be given an opportunity to show how wonderful they are.”