The Gray Divorce Podcast: Episode 28 Pet Custody in Divorce with Karis Nafte

Andrew Hatherley |

Announcement: Welcome to the Gray Divorce Podcast hosted by divorce, financial analyst and retirement planning counselor, Andrew Hatherley. Join Andrew and guest experts as they help late life divorcees build the financial and mental foundation for a meaningful future. There is life after divorce. Now onto the show.

Andrew Hatherley: Hi, everyone. Welcome to episode 28 of the Gray Divorce Podcast. I'm really looking forward to today's discussion, as we'll be dealing with a topic that doesn't get enough attention in the world of divorce, and that is the issue of pet custody. My guest today- joining us all the way from Cape Town, South Africa- is Karis Nafte, the founder of Who Keeps the Dog?- Pet Custody Mediator. 

A certified dog behavior consultant and accredited family mediator, Karis brings 25 years experience as a dog behavior expert into the divorce world. She sees clients worldwide and regularly works in collaboration with mediators and attorneys whose clients need support in pet custody matters.

An educator and speaker, Karis developed the first accredited pet custody education course for divorce professionals who want to know how to best look after the needs of pets during divorce. Karis has presented at the American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Family Mediators, and International Mediation Week and has been featured in numerous newspapers and magazines.

Welcome, Karis. 

Karis Nafte: Thank you, Andrew. 

Andrew Hatherley: Very happy to have you here with us today to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart. I'm an animal lover as I'm sure you are. And I noticed that one of the magazines that you were featured in was called Inside Your Cat's Mind Magazine. I'll confess up front that I am a- I'm a cat person.

Although I've had dogs and I love dogs as well, but- is there really- I thought cats were completely inscrutable as the way- is there a way of figuring out what's going on in their minds? 

Karis Nafte: There is a way- there's always a way. You have to learn how to speak cat and to assume that you can't get in there is the craftiest way cats have us all fooled.

But I love cats also. So I've got three dogs and three cats at my house, and have spent my whole- one of my specialties as a dog behaviorist or an animal behaviorist is integrating dogs and cats. And I think it- sort of- hits the thread of my work in mediation in general, and that I'm very good at getting parties and conflict to agree- even if the conflict is the dog and the cat.

So yeah, that's my specialty. 

Andrew Hatherley: As I say, I just own cats, but my- my two cats don't get along particularly well. Can you do a remote, counseling session for my two cats to improve their behavior with each other? 

Karis Nafte: The funny thing is, yes. We're laughing and people listening might think that's impossible, but absolutely.

So especially with cats- but also with dogs- me being there to touch the cats with my own two hands is not going to change their behavior. What will change their behavior is the owners having the tools and the knowledge to change the routines and change the way the people are responding to impact the behavior of the animals.

So the short answer is yes, absolutely. Would be happy to help.

Andrew Hatherley: Okay, we'll talk about that at another time. Today, let's deal with this issue of pet custody. And before we get into the details, I'm curious- what led you to become a pet custody mediator. 

Karis Nafte: So my work as a dog behaviorist has let me into the lives of thousands of families and their dogs.

And I started seeing- many years ago- dogs that were having a lot of behavior issues, stressed out, anxious dogs were who behaving aggressively and in figuring out why these dogs were behaving so badly or, were so unhappy- let's say- I kept seeing a recurring theme and the recurring theme was that there had been a recent divorce, and the custody resolution- or the custody battle as it might- as it was sometimes- did not suit the dog. 

So somebody won. It was usually in the situation where the divorce had been a fight and somebody won custody of the dog- let's say- or the dog was in a shared custody situation, and- regardless of what was happening- the dog was not coping very well with that decision. 

And when I grew up- as I was growing up, my mother was a divorce mediator. So my whole childhood [I] was very much aware of the concept of mediation and what it took to work with people going- and going through divorce, people who are in conflict with each other. So after I had seen so many of these- of my own clients who- whose dogs couldn't deal with the custody plan, I spoke to my mom, and I said, ‘Mom, what do the mediators do about dogs? What were you taught to do?’ 

