Owning Dogs

You own your dog. They are one of quite an array of items that you own, including perhaps: the chair you sit on; the car you drive; the clothes, watch, or glasses you wear; and this book in your hands (library books excepted: owned by libraries). To say that you own your chair is to say that you have absolute rights to do with your chair what you’d like. You have rights to sit on it, turn it upside down; re-upholster it in orange velvet; keep it un-sat-upon in the basement for twenty years; or toss it out. Your chair has no say in it. It cannot complain, sue you, or, for that matter, make any decision at all. Should you cut off its legs, or cover its seat in a plaid kaftan, it must simply suffer through it. Weirdly, while we consider dogs to be family, not furniture,I the same is more or less true of your dog as your chair. Though dogs, unlike chairs, make decisions, feel pain, suffer when abandoned, enjoy rolling around in fallen leaves and snow, and presumably want to not be sat on or donned in kaftan, they also have precisely no rights in the matter. There are some constraints on our behavior with our pups: animal-cruelty laws forbid injuring animals and forbid throwing them away. The asterisk on both of these admonishments, though, is astronomical: harming a dog is allowed, if it is “justified”; so is throwing the dog away, as long as it’s in the direction of another set of arms (such as relinquishment to a shelter). Even when cruel behavior veers into the criminal, penalties are remarkably minor. In the eyes of the law, a dog is a chair is a dog. And a fairly low-end chair, at that. And the law does gaze at dogs. As chair-equivalents, dogs are treated more or less nonseriously when they come up in legal settings. In adjudicating divorce cases in which a dog or dogs are at issue between the unhappy couple, judges typically dismiss the case, and are fond of writing things like “After all is said and done, a dog is a dog.” “[D]on’t ever bring a stupid issue like that before me,” one judge responded to the possibility of a pet custody case. “Go out and buy another dog.” In such disputes, dogs are “assignable property,” and may be granted to one or the other spouse, along with all the other domestic possessions, under the “equitable distribution” laws of whichever state the dog (and the couple) resides. A five-year-old chocolate Lab is “marital property,” the judge in one case says: “chattel.” Seeking custody or visitation rights of Barney, a rescue dog, is equivalent, another judge writes, to “a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.” Dogs Gracie, who had a shoulder injury and cataracts and was eleven, and Roxy, both suffering through the split of their parents, were ruled the property of one parent only, based exclusively on the detail that she was the one who “harbor[ed]” the dogs most recently. Gracie’s age, medical condition, or preference did not matter in the case, for which she was simply the property of a person. In response to an application asking for “exclusive interim possession” of Kenya and Willow, nine and two years old, respectively, the judge assigned to this divorce proceeding observed that the dogs were essentially equivalent to silverware—and the application was just as absurd as asking for exclusive ownership of cutlery. Should a judge grant one party ownership of “the family butter knives,” he asked, dripping sarcasm, “but, due to a deep attachment to both butter and those knives, order that the other party have limited access to those knives for 1.5 hours per week to butter his or her toast?” One hopes that the butter-knife judge did not live with dogs himself. In fact, the effect of dog ownership on the judiciary is not insignificant. In the case of a young miniature dachshund named Joey, living in New York with his divorcing parents, the judge ruled that, “wonderful” though dogs are, his fate did not “rise to the same level of importance” as a child custody case. (The judge mentioned his own pit-bull mix Peaches as representatively wonderful.) Custody cases of dogs would be “a drain of judicial resources,” he claimed. But he did concede that a brief hearing, not to exceed one day, should be undertaken to determine what would be best “for all concerned”—including but not limited to Joey—regarding Joey’s fate. Cases that meaningfully consider the dog’s perspective are virtually absent. And when considered as more than butter knives, it is such contingent factors as the recent possession of the dog (who took the dog after the split), the original ownership of the dog (who impulsively went to the shelter or breeder that day and walked out wide-eyed with a new animal on a leash), or even who had taken the dog to training classes (where what counts as a “class” is undefined, and its usefulness is unconsidered) that determines the rightful “disposition” of the warm-blooded, slobbery, gentle, loving property. In the thirteenth century, one tale goes, disputes between two people as to rightful ownership of a dog was determined by which one could get the dog to come when called. Even that would be a step up from our twenty-first-century legal approach. Even before tens of millions of American households had a dog, the clash of ownership and family membership popped up in the courts. In 1944, a judge heard a case about the proper disposition of an unnamed Boston bull terrier, whose value was placed at twenty-five dollars, after his owners’ split. In ascertaining the dog’s age, the judge waxed anthropomorphic: “it is apparent that he is now about to enter the mellow years when those qualities most to be desired in a dog are at their peak, and the natural springtime inclination to roam, common to all males of whatever specie, is on the wane.” Despite this, the judgment found the dog’s age and all other particulars of the dog to be irrelevant, since he was simply among the (ageless) property to be distributed from the previous couple’s estate. Admittedly, when the attempt to decree who should take possession of the dog is left to the owners, their testimony is sometimes no less incongruous than the law’s treatment. One member of a divorcing couple in Tennessee claimed she should have custody of their Dobie-retriever mix, since she had, in her account, kept him away from “ill-bred bitches.” The moral upstandingness of her dog was further exhibited by his attendance at his owner’s in-home Bible study class and the owner’s vigilance that no one drink alcohol in his presence. The husband, for his part, argued for custody on the basis of the fact that he had taught the dog a lot of tricks, including riding on his motorcycle—and that, for good measure, he had abstained from beer in his dog’s presence. (The judge awarded joint ownership, only to have the woman abscond with the dog: she was found with the dog out of state—in a beer hall.)