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Navigating the Complex Terrain of Canine Custody in Divorce


By: Sparky Smith, MSST, ISCP.DIP.CANINE.PRAC., IAABC - CDBC, MCMA, SSBB


A dog sitting in sun beams in a court room awaiting a custody hearing
Only accurate information and strong, science-based analysis to determine the best custody for our dogs.

Recently, the Globe & Mail featured an intriguing article titled “Who gets the dog in a divorce? Changes to B.C. family law hope to help courts decide” by Juliana Konrad. This piece delves into the evolving landscape of family law in British Columbia, particularly the consideration of dogs' best interests in custody decisions during divorces. As an internationally multi-certified Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist, specializing in traumatised dogs, this development strikes a chord with me, resonating with both my professional insights and personal experiences.


1. Emotional Well-Being in the Context of Trauma-Inducing Divorces


Divorce, undeniably, is a maelstrom of emotions, not just for humans but for our canine companions as well. The emotional well-being of dogs in such turbulent times is paramount. It's essential to discern between a dog's normal and abnormal emotional responses. For instance, a dog that remains watchful of its primary caregiver during high emotions, seeking cues on how to react, is displaying normal behaviour. In contrast, a dog that becomes overly attentive, trying to calm or care for its caregiver, might be shouldering an emotional burden beyond its capacity. This distinction is crucial in assessing the best interests of the dog in custody decisions.


2. Recognising and Measuring Healthy Dog-Human Relationships


The crux of the matter lies in understanding and measuring the health of the dog-human relationship. It's not just about who fed the dog or took it for walks; it's about who fosters a relationship based on trust, respect, and mutual understanding. The notion of 'unconditional love' often attributed to dogs needs a critical reevaluation. Yes, dogs bond, feel affection, and can be incredibly loyal, but these bonds are nurtured through consistent and empathetic interactions, not merely assumed. The courts must consider these nuances when determining the most suitable home for the dog.


3. The Dog Parent’s Moral Compass and Role Model for Empathy


Another aspect to consider is the moral compass and the ability to display empathy of the potential custodian. Dogs, much like humans, thrive in an environment where empathy and morality are valued and demonstrated. This aspect should weigh heavily in custody decisions, ensuring the dog's emotional and psychological well-being is prioritised.


The Trauma-Informed Perspective


The article also touches upon the intersection of domestic violence and pet welfare. As a survivor of abuse, I understand the complex dynamics that pets can play in abusive relationships. Dogs, in particular, can become detrimentally dependent on an abusive human, mistaking fear and anxiety for loyalty and bonding. This dependency is often misinterpreted as a healthy relationship, whereas it's a manifestation of trauma. Dogs in such environments are continuously on edge, trying to appease and calm their humans, a role they are biologically and emotionally ill-equipped to handle.


Final Thoughts


As British Columbia's courts venture into this new territory of canine custody, it's imperative that decisions are informed by current canine psychology and a deep understanding of dog-human relationships. The metrics used must go beyond superficial observations, delving into the quality of the bond, the emotional health of the dog, and the moral and empathetic qualities of the caregivers. British Columbia's work in this territory also sets them as influencers to all the other provinces seeking to normalise the pet as a valued member of a family. Only by using accurate information and strong, science-based analysis to determine the best custody can we ensure that our dogs are placed in environments where they can thrive emotionally and psychologically after a family's restructuring.


Disclaimer: Original Content


All insights, ideas, and content presented in this article are the result of original thought, extensive expertise, and dedicated research in the field of canine psychology and behaviour. The methodologies and approaches are developed from a unique Human-Centric perspective, tailored by Sparky, an award-winning Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist, specialising in the care and rehabilitation of traumatised and rescued dogs, who works internationally and resides in Ontario, Canada.


Our content is crafted with the utmost integrity and a commitment to the welfare of dogs and their human caregivers. Our pride is deeply held in authenticity and innovation in our field, and we assert the originality of our work in all its forms. Any resemblance to other published works is coincidental and not intended, as we uphold the highest standards of professional ethics and originality in our contributions to the field of canine psychology.


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