And she just shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘We weren't.’ And I- that's when the light bulb went on for me. And I realized that somebody with a background in the psychology of animals needs to be working in this space- not just a legal background, but an animal background.

What is good for the animals here? What is most fair for the cat? What is most suitable for the dog? And from that point of view, step into the realm of divorce spaces because a lot of people really want to do the right thing for the animals, but people aren't quite sure what that is. So that is my- that's my whole background. 

My background is understanding the stress signs of animals, anticipating what tends to happen with different breeds under different circumstances, houses that have two, three, or seven dogs or four cats and two dogs- all kinds of complicated things. How do you work with these situations so that the animals are not stressed out in the long run? 

And it's a very difficult thing. Divorce is so challenging. It's such a- it's such an emotional, difficult time. And for many people, the emotions that they are going through take them over and they don't even necessarily realize that they've lost the perspective of the dog itself because their own emotions are too big and people need guidance and perspective to make good choices for their animals. 

Andrew Hatherley: I really appreciate what you're saying about- from the pet's perspective, and we're probably talking seven or eight times out of ten about dogs and cats. When we're talking about child custody- quite often- a judge or a counselor will speak to the child about their relationships with their parents and their preferences, but obviously dogs and cats can't speak So it seemed to me that the role of an expert such as yourself to could be very helpful in helping parties understand what might be best for the animal.

Karis Nafte: Definitely. And what's nice about the point you made is it brings up a big emphasis in my work which is that pets are not children. So it's- it is dangerous to the animals and dangerous mentally- let's say- to pretend that they're children or to view them as children, and to imagine that animals are as complicated as emotionally as children because then we get into the very challenging kind of murky arena of people referring to their dog as their child and referring to themselves as parents. 

And it's cute. I say my dogs are my kids. I have four human children also, but I say my dogs are my kids too. So I get that. There's nothing wrong with being cute like that. But when we imagine that animals are children, and we think that they need to stay in touch with both parents- that is where a lot of the stress comes in for dogs and cats that I work with. 

But to answer your question, that's exactly why I do what I do because what is nice about animals is it's easier to make general statements about animals than it is about children because they are not as complicated. So you can more ethically and safely make broader statements about dogs and cats. 

For example, cats are- as people who know who have cats- very territorial animals. So cats- one way to say it is- they bond with their territory often more than a human being or one individual person. The thing that they anchor off of is where do they live and where's their house and where does their territory start and stop?

So when people are getting divorced with cats, and they bring up doing shared custody with their cats, we can safely say that- as a broad statement- it's really unfair on cats to put them in a situation of shared custody where they're moving back and forth between two homes with two people. 

Of course, there are exceptions to that- there are cats who are exceptionally easygoing and happy to travel, but those cats are very rare. So in that sense, that's a good example of how with some good broad general guidelines, we can help people make fair decisions for their animals.

Andrew Hatherley: So this might disappoint many people in a pet custody issue- if I understand what you're saying is correct- that you're saying it might be better for the animal that they be with one person and have no contact?

Am I understanding you correctly? Potentially no contact with the other person? 

Karis Nafte: That is correct. And doesn't that sound terrible? It sounds… 

Andrew Hatherley: It does. It does sound harsh.

Karis Nafte: So let me unpack that a little bit. It does sound harsh, but- as always- with the work that I do- I try to look at it from the animals perspective.

Let me scroll back a little bit and say that a lot of the work I've done with dogs over the years has been working with dogs who have been rehomed. Not everybody uses that term, but a dog who was in a good home and had to move to a different home- sometimes it happens for financial reasons. Sometimes it happens when people get into a new relationship and someone's got an allergy to a dog, or people have no choice but to move to a city or an apartment where it won't be suitable for them to have a dog. 

So in working with dogs who get rehomed and leave their previous owners- what I can tell you is that dogs are usually a little bit disoriented for a couple of weeks, and then they're fine- provided their home is a good one and their needs are being met. 

