When a couple breaks up, who keeps the dog?
Lara Stone and David Walliams’ split has raised a divisive issue. Here, Judith Woods argues the family dog should stay with the man left behind
It’s always sad when a family breaks up. News of a split last month between comedian-turned-children’s-author David Walliams and his supermodel wife, Lara Stone, with whom he has a 22-month-old son, Alfred, represents a tiny tragedy rather than just another celebrity casualty.
Heartache is heartache, regardless of wealth or status. Walliams (43), who is a judge on Britain’s Got Talent, is said to be devastated in the wake of his wife and son’s departure. He has apparently agreed reluctantly to a “trial separation”.
But the focus of the split quickly turned from what will become of the couple and who will look after their one-year-old, to: who’s going to get custody of the dog?
When Calvin Klein model Stone (31), departed the family home in north London, she took their border terrier, Bertie, with her — which, oddly, seems more significant and more final than taking the baby. In such instances, whisking away a child or children is perfectly standard, expected, conventional. Taking the dog, however, is unequivocal domestic code for “this house is no longer a home”, and “now you really are on your own, mate”.
As the owners of Ireland’s 650,000 dogs know very well, it’s almost impossible to feel lonely with a canine companion, so its absence makes for an empty space.
“When a couple breaks up, they will almost come to blows over the dog because the bond is so strong,” says Helen Nightingale, clinical psychologist: “I’ve had patients who will feel guilty that they cried more over the death of the dog than of their own father.”
It’s not just the waggy tail and the unconditionality of the love and devotion. Another key component is the fact that dogs are not only sociable beings indoors, but no matter how low your mood, they compel you to leave the house and go for a walk somewhere leafy, whether you want to or not, for your benefit as well as theirs.
A study carried out at the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health and published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that spending time in parks and gardens has a proven impact — called the green effect — on wellbeing. So great was the impact that it was estimated to be the equivalent of a third of the happiness bestowed by being married.
Domestic dogs have been close companions to humans for 15,000 years and veterinary psychology studies have revealed a marked similarity between the human-dog relationship and the parent-child bond. It is this intensity that goes some way to explaining why couples buy a puppy. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, it’s a form of practice parenting. Or, indeed, parenting itself. Not so long ago, Pope Francis was moved to urge couples not to substitute dogs and cats for children, because falling birth rates pointed to a transfer of nurturing from offspring to pets.
“Dogs need us,” says Helen Nightingale, “they love us, they rely on us, and when two people part ways acrimoniously, the battle will also be about which one the dog loves most. Children can verbalise and state a preference, so pets are often fought over far more fiercely.”
In Hollywood, tug-of-love pets are commonplace. Kirsten Dunst and Jake Gyllenhaal wrangled over custody of their German shepherd, Atticus, when they split in 2004. (Gyllenhaal won.)
Similarly, in 2001, Drew Barrymore successfully tussled with her ex-husband comedian Tom Green over who got to keep Flossie, their labrador-chow cross, who once saved their lives by waking them when a fire broke out in their home.
Closer to home, the late footballing legend George Best famously rowed with his former wife Alex about their two red setters, Red and Rua. Meanwhile, when golf star Rory McIlroy split with childhood sweetheart Holly Sweeney, she revealed that she’d gotten their DVD collection while he’d kept the dogs.
“At first glance, it might seem frivolous to see two people arguing over a dog, but given the time and emotion people invest in the family pet, it’s not at all surprising,” says Richard Collins, a partner in family law.
“In the cases I’ve dealt with, the pet has definitely been a child substitute, either because it has involved older parents whose children have left home, a same-sex couple, or a couple who, for whatever reason, are childless.” Taking the dog can, of course, be tactical, “weaponising” a break-up just as decisively as taking the kids. Ladies, should you wish to hit your husband where it hurts, go ahead, confiscate the canine. Maybe just leave the lead hanging in the hallway as a cruel reminder.
But if you do pack your bags and would not have your ex calling up at 2am for a cry, leave the dog with him. Giving him another living creature to cuddle and mope over is an act of kindness. And it will take the heat off you, for now. Just wait until the divorce lawyers get their claws out.
Just as estranged couples war over antiques and paintings, so do they fight bitterly for the dog or — even more stressfully — the cat.
“At least dogs are portable,” says Collins. “A couple can always agree to have the dog on alternate weekends or during holidays. With cats, it’s much harder to reach an agreement because they can’t be transferred from one place to another, and even if there’s more than one cat, they tend to become co-dependent so can’t be separated.”
If former spouses can’t come to a rapprochement, judges will make the decision for them, as pets are considered “chattels” under the law. But the term “chattel” doesn’t begin to describe the feelings people have for their pets.
In February, former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, whose marriage to professional poker player Rick Saloman has always been stormy, caused headlines, not when she turfed his two teenage children out of her Malibu home, but when she had the temerity to throw out his dog — a Rottweiler called Bumblebee. Worse still, the dog’s whereabouts were unknown for some time.
Perhaps Walliams can take comfort from the knowledge that at least he knows where Bertie is.
(©Daily Telegraph, London)