KATIE GLASS reveals the reality of going through a 'dog divorce'

My crushing custody over the battle for our fur-baby: They thought a pet would bring them closer. Instead it became a bitter weapon when they split. KATIE GLASS reveals the reality of going through a ‘dog divorce’

  • Katie Glass reveals how she got a dog with her finance as a ‘millennial cliché’ as they weren’t ready to get married, buy a house, or have children at 34 and 29
  • But last year she split with her partner of six years – with their labradoodle stuck
  • Now she’s fighting for custody of  her ‘fur baby’ with her ex – with a ‘dog divorce lawyer’ costing £1500 

When I ended my relationship with my fiancé during the first lockdown last year, after six years together, I knew there would be no going back.

By the time we called it a day, the gap between us had become an aching chasm so vast we might never have spoken again if it hadn’t been for a soft, furry bridge between us, who I could not live without. And so, having walked out on a potential marriage — relieved to have left before we had got lawyers involved — I found myself negotiating something harder than our break-up: a doggy divorce.

Getting a dog with your partner in your 30s is a millennial cliche, but that’s what we did. Nick was 29, I was 34. Not ready to have children, unable to buy our own home (we shared a London flat) and hesitant about committing to marriage. Yet getting a dog together seemed the perfect next step. We had been together for three years and weren’t engaged yet.

‘It will be good practice for when we have children,’ I told my friends, unaware how prophetic this was: that in the end the dog would teach us not only what it was like to raise a fur baby together, but also how to negotiate custody of her after we split up.

I’d never had a dog before we got Stringerbelle, our black labradoodle, but as I carried her home in 2015, her soft belly wriggling and her wet nose pressed into me, I was immediately smitten.

Katie Glass reveals how she got a dog with her finance as a ‘millennial cliché’ as they weren’t ready to get married, buy a house, or have children at 34 and 29

She seemed to encapsulate my boyfriend and I’s love — playful and sweet, a pretty black bear with soft bunny ears and squashy fat paws. We named her after Idris Elba’s character, Stringer Bell, in our favourite TV show and crime drama The Wire because I wanted something cutesy and Nick wanted something gangster.

I spoilt Stringerbelle rotten from the off, filling the garden with ludicrous toys as if I’d started a creche: a little pink slide, a brightly coloured ball pool, and endless soft animals and games which I sought out especially ‘because she’s clever, like her mother’ I told eye-rolling friends.

And I doted on Stringerbelle, swerving places where I’d once been a regular (trendy bars, theatres, The Tate) in favour of dog-friendly destinations (the butcher’s, the park, Pets At Home).

We spent most days together, her snuggled beside me on the sofa while I wrote, taking long afternoon walks together and longer afternoon naps. If I had realised when she was teddy-bear sized that she’d grow to be over 4 ft, I’d never have started letting her sleep in our bed or carrying her up escalators because I worried she’d get her tail stuck, which I continued to do when she grew to be 25 kg.

But I’d never had a dog before. I didn’t know how big she’d get. I also didn’t know she would steal my heart and teach me about unconditional love.

I predicted correctly that having a dog with my boyfriend prepared us for parenthood. Raising her, we realised how different we were. While he became, in my eyes, a strict dog disciplinarian, I revealed myself to be a boundary-free hippy parent who let my children run loose.

Last year kKatie Glass split with her partner of six years – with their labradoodle stuck in the middle

His strict dog-raising clashed with my laid-back approach. He is the kind of person who thinks a dog can sleep downstairs in the kitchen, while I am a dog-mother who likes to order from the menu for my little princess. He watched TV Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s training videos, I took her to doga (dog-yoga) classes. I worried this is what he would be like with our children. He had similar concerns about me.

The day I decided to leave Nick, I was distraught about what to do with Stringerbelle. As I packed up the VW van we had bought together — in which the three of us had had so many special holidays driving to the seaside, where we’d hugged while Stringerbelle splashed in the waves, I had to hold back my tears.

I went to give Stringerbelle one last hug with my stomach twisting in pain. I was desperate to take her but knew the terrible rows it would cause.

And I worried that trying to see Stringerbelle meant I’d never be free of my old relationship.

I’d watched divorced friends with children argue with their exes over custody, seen the agony it caused them, not to mention the legal costs.

Some confessed to me that at times they looked at their children and were painfully reminded of their failed relationship. I worried with Stringerbelle it would be the same — that seeing her would remind me of the family the three of us had been.

Katie says: The day I decided to leave Nick, I was distraught about what to do with Stringerbelle. As I packed up the VW van we had bought together — in which the three of us had had so many special holidays driving to the seaside, where we’d hugged while Stringerbelle splashed in the waves, I had to hold back my tears

I was confused about the legal situation. Speaking to a dog divorce lawyer (yes, they actually exist!) called Randal Buckley from Richard Nelson LLP, he explained courts view pets as property — as if my Stringerbelle were no more significant than a wide-screen TV.

He says: ‘Currently there’s no welfare consideration, but with the introduction of laws about pet-napping [pet abduction is set to become a criminal offence with up to seven years in jail] that might change.

‘There are different laws if you are married or unmarried,’ Randal adds. Things would have been better if I’d married. ‘The division of assets at the termination of a marriage is based on what a judge thinks is fair. In unmarried couples, the determination of ownership is according to strict property law. Judges are then just looking at who owns the dog.’