Dogs don't dwell on their past owners as much as we want them to- as much as we imagined that they would. However, in a situation- and I'm using this as an example separate from divorce because it sounds less harsh- in a situation where a dog has been rehomed- so there was one family I can think of now off the top of my head where- unfortunately- that there was a job loss. The family had to move to an apartment. They had a very big dog and they gave the dog away- which was the right thing to do. And they said to me, ‘it's great. we're giving our dog away, but we really want to go and visit him whenever we want to.’

And I said, ‘that is not fair on the dog because what will happen is he's going to leave you, his familiar people, re-bond with his new owners, and if you drop in for a visit and then leave again, how is that for the dog?’ Then he's going to start looking out the window to wonder, ‘oh, Is this my people coming back again next time?’

And it will almost reignite the bond in that moment of reunion and then tear it away when you leave again. And people can usually understand that. So it's much kinder in those situations to let the dog be with his new person. So in the context of divorce, it is generally better- and of course, there are exceptions and we can go over some of the exceptions to it, but the dogs will have a smoother time adjusting to their new life if there aren't visits from the previous person because those visits are- in the long run- more stressful than not seeing the person. 

There's a happy reunion. It's- ‘Oh my gosh, my mom, my dad is here.’ And the dog is so excited- like dogs always get. But what we don't think about is what's going to happen in the days after that person leaves.

And that's when you start to see almost depressed behavior from dogs where they just lie down or they look out the door and be very sad. And that's harder for them. Yes, is the short answer. Visits are not the wonderful thing for dogs that we imagine that they would be. 

Andrew Hatherley: I think when we really look at it- at our relationships- let's say I'm a married couple have- have a couple of dogs, and I'm thinking back on my first marriage- and we split up eight years ago- and we had a Westie and a Scotty- like the old Johnny Walker whiskey advertisements- and she was moving to another part of the country when we split up.

And so it was the issue of the custody of the dogs. And I realized at that time that they probably bonded more with her than they did with me. She would prepare special meals for them- chicken and boiled potatoes and vegetables. And I wasn't about to custom- be a dog chef. And- but she was, and she was- she was happy about that.

And so I realized that it was probably in their best interest that- that they go with her because she was prepared to go to those lengths to- to- to take care of them. I think that's probably the case in many pet family relationships- is they probably do have a bond, but it raises- there's that issue.

But then there's also the issue that from a legal perspective- if I understand correctly- pets are considered property like furnitures- or furniture or cars. And sometimes when people are- have two cars, ‘you take this car, I'll take that car.’ So there's another issue- splitting up the pets- which you'd never think to do with the children.

‘You take Susie, and I'll take Jack.’ You'd never do that with children, but I don't know if people do that with pets. And it seems to me that probably is not a good idea. What are your thoughts about when there's multiple pet situations? 

Karis Nafte: So let me first clarify about pets being property because it's very different depending on where you live.

So there are a few states- Alaska, Illinois, California. I think Delaware has just changed their laws and also New York. And the laws are changing all the time. There are some states where animals are not just looked at as personal property, and the difference is that a judge is allowed to take the best interest of the dog into account in a divorce case.

[In] Other states they are just considered property, which means if you can prove ownership, technically the dog is yours, and you're correct- they're not viewed any differently than the couch or your Corvette in the car- in the garage. However, when it comes to divorce- as I'm sure everyone listening knows- there's many different ways to divorce.

There's mediation; there's collaborative law; there's simple negotiation between the two people who are separating. So you are allowed to make your own choices about your dog- provided you can be civil about it. To answer the question of splitting up animals, it depends on the animals.

Now, you mentioned when we started that your two cats are hissing at each other all the time, and they're often fighting with each other. Obviously, you're not getting a divorce, but if you were, I would say, ‘great for the cats; you should each take a cat.’ 

Andrew Hatherley: They would be happy. They would be happy split up.

