We’ve previously blogged about what happens to pets during a divorce, including who gets “custody” of a pet following the breakdown of a relationship  and whether partnership principles may apply. This week, we explore a very different dispute over a pet, in which an ex-husband argued that he was the rightful owner of a dog, which he attempted to characterize as a therapy/service dog.

What Happened?

The couple in question separated in late 2017, after approximately 10 years of marriage.

At all relevant times, the ex-wife was employed at a federal government job earning approximately $120,000 annually. She was the sole owner of the home in which the couple had lived during the marriage. The ex-husband was unemployed and appeared to have been so for many years, claiming two ongoing medical conditions that prevented him from working.

In September 2017, several months before the separation, the ex-husband moved to Germany to obtain an undergraduate and MBA degree. While the ex-wife disagreed with this plan, she paid for the ex-husband’s travel expenses and tuition. The ex-husband insisted on taking the parties’ dog (Bianca) with him overseas, as he alleged that the dog was a comfort to him and would help him “succeed in his studies”.

After the ex-husband left for Germany, the ex-wife learned that he was spending time with a German woman who he had met several years prior. She filed for simple divorce and changed the locks on her home.

The ex-husband returned to Canada with Bianca in November 2017, at which time his mother returned the dog to the ex-wife. The dog subsequently became part of the ongoing dispute over finances and other related matters.

Ownership of the Dog

The ex-wife argued that Bianca was her dog. She provided evidence that:

  • she had paid $700 for Bianca back in July 2012;
  • told her family about Bianca via email (including a photo) within a few days of getting her;
  • completed training with Bianca at a dog training program in February 2014;
  • attended all of Bianca’s vet appointments;
  • registered Bianca with the City of Ottawa as her dog;
  • primarily cared for Bianca (with some minor exceptions);
  • told German authorities that Bianca had been stolen when she feared that the dog would not be returned to her.

Despite the above evidence, the ex-husband, unsurprisingly, also argued that Bianca was his, noting, among other things, that:

  • Bianca was purchased for him as “a form of therapy dog”;
  • The dog anticipates his pain, soothes him, and “generally makes life more pleasant for him”;
  • Bianca was permitted to travel with him to Germany.

Online Therapy/Companion Dog Certificate

In response to the ex-husband’s assertions, the ex-wife noted that the parties had bought a $25 certificate on the internet that certified that Bianca was a “Therapy/Companion Dog” in order to allow the dog to travel to the U.S. and stay in hotels with the ex-husband when he visited his family there. The parties also had obtained a $200 letter from an online psychologist, who had never physically seen the ex-husband, permitting the ex-husband to travel to Europe with Bianca.

The court noted that:

To demonstrate how easy it is to get a service dog certificate on-line, the [ex-wife] again did so on February 22, 2018 for $200. All of which is to say, that any of the certifications provided by the [ex-husband] or the [ex-wife] either that Bianca is a “service” or “support” dog, or that she is permitted to travel with one or the other, do not assist the court in making the determination of who owns her.

The court went on to say that:

Most significantly, the [ex-husband] has provided no evidence from any treating physician that he currently has that he requires a support or service animal.

The court ultimately concluded that the ex-wife was the rightful owner of Bianca.

As this and other cases on pets in a family law context demonstrates, deciding what to do with a pet following a separation or divorce can be emotional and stressful. Guidance from an experienced family lawyer can help separating couples make decisions and guide them into coming to a mutually satisfactory plan with respect to their furry or feathered friends. If you have questions about making decisions about pets following the breakdown of a relationship please contact Windsor family lawyer Jason P. Howie, online or at 519-973-1500.