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6 Tips for Protecting Your Dog During a Breakup

We get tips from Kristin von Kreisler, author of the novel "Earnest," about a Lab whose humans spilt up.

Wendy Newell  |  Jan 29th 2016


Like the song says, breaking up is hard to do, but as earth-shattering as it can be for the humans involved, it is just as hard for the family dog. His pack is forever changed. It’s important to do what you can during this life transition to help your dog feel safe, loved, and secure.

My dog, Riggins, wasn’t always “my” dog. He was “our” dog. The “our” in the equation was my boyfriend and myself. We lived together in an apartment in Los Angeles. Although our separation was due to a number of things, Riggins was indeed one of them. My boyfriend wasn’t happy when I had to travel for work and he was obligated to come home and walk the dog. Obviously not someone I could stay with!

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Riggins as a puppy. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

The breakup was hard on Riggins. Truthfully, at the time, I didn’t take Riggins’ feelings into account. I leaned on him emotionally, and he was always there for me, but I didn’t take any steps to help him in the transition.

Even now, eight-plus years later, I think that fact that Riggins is drawn to men at the dog park, where he forces them to give him love and attention, is because of his daddy-abandonment issues.

Riggins saddles up to a stranger during a hike. (Photo by Wendy Newell.)

Riggins saddles up to a stranger during a hike. (Photo by Wendy Newell.)

What should I have done to help Riggins out during this difficult time in our lives?

I spoke with Kristin von Kreisler to get some suggestions. Kreisler is an author of the upcoming novel Earnest. The title character, a loyal Labrador Retriever, who Kreisler describes as “eager to please,” “sweet,” “wonderful,” and “devoted,” goes through a breakup with his human parents. In preparation for the novel, which was inspired by the real life story of Stanley and Linda Perkins of San Diego, who spent more than $100,000 in a custody battle over their Greyhound mix, Kreisler interviewed vets, people who had lived through a breakup where a pet was involved, and even Maggie, a neighborhood yellow Labrador Retriever who Earnest gets many of his personality traits from.

Kreisler and Maggie. (Courtesy of Kristin von Kreisler.)

Kristin von Kreisler and Maggie. (Photo courtesy Kristin von Kreisler)

Kreisler explains, “They [animals] lose their sense of safety and security when their family is broken. It’s really, really hard.” Her mission with her novel Earnest is to help readers “grow in their understanding and sensitivity of what dogs go through when their worlds fall apart.” Through her research, Kreisler has come up with suggestions on how to help your dog through a breakup.

1. Don’t fight in front of the dog

Keisler explains, “Dogs are so sensitive, and they read our feelings even better than we do, I think.” She explains that this attunement is when animals not only read feelings but take it a step further and get in tune and in sync with what you are feeling. Empathy in its purest form.

If you are arguing or becoming aggregated, put the dog in the other room, go outside, or leave the house completely.

I know from personal experience that Riggins responds to my emotions, and, at least once, my anxiety has meant a trip to the vet when he fed off what I was feeling.

2. Alter your dog’s routine as little as possible

The more you can keep your dog’s life the same, the easier it will be for him to get used to his new life. Keisler suggests making changes slowly. If moving, take your dog to the new place a few times prior, making it a fun and happy experience for him. Put moving materials like boxes out for a while before packing so they aren’t seen as something negative. If possible, take your dog to a stable environment he is used to throughout the change in housing. For example, a dog park or doggie daycare.

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Riggins and me during a past move. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

3. Arrange for visits

Visits with your ex can help your dog know he has not been abandoned. Make it extra special when your ex leaves and give your dog a treat. The person’s exit will become a time to celebrate and eat tasty things!

Although Riggins loves anything food-related and would, no doubt, be up for goodbye treats, there was no way I was going to let my ex near me, him, or our new place. Keisler wouldn’t be happy with me saying this. She would, no doubt, tell me to put aside my own anger and bitterness and do what is best for Riggins. Luckily, my ex didn’t want to have visitation, so it was a moot point!

4. If sharing custody, minimize the confusion and uncertainty

Keep a united front in front of the children! Agree on some rules beforehand: When the dog is fed and bathed, whether he can sleep in the human bed, what kind of dog food he eats, and whether he is allowed human food. Make sure to go through each of these things and come to an agreement you can both stick to.

Riggins enjoys a special treat (frozen chicken broth)celebrating his first birthday in his own backyard. (Photo by Wendy Newell.)

Riggins enjoys a special treat (frozen chicken broth) celebrating his first birthday in his own backyard. (Photo by Wendy Newell)

5. If there is a custody dispute, protect the dog during the battle

Although some judges are starting to look at dogs like children and awarding custody based on what is best for the dog, this isn’t always the case. Many judges see pets as property to be split up. Keisler explains that in some cases, the judge has brought the dog into the courtroom, put a parent on each side, and had them both call out to see who the dog went to. She mentions a case that she read about in which the dog was so confused and upset, he ran to the judge!

To minimize trauma to your pet, think about what will be best for him. Which one of you is home the most, has the biggest backyard, is stable financially enough to take care of vet bills and other finances related to owning a dog? In short, Keisler suggests, “Think about what is best for the animal. Leave your ego at the door.”

6. Before adopting a dog as a couple, plan for a breakup

It may sound cynical, but Keisler points out that 50 percent of marriages in the U.S. now end in divorce and 40 percent of couples who live together will split up within the first five years. Let’s be honest, the numbers aren’t pretty. Keisler suggests, “Even if you think this is the love of your life, think from the very start of the dog’s best interest.” That means a pre-adoption agreement that goes over the ins and outs of co-parenting after your relationship is over.

Earnest. Available Jan 26. (Photo courtesy of Kristin von Kreisler.)

“Earnest” is available now. (Photo courtesy Kristin von Kreisler)

Keisler’s final tip is to look for behavior changes in your dog. Some dogs show signs of anxiety, like clinging to an owner, chewing furniture, lack of appetite, or having accidents in the home. If your dog’s behavior continues to be worrisome or is at any time is drastic, check in with your vet.

Earnest is in stores now. Pick up a copy to see how sweet Earnest copes and even helps his parents get through this tough time in their lives.

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About the author: Wendy Newell is a former VP of Sales turned Grade A Dog Sitter. After years of stress, she decided to leave the world of “always be closing” to one of tail wags and licks. Wendy’s new career keeps her busy hiking, being a dog chauffeur, picking up poo, sacrificing her bed, and other fur-filled activities. Wendy and her dog, Riggins, take their always-changing pack of pups on adventures throughout the Los Angeles area, where they live together in a cozy, happy home. You can learn more about Wendy, Riggins, and their adventures on Facebook and Instagram.