Karis Nafte: They probably would be happy being split up. So if cats- so when- so if we look at cats very simply- and with dogs too- if there is a pair of animals who are bonded and they are best friends, it's best to keep those animals together. However, there are some animals- I just call them roommates- who live in the same house.

But they're not exactly in love with each other. They're just both there. So for cats, one of the ways- one of the things you can look at is do the cats groom each other? Do they sleep together? Do they curl up and sleep in the same place? Will they share a food bowl together? Do they play with each other?

They run around and pounce on each other. And if they do- especially if they groom each other and sleep together- they're likely pretty bonded. And I wouldn't recommend splitting those cats up, but if they're not doing any of those things, then the cats would probably be fine being separated.

When it comes to dogs, dogs are a lot more complicated because there are so many different breeds of dogs and the breeds of dogs lead to a lot of fascinating questions that have to all be looked at. So if there are dogs who play together all the time and do all of the same things together- and that's talking about youngerish dogs- but if there's a pair of older dogs who sleep together all the time and follow each other around, then it's better not to split up a very connected bonded pair of dogs.

But if the dogs never really play, and if they don't seem particularly interested in each other, and you do want to separate them, then you can do that. It's not a set rule that they have to stay together. It really depends on their individual relationship.

Andrew Hatherley: You mentioned the connection between the two animals and I want to get back to the connection between the animal and the- the pet parent or owner- particularly as it pertains to older people- because this is the Gray Divorce Podcast, and our audience- our listeners- are largely people going through mid to late life divorce and- like many issues in divorce- I think pet custody can probably take on a heightened importance for older people due to issues of companionship.

For instance, the children may have left the home years ago and pets have assumed a- an important role, but there's also issues of physical and mental health, benefits for older pet owners. I've seen one study that found that a strong attachment to a pet was associated with less depression among older adults and certainly older men- in particular- are suffering a crisis of loneliness that it would seem to me that pets can play an important role in helping. 

Of course, it has to be right for the pet as well. So I'm wondering if you've seen any particular situations or if you have any thoughts about the issues of pet custody as it applies to older pet owners in particular. 

Karis Nafte: I agree with you that the pets can take on a much more important role if there are no human children to factor in.

So definitely the emotions around keeping the animal can come to be a hugely important emotional issue of huge importance to people. So what I generally advise my older clients is that if there's one dog and the dog's got to go with one of the two people- sometimes it just happens that way- that's just the way it is. 

And someone's got to say- someone's got to be willing to give up the dog. My- my strongest advice is that get yourself another dog. There are thousands of dogs who need homes, and I know that's a heartbreaking thing to say and it's, ‘no, but that's my dog. I want that one.’

There are so many dogs who need homes who would love to live with you. But my caution- my most strongest caution to my clients who are in their older years is to make sure that it's a dog that you can physically handle- that's appropriate. So I spent many years running a dog training school in a small town that was a largely retired community who lived there.

And I noticed over the years that very often I would have clients who would have had a big particular breed of dog. So let's say, German shepherds or Rottweilers- like big, strong, intense dogs. And their family had this particular breed of dog for decades and somewhere in their late sixties or their seventies, they get a new puppy- which is the same German Shepherd-Rottweiler sort of equivalent dog without kind of taking stock of the fact that- you know what an 80 pound dog is too much for you at your age. 

And it becomes a very sad sort of situation for the people- and the dog- when they didn't think through the breed they were getting given their own life stage.

What you have to do is take stock of how much exercise do you want to have every day? How much are you exercising every day? How heavy of a dog do you want and how hyper- how active? You don't want a busy Border Collie when you're tired. You want a very sweet dog who wants to sleep like a cat. They're just the loveliest sweethearts.

So that is my- can be such a healing thing to get exactly the right dog for you at the age that you are at. And then it's just a beautiful thing for everybody. 

Andrew Hatherley: It is. And that's exactly what I was thinking because I talk a lot about post traumatic growth and thriving after divorce. While you're going through it, it's a very difficult process, but it is an opportunity to hit the reset button and rebuild your life and perhaps build a new life. 

