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Who Gets the Dog?

Most dog lovers have lived through those heartbreaking moments when the much-loved family pet goes missing. It may have been just for a few minutes after the meter man left the gate open. I had two terrifying minutes earlier this year when my Cairn, Scottie & IG discovered an open gate before I did. Happily, although my dogs will not come on command, they are extremely food-oriented, and can be recalled with the whispered words, “doggy bone.” As it was, the IG still made it three doors down to a major intersection in the first few seconds.

Worse is the stolen dog. Many purebred dogs are targeted by thieves. While microchipping has made it a lot easier to reunite lost dogs with their owners, it is only helpful with honest people. Even more painful than the stolen dog is the dog lost through a custody battle resulting from a divorce or other failed relationship. A recent highly publicized case saw an ex-girlfriend take a man’s Beagle and move cross country with the dog. Six months and $60,000 in attorney’s fees later, a California court gave custody to the dog-napper .

One type of “lost dog” story is unique to our rarified world of the show dog, the disputed physical custody of the show dog. Co-owning a promising show prospect can be one of the most fulfilling experiences in our sport. Most hobbyists dream of taking one of their breeding to the next level of competition in the dog game. Now I won’t get deeply into a debate on how expensive it is to own a show dog. Having participated in a number of hobbies, including boating, I believe showing dogs is no more expensive than most hobbies. Yet, co-owning can make it financially possible to achieve a lifelong dream in the sport.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have never co-owned a dog. I have no objection to the concept. I simply haven’t had the opportunity present itself. However, I have listened to many a story of failed co-ownership. It is my belief that most of the time co-owners get along swimmingly. In fact, many are the closest of friends. However, there are a sufficient number of failed cases to cause the AKC to take the official position of recommending against co-ownership. Think about that. The most important institution in our hobby says, “Co-ownership arrangements, in far too many cases, lead to problems.” I’m not going to go into all those problems. I’m only interested in one aspect of it. Who gets the dog?

Now, all of my dogs are pets first. Their alter egos as show dogs and breeding stock are secondary. Every brood bitch and stud dog I have owned lived out its life in our home. That’s not realistic for a lot of hobbyists. It isn’t that they love their animals less. In fact, many breeders love their dogs enough to make sure they go to homes where they will get the individual attention they deserve after their show and breeding careers have ended. What interests me is the emotional aspects of co-ownership.

A serious show career can be like sending your son or daughter off for a two-year tour of duty with the military. The dog goes off to the handler. You get to see him a handful of times during his campaign. And then he comes home…or does he? Two years is a long time, and a lot happens. Opportunities present themselves. People have differing opinions on what is the best next thing to do. I’m a big believer in getting competent legal assistance in preparing a co-ownership agreement, but the practical matter is that if co-owners disagree things can get nasty. Fanciers with a Facebook account are probably aware of a case where one co-owner took an Afghan Hound from a co-owner’s exercise yard and refuses to return the dog. I also know of several cases where a dog ended up with a co-owner other than the one agreed upon in the contract. The sad reality is that the life of a dog rarely exceeds the life of a nasty civil lawsuit.

So what’s a serious exhibitor to do? Well, first, assess your ability to handle the emotional issues involved with co-ownership. Some people, my wife comes to mind, cannot bear the thought of extended separations from her dogs. Know who your friends are. A true friend will put your friendship ahead of their own interests. Get that competent legal help. Decide on who gets the dog and when. Finally, have some faith in your fellow man. We hear a lot about the petty people in the sport, but most are really quite wonderful people. And that’s today’s Back Story.

Written by

Billy Wheeler has been attending dog shows as a spectator and exhibitor for over 40 years. Billy is the man behind the popular Dog Show Poop. He is a retired management consultant who has advised multiple organizations affiliated with the AKC and the Cat Fanciers Association on business management, long range planning, customer service, and legislative matters. After 25 years of living in the big cities of New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, he now resides in his hometown of Memphis TN with his wife, Brenda, her Toy Poodle and his Cairn, Scottie, & IG. When he is not blogging, Billy can be found in the kitchen cooking, and listening to opera.
  • Peri July 21, 2012 at 12:49 PM

    Recently, I had dinner with some fellow exhibitors and was saddened to hear of a different sort of co-ownership problem. The lovely bitch was the number one dog of her breed and a highly ranked group dog, but when the campaign was over NONE of the four or five co-owners wanted her. What kind of a commentary is that on show dogs as alter egos instead of senient beings?

  • Liz August 8, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    Winning at any cost and even sacrificing the feelings of your dog and yourself are not healthy nor happy solutions for either. So maybe the solution is to become a owner/handler and show your dogs yourself.

  • Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton August 9, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    This article covers several important topics for all pet owners, not simply show dog/pet dog owners, to address. The concern over ‘Who gets the dog?’ is something people don’t think about until a disagreement, disaster or death occurs. By then it may be too late.

    Billy speaks about kidnapping, custody, co-ownership, divorce, placement of retired dogs and lost dogs to name a few of the topics covered in this article. He suggests having an attorney look at or draft your contract. This was one of the items, on the list of ‘To-Do’s’ I spoke about at the AKC Delegates meeting this June in North Carolina.

    We, as the caregivers of our pets and our breeds, often fail to provide a relationship saving clause in our contracts that help us address conflict when it arises in those contracts. It is a simple clause to add. It saves us thousands of dollars in litigation fees, long time relationships and exposure to the vagaries of court outcomes. Everyone has the opportunity to convey what their understanding of the issue is while providing a way to resolve the conflict in a more party driven manner. The clause is a mediation clause and requires parties to mediate any conflict that arises first.

    21st century attorneys have started embracing this method of resolving conflicts especially in conflicts involving animals. If a co-ownership agreement, divorce proceedings or handler disagreement uses mediation as its first line of offense, and litigation as their fall back defense, issues can be fully explored and points of view supported in the mediation process. Everyone feels heard, respected and understood and relationships are retained.

    Mediation has now become the go to method of assuring party centered solutions and peaceful outcomes to disputes between people involving animals. Courts simply can’t or won’t take emotion into consideration when faced with a contract issue involving an animal. Mediation can and does. Courts and some lawyers still think negotiating an agreement effectively obtains the ‘lesser of two evils’ solution. Mediators explore the third option, which cannot be reached or articulated until everyone is heard, understood and respected for their opinion of the facts.

    If you are writing a contract, entering into a co ownership agreement or hiring a handler place a clause in the contract requiring all parties to start with mediation as the peacemaking tool of choice. You can always litigate, which is why I am a proponent of mediation not arbitration. Arbitration removes the parties future ability to litigate. What the arbitrator finds as the outcome of a disagreement is what the parties are stuck with.

    ‘Who gets the dog?’ in many relationships, both pet and show, is often the last thing considered and the method of deciding the answer to this question is left to chance. Billy is correct in saying things change in the two years of a dog’s show campaign. Yet things also change with divorce, health, job or residential moves. Don’t assume an attorney can think of every eventuality and place a provision or solution in a contract to cover it. Have your attorney include a mediation clause in your contract. Mediation will enable the parties to walk their own pathway to a peaceful outcome.

    Having an agreed upon method of addressing conflicts when they arise, working to keep the relationship intact during times of disagreement and avoiding litigation always serves your pets well, and their people too.

    Debra Vey Voda Hamilton. Hamilton Law and Mediation

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