Who Gets the Dog?

Dogs are family. That’s obvious to most people who share their lives with family. But under the law, pets are treated like property — no different from a table or a toaster. That causes a host of issues, one of which is, if the family splits up, who gets the dog?

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, thirty-two states allow courts to protect pets under domestic violence protective orders. A law passed in 2006 requires that state and local disaster plans include provisions to evacuate and care for pets and service animals. So, slowly, some laws are acknowledging that dogs are not toasters. But, while some judges have been willing to consider pets in divorce court, there has been no legal prod for doing so.

Until now.

Alaska is the first state to require courts to consider the “well-being of the animal” in custody disputes. The law took effect January 17.

While pets are often major points of contention in divorce cases, no one has represented their interests. People fighting about property and messily ending a relationship might, it can be imagined, be concerned with their own feelings; they might also be driven by a desire to seek revenge, hurt the other party, or just to “win,” whatever that means. Their judgment as to what would be best for the beloved dog or cat might be clouded. Recognizing this and specifically directing the court to consider the pets’ interests is a huge step forward.

Kudos to the ALDF, which has long advocated for courts to take this step. And, let’s hope that Alaska starts a fifty-state trend!