Breaking up with someone you once loved is not easy, and it becomes all the harder when there’s a pet you love caught in the mix.
Staying together for the kids is nothing new, but what about staying together for the dog?
A year ago, Adam Klassen, 28, and his boyfriend of five years, Michael Tersigni, 30, decided to get a standard golden poodle, Hudson. They were having some trouble in their relationship and hoped a dog would help bring them together – and it did for a while – but then things went back to the way they were. When Klassen finally decided to bite the bullet and break up with Tersigni four months ago, he was taken aback by his partner’s response.
Klassen said Tersigni said that if they were to break up, he’d have to move back in with his parents — who have a big house and yard — so obviously he’ll take the dog since that would be a better fit. He then went on to tell Klassen, “If push comes to shove, nobody is going to take your side anyway because no one wants a full size poodle in a condo downtown, when it can have full time care in a house with a yard, so don’t try to fight this.”
When Klassen brought up how often he has taken time off work to take Hudson – who suffers from an autoimmune disease – to the vet, all the extra time he spends with the dog and how he handles most of the dog’s responsibilities, his partner pointed out a cold truth. He said, “You take him to the vet, I get that, but my name is the one on the vet documents, so I have legal standing as well,” Klassen recalls.
He was scared he was going to lose the dog, so he stayed in the relationship. “I didn’t want to lose my relationship and my dog so I re-evaluated my break up,” Klassen admits.
Tersigni tells the Star that he was blindsided by his partner and in a weak moment, he said what he could to try to avoid the inevitable. “I just didn’t want to lose everything: Adam, the apartment and the dog, at once. Coming home and seeing Hudson would remind me of Adam, and keep me happy,” said Tersigni.
Read the first instalment of this series: Jesse the Vegan, Burlington Bill and other misadventures of dating in your 60s
He was also thinking of what would be best for Hudson. “At my parents’ house, there’s always someone at home who could keep Hudson company, and he’d be free to roam a huge house, or go out in the big yard to play in the grass, as opposed to being cooped up inside a condo when Klassen is at work,” said Tersigni.
According to family lawyers Julie Tyas and Kerri Parslow of Parslow Tyas Law LLP, in the eyes of the law, dogs are considered property and there’s no such thing as the “best interest of the dog.” “When it comes to custody and access, we talk about what is in a child’s best interest, but since dogs are considered property there’s no legislation that contemplates treating animals in the same fashion,” said Tyas, who has written a paper on the subject.
Because of this, Parslow explains that a judge, if asked to decide how to deal with the dog upon a separation, would ask who purchased the dog, and would ask to see receipts of who purchased the animal — just like the shared furniture — since animals are considered property. “Things are starting to shift a bit with some cases taking a more holistic view. More consideration is being given to who pays for the animal’s food, the vet bills and the dog walking costs. In addition, judges are looking at who spends more time with the dog, and who takes care of most of the responsibilities of the dog,” said Parslow.
Both lawyers say that most of the time, people resolve this outside of court, due to the cost of litigating over pets, and because judges verbally discourage people from bringing these cases to court, as courts are backlogged already.
So what can you do to protect yourself when purchasing a pet with a partner? They suggest signing a cohabitation agreement or a marriage contract, and clearly setting out who will get the dog if there is a breakdown in the relationship.
They also suggest keeping receipts and a paper trail. “Try to be as involved with the dog as possible so if it came down to there being a dispute of who has historically taken care of the dog, you can have the vet or the dog walker confirm that you were more responsible for the dog. Have your visa on file at the vet’s office to show you take care of the dog, the grooming, and other expenses, in order to support your position,” said Parslow.
A couple months later, filled with resentment and craving a much needed break, Klassen booked a last minute trip to Mexico – his own Eat, Pray, Love, moment – leaving his partner alone to take care of Hudson for the week. Once he returned, he was surprised to find out his partner had a change of heart. “He said that he now understood how much I had done for the dog, and admitted that he couldn’t care for Hudson full time,” said Klassen. The two broke up, and Klassen ended up with Hudson in the end, but Tersigni has an open invitation to visit with Hudson when he wants.
“After some time passed, I began thinking rationally about it. I saw how much Adam really loves this dog and I know the dog helps Adam in a lot of different ways and helps support his life, and I couldn’t take it away from him,” said Tersigni.
“I just see them together and I know Adam gets so happy about this dog more than I do, so I stopped thinking about what the dog needs and thought about what Adam needs,” said Tersigni.
Since the split, Klassen has been spending time with Hudson playing in the private dog park at his condo building and has been bringing Hudson along with him when visiting friends. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a condo or a mansion, it’s about the love that you give them and the love that they feel from you. I give him everything he needs, and I know he feels unconditional love,” said Klassen.
Luckily Klassen and Hudson got their happy ending, but the same can’t be said when you break up with someone who already had the dog when you got together. In this case, the ex will no doubt get to keep the dog.
I knew this when I grew apart from my boyfriend of two years, and I definitely overstayed my welcome in that relationship because I knew if I left him, I’d have to say goodbye to his Maltese – who had become like a son to me – too.
I had broken up with my boyfriend once before, but after the split, he’d FaceTime with me, or surprise visit me – dog in tow – and we wound up back together. This time around, however, I took a different approach, and cut him and the dog off cold turkey.
I had to accept the loss of my ex’s dog by using various coping strategies — like deleting his image from the background of my phone —so as not to be constantly reminded of and triggered by what was. Slowly I’m starting to accept that he’ll no longer be a part of my life. The break up with my ex was an immediate weight off my shoulders, but when it came to the dog, coping hasn’t come easy.
Janna Comrie, psychotherapist and director of Comrie Counselling, said she hears about people staying in relationships because of a dog all the time. She suggests using the time immediately after a break up with a pet to refocus on yourself.
“You don’t realize how much time a dog takes – walking, grooming, feeding – so occupy your time. Develop an exercise routine, journaling. You want to develop routines at the time of day that you would normally be with the dog, so you’re not thinking about not being with the dog. She suggests spending time with or offering to walk friends dogs, or even looking to foster a pet, not to replace your ex’s dog, but to fill your time until you can move forward.”
When dealing with this issue with clients, she talks to them about what the dog is bringing to their life and they try to figure out if there are other ways they can get those things, for example: companionship, feeling like they can talk to someone who doesn’t judge, someone who’s happy to see them, forced exercise, social interactions with people at the dog park. She said that often they realize that there are other ways to get these things from different people and places in their life.
“Saying goodbye is hard. Whether it’s to a friend who’s moving away or leaving a pet. You focus on the good memories and give yourself time to be sad. Like you would be for a friend who leaves,” said Comrie.
“Once there is some space between you and your ex, things often settle down. A dog visit sometimes isn’t out if the question once things have settled. Sort of like an old friend flying home for a visit,” Comrie said.
Have you been in a dispute with a former partner over a pet? Share with us on social media using #starmodernlove
Jen Kirsch is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jen_kirsch