When dogs are caught in the middle: Part One

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By Tracie Korol

If you’re divorced, or are soon going to be, you’re all too familiar with the chaotic world that results when a marriage breaks down. While we certainly feel the pain and disruption of a major life change, your dog feels the chaos, too, when his family splits apart.

Canine family members in divorcing households hang on to a mixed bag of emotions about their broken homes. Quarrels, separation and split-ups can haunt a dog’s psyche for a long time, but if you learn to spot the signals that show your dog is suffering, you might be able to help him cope better.  Here are some of the worrisome canine behaviors that can present during different stages of a divorce:

Your dog seeks refuge.  Is Dog living under the bed or hiding in the closet?  Blame it on the arguments. Dogs hate fights. They cannot bear it when their humans start screaming at each other.  Dogs, like children, think, “did I cause this?”. Ideally, as grown-ups, marital adversaries should be able to resolve issues calmly. Sure, it’s tough, if not impossible sometimes.  But if your dog acts like a frightened child, it’s time to make some changes.  If you’re not willing to take it down a notch, dog behavioral problems may set in.

Your dog misbehaves. Because dogs are so attuned to our emotions, they will know, often before we do, what we are feeling. That means your sensitive pet may turn to attention-seeking behaviors such as gnawing on your belongings (even if he’s never done this before) or excessive licking.  For example, I was called in to help in a situation involving one large, unruly golden retriever, three big cats and two pissed-off humans who had filed for divorce but were still sharing the same house. The cats had already made their emotional state known by urinating everywhere but inside their box. Dog seemed oblivious to the kitty commentary, but the atmosphere in the home ramped her normally placid behavior to something approaching super-sonic. Daily, she raced through the house administering enthusiastic licks to anything within range, frequently including both ends of the cats, the windows, furniture and carpet. This behavior added to all the pets’ irritation with each other and with life in general. Although anti-stress changes were introduced, it wasn’t until the final break that all returned to relative calm.

Your dog goes AWOL. If your dog is not getting the same amount of attention he received before turmoil ignited, he could move quickly to stress overload. Have you ever heard of this scenario: Dog is taken to live at Husband’s new house across town. When there, Dog paces anxiously and never appears to find a place of comfort. Next day, Wife calls from the marital home and snaps, “Come get your dog! She’s running loose in the backyard!” Dogs hate separation. As wolf-derivatives, dogs never quite understand why we would ever leave the pack, even when we run down to the store for a minute, or take the garbage down to the street. (That’s why they’re always happy to see us when we return.) For them, separation breeds insecurity.  Going AWOL is their way of re-uniting their pack.

Your dog seems depressed or angry. When a dog ends up with one owner and its not a good fit for the dog, emotional havoc is often the result.  Here’s an example: Wife moves German shepherd to her new apartment to enhance her security. Previously, Dog’s daily activities included patrolling his 5-acre domain, swimming in the pond and lounging on the deck. Overnight, he became a latchkey dog while his owner was at work each day.  After continual barking, clawed doorframes and complaints from the neighbors, she returned Dog to the ex, who worked out of the country home — a dog’s utopia. Divorcing couples need to take a reality check for their dog’s true well being sooner rather than later. In your heart of heart you will know where your dog needs to be.

However, in some cases, deciding who gets the dog cannot be solved in a calm and civil manner.  At that point, it becomes a matter for the court.

Next time: Canine Custody