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Avoiding a Dogfight

By Kari Santos | Feb. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Feb. 2, 2015

Avoiding a Dogfight

A family law attorney recalls his personal experience with pet-custody arrangements.

My ex-boyfriend and I were many months into a painful breakup when he said something that helped me understand why we were never meant to be together: "It was so hot in San Francisco," he said. "We could only stay outside for a few minutes." My immediate thought was, "No one in the history of that city has ever said that."

We had been living in Los Angeles for four years and faced a typical gay-couple breakup: dealing with the real estate, the flatware, and the china. But the most important thing to both of us was Dudley, our long-haired, black-and-tan dachshund; Dudley is what made us a family. The observation came during one of those classic, uncomfortable-but-painfully-civil conversations we had each time we met to hand off custody of our dog.

As a divorce lawyer I've been involved in disputes over possessions, kids, and pets since 1999. In the very first breakup I ever handled, my client and I spent more time working out a custody plan for the golden retriever than on how to share the house and pensions. I've always been a dog lover, so the negotiations seemed totally normal to me.

Lawyers who represent themselves may have fools for clients, but I knew arguing with my ex over who kept our three-year-old dog could overwhelm us. So it was easy for me to be magnanimous when we started our negotiations. "I'm taking the dog," I said. "But you can have as much visitation as you want." As painful as it was, my ex knew it was the right decision for Dudley, and for us.

Dudley has been coming to my law office with me since he was four months old. His other "daddy" works for a movie studio in Los Angeles, which means 15-hour days in the screening room, six days a week - with no partners, kids, or dogs allowed. It was obvious Dudley was going to be with me most of the time, so we didn't need a written agreement. Instead, we have an informal schedule that mimics what most noncustodial parents have: My ex gets Dudley on the weekends and for a Wednesday-night pizza dinner.

In the beginning my ex was commuting to San Francisco every other weekend, because a new relationship was blossoming there. And he took Dudley with him. During one of our exchanges, I asked how the weekend went - not because I really wanted to know but because I had nothing else to say. That's when he remarked about how hot it had been in San Francisco.

I quickly realized this comment crystallized why we didn't last as a couple: I have been a skier since I was ten years old. I also love to scuba dive, cycle, and ride a Jet Ski. I prefer to be outside, whatever the weather. My ex prefers to be inside, in a screening room making a movie about someone who is jet-skiing, scuba diving, or snow skiing. Now I could see exactly how different we were, how much happier he was with his new boyfriend (now husband), and that our breakup was for the best because we were on different paths. Because my ex and I were interacting over the dog, I could see the reality of who we were, as individuals and as a couple.

Co-parenting is never easy, even when the "offspring" is a dog. We have to work through vet care, food choices, and travel schedules. But being able to rely on someone I trust to take care of Dudley when I go away is worth far more than the money I save on boarding charges.

My personal experience on both sides of the desk - as a divorce lawyer and as co-parent of a dog - has helped me expand my practice and given me a better understanding of my clients' challenges in the custody battles we fight. I can empathize more with their frustrations and hurts, and I have a greater ability to craft solutions that consider my clients' emotional needs. I tell them all the time that a breakup can be a turning point instead of the end of the road. My own split led me to a whole new self-image - as an author, speaker, and pet-custody expert - all thanks to a dog named Dudley.

David T. Pisarra practices family law in Santa Monica and is the author of What About Wally? Co-Parenting a Pet with Your Ex.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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