My ex paid for Stringerbelle — so legally he owns her ‘simple as that,’ Randal says. ‘There is no relationship basis or welfare consideration unless there was an agreement of co-ownership.’

It took us a whole year to reach an agreement. Eventually, just this month, he allowed me to have her for a fortnight.

Although he does agree: ‘The court treatment of pets being strict property is out of step with how many feel about this unique relationship.’

He adds that a case like mine can cost from £1,500. Perhaps I should have taken a legal route, but the truth is that, after months of rows that led to my break-up, I felt beaten, and could not face another fight with my ex.

I tried to live without Stringerbelle. ‘She’s just a dog,’ stupid friends said. Six months passed, with me sitting in parks like a weirdo, fussing over other people’s pets. I got over my break-up with Nick, but I longed for her. She was so much harder to leave behind than he’d been because she’d done nothing wrong.

I sobbed at the thought of never seeing her again. And agonised that she was pining for me. I was especially heartbroken when I learnt that after lockdown, when Nick had returned to work in his London office, he’d left her living at his parents’ house in the Peak District. And so, after a few months of thinking we could have a clean break, I found myself trying to negotiate access.

Perhaps if we had seen eye-to-eye about how our relationship ended we would have been on the same page about the dog. Instead, as Stringerbelle had represented our relationship when we were together, now she seemed to reflect our feelings about the break-up: we were angry and suspicious of each other. While I felt justified in leaving him as he’d behaved so badly towards me, he felt I had abandoned them both.

I tried to live without Stringerbelle. ‘She’s just a dog,’ stupid friends said. Six months passed, with me sitting in parks like a weirdo, fussing over other people’s pets. I got over my break-up with Nick, but I longed for her. She was so much harder to leave behind than he’d been because she’d done nothing wrong.

He mistrusted me with the dog, doubting my motives — offering me access then rescinding it, apparently concerned that, if he let me have Stringerbelle, I would never give her back. At other times I felt angry that it was me who always had to go the extra mile — literally — it was a ten-hour round trip from my new home in Cornwall to where she was staying in the Peak District.

Because the physical distance between us was so difficult, I explored options for dog courier services — companies which transport your pet for you across the country (because, unlike children, you can’t just pop them on the train), but was shocked by the cost, which ran into hundreds of pounds.

It took us a whole year to reach an agreement. Eventually, just this month, he allowed me to have her for a fortnight.

I worried she’d have forgotten me as I drove to collect her. Instead she ran to me immediately, wiggling into my arms, licking my face, and all the feelings I’d pushed down flooded back. I only didn’t burst into tears because I didn’t want her to see me like that.

I started spoiling her straight away — relishing doing the things that would have got us told off by my ex: feeding her breakfast in my bed, letting her jump into ponds and pad her muddy footprints over carpets.

I took her to Lucknam Park, a five-star dog paradise in the Cotswolds set on a 500-acre estate. We arrived at our suite to find a welcome basket of doggie presents — a blanket, a towel, a new ‘eco’ toy and hand-baked treats (which lasted seconds).

I worried she’d have forgotten me as I drove to collect her. Instead she ran to me immediately, wiggling into my arms, licking my face, and all the feelings I’d pushed down flooded back. I only didn’t burst into tears because I didn’t want her to see me like that.

That evening at dinner in the restaurant, Stringerbelle was served a platter of ham, which kept her content for almost five seconds until my starter came. In the morning, as she galloped around the grounds — ignoring the ‘dogs must be on leads’ signs — I was thrilled to have her.

Right now, as I write, she is snuggled beside me, smelling sweetly of wet mud, panting her breath on my feet, curled up like a happy black, furry croissant. I never want to be without her again.

Although having her also feels complicated. When I’m cuddled up to her she is a hot-water bottle reminder of the family I had.

I find myself calling her the names my ex and I gave her (‘Furball’, ‘Doglette’, ‘Babybelle’), remembering the songs we sang to her, substituting her name for the words, (‘Oh Stringerbelle, Oh Stringerbelle how lovely are your ears?’, ‘Upside down, Stringerbelle you turn me/ Inside out/ And round and round’).

I remember the running commentary we gave on how she behaved — that would irritate the hell out of anyone else.

As much as I love watching her galloping through woods with her lolloping smile, turning in circles by my feet or curled up beside me, I also feel a panicked twinge, a fear of how I will feel when my time is up and I have to give her back.

We don’t yet have a long-term custody arrangement. Although we have discussed possibilities of two months on, two months off, or having her for different seasons (him in summer, me in winter), nothing seems to fit.

It’s a long journey for me to collect her and take her back to him, while work and home commitments can make the future difficult to predict.

Meanwhile, I worry that in the in-between times she will be confused by what’s happening. Perhaps the kindest thing would be to let her stay with my ex and for me to get a new dog. But I don’t know if I can open my heart. And besides, if Stringerbelle found out she’d be furious!

So for now it’s back to counting down the days until I can see her again — and thanking my lucky stars we never had children.

 Lucknam Park rooms start from £375 per night, for a two-night minimum stay (lucknampark.co.uk).

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