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Originally published Saturday, April 7, 2012 at 6:03 AM

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Who gets the dog? Pets become pawns in custody battles

As the status of pets in the family has risen, so have complications over who gets custody when couples split.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis

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MINNEAPOLIS — When couples break up, fighting over flat-screen TVs and wine collections is part of the process. But who gets the dog?

Pet-custody issues figure into divorce more often now than even one generation ago. In a 2006 survey of the 1,600-member American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, nearly 25 percent of them reported noticing an increase in cases involving pets.

It's a natural outgrowth of how societal attitudes toward animal companions have evolved: Our dogs and cats have moved from being considered extensions of the family to being part of the inner circle.

"Forty years ago, people were attached to their pets, but they weren't considered members of the family in the way they are now," said Chris Johnson, a family-law attorney with the Minneapolis firm Best & Flanagan.

Yet in the eyes of the law, your little Precious Paws is no different from that flat-screen — he's a piece of property that will be awarded to one side or the other, unless a shared-custody arrangement is made.

"The law sees them as chattel, a piece of household goods, but people care so much about their pets that they're often willing to pay a huge amount to get them," said attorney Cathy Gorlin, also of Best & Flanagan. "People will cede $20,000 to a spouse, plus attorney fees, for a pet that could have been replaced for $500."

But monetary value of a beloved animal is rarely the issue. Gorlin recalls a couple of cases that illustrate the wide variety of paths pet custody cases can take.

In one, all the other separation of property was simple, but who got the Yorkie was a giant T-bone of contention. "There were issues about whether the dog was purchased by one party before or after the marriage, and whether it was a gift, because if a gift is given after marriage, it's marital property. Mom ended up paying Dad $15,000 to keep the dog, and it wasn't a young dog."

People involved in a breakup can also use pets as tools of revenge.

"In one case where the dog was used for breeding, Mom was so mad at Dad that while the dog was staying with her, she had it spayed," Gorlin said.

Sometimes, breakups can actually benefit pets. Take Jake the Jack Russell terrier, who divides his time between Michael Abata of Minneapolis, who does consumer research for Target, and his ex, John Peterson, an engineer. The two got Jake from a rescue organization in 2006, then decided to go their separate ways a year later. Jake has been shuttling between the two for the past four years, according to the schedule on his very own Google calendar.

"Jack Russells really need a lot of stimulation, so it keeps things more interesting for him," said Abata. "Plus it's good for us, because we can travel and go out more when the other one has him. Some people are actually jealous of it."

Of course, that kind of arrangement depends on amicability between exes, which is not always possible.

Pet custody cases can also be about a tug of heartstrings on one side and purse-strings on the other.

"If one spouse knows the other really wants the dog ... the dog gets used as a bargaining chip," he said.

If a case does go to arbitration, it is decided much the same ways as child custody cases are, mediator Kent Peterson said, based on who cared for the pets on a day-to-day basis, who paid for their care and feeding, who took care of their medical appointments, who exercised them most often.

There are a few signs out there that our furry friends are inching their way toward being seen as more than possessions. Pets are now included in government-produced disaster and evacuation plans, and more law schools are teaching courses in animal law that include pets' rights.

Just four states — Maine, New York, California and Illinois — sometimes legally view pets as more than property, but only in cases involving domestic abuse.

Family-law attorney Joani Moberg said that while the law is far behind cultural mores when it comes to pets being seen as members of the family, it's not likely to change soon.

"Given the paucity of court resources as it is, judges are loath to have court time be taken up with something like this when they have 100 child support cases on the docket," she said. "If you say one of the couple's issues is pet custody, they might even laugh at you."

Pet custody is often more contentious when there are no children in the family, "because the pets are the kids," she said.

At the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minn., less than 1 percent of animals are surrendered due to divorce or separation, according to the cards filled out by the people who bring them in. But reasons that could be related include moving and too many pets, said an AHS spokeswoman.

"People should think about what's the best for the dog," said Molly Feeney, a dog trainer who splits her time between Minnesota and California. "Where will it get the most companionship? Will it be with the original owner, but be alone 20 hours a day? If you're arguing over a TV, well, one person can just go out and get a new one. But people know that animals are close to the heart, and it hurts the most."

Feeney says she hears more about pet custody battles on the West Coast, where at least one dog lover has made a career out of mediating them.

"When a person calls me, I never ask about the relationship with the human partner, I focus on the dog or cat," said Charles Regal of San Francisco, whose consultancy is called Regal Pet-Centric Mediation. "When everything is centered on the animal, they often temporarily lift themselves up and outside of their differences and see it as one last good thing they can do together, for their pet."

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