I know- personally- I've gotten in much better shape physically in my late fifties- and now sixty- than I was in my thirties and forties. And I think that I would probably be- if I was alone and maybe in a couple of years, if I was- I'm not going to be because I'm happily married, but  if I know there are a lot of men recommitted to physical education- and women to- to physical health, they'd be good with one of those animals that requires a lot of walking or hiking, and it would be great for the dog and it would be a mutually beneficial relationship for each.

But- as you say- with age can come health issues and slowing down and perhaps people are a little bit older- maybe do have some mobility issues. They shouldn't be having [a] Rottweiler or a German Shepherd, but can have a very great relationship with a- a more docile animal. 

Karis Nafte: Absolutely. And another… 

Andrew Hatherley: I'm sorry, go ahead.

Karis Nafte: No. So another way that I describe this- because I'm working- I often work with people also after their divorce and similar to you. And I tell people, ‘you wouldn't wear the same clothes your whole life, right? Your style changes as you go through different phases of your life. You can think of a dog in the same way. It can be really refreshing to get a particular kind of dog or a particular personality of dog that maybe you wouldn't have thought for yourself.’

And it can be a real- almost like a chance of renewal to bring in a different something that you haven't thought of. And I've had so many dogs and I always get different breeds of dogs. I know a lot of dog professionals who have one breed and they stick with it. And I love the fact that I've got so many weird dogs, and I love getting a different one because they're all- you learn so much from every new dog, and it's really exciting, and it's really fun.

And it's wonderful to get a dog that's unexpected. You learn so much about yourself in- by having a new dog. I can't- I really can't recommend it enough. 

Andrew Hatherley: That's fascinating because I've always considered myself a terrier kind of guy, but maybe I should expand my horizons and get a hound or hounds.

I'm sorry. I don't know all the terminologies. I know hounds and terriers- herding dogs as well, all sorts of different. Yes. Sorry, what's that?

Karis Nafte: Don't get a herding dog unless you have a farm. That's my strong advice- having a few of them at home. If you don't have a sheep farm, you don't want a sheep dog, but even looking at rescue centers and look for a crossbreed- you get these really unique fabulous dogs.

And sometimes those can be the most beautifully rewarding little darling companions. 

Andrew Hatherley: I agree a hundred percent. My- my first dog was a cross between a Lab, a Weimaraner, and a Beagle. It was a little brown- like- miniature Weimaraner. It was a great dog. Yeah, I love the mutts. We're coming up to the end of our time here, Karis.

I'd like to ask you, is there anything we haven't covered that you would offer as advice to divorcing couples to- to deal with pet custody issues and to consider the best interests of the pet?

Karis Nafte: I would tell people that- to take a deep breath- that the best way they can make a decision about their dog is to make a decision for their dog. And that if the dog feels like a symbol of the failure of your relationship or kind of the symbol of the hope that was lost, it can be even harder to make a good decision about the dog.

So try to sit down with yourself and separate your own feelings- what the dog represented, where were you in the relationship when you got the dog- from the actual dog itself, and take a deep breath and imagine that if your dog could talk, what would your dog say? Who's got the best living situation for the dog?

And you said it yourself- Andrew- you knew that your two dogs were probably more bonded with your ex-wife and wonderful for you for being able to acknowledge that because sometimes that's all it takes. It's, ‘yeah, I love these dogs enough to let them go.’ So sometimes it's right to fight for your dog and keep your dog with you, and a lot of the times, it's right to let your dog go.

So if you can do that, your dog- sometimes it is the biggest declaration of love to let a dog peacefully go with your ex then to fight over it, and demand to see it, and let the dog be an excuse to stay in your ex's life- which happens a lot. And if people can pull all of those things into their head, it will hopefully be easier to make a decision about what should happen with the cat or the dog.

Andrew Hatherley: That's terrific advice, Karis. If our listeners would like to contact you or find out more about your services, how can they reach you? 

Karis Nafte: They can go to my website and on- I offer all of my prospective clients a free half an hour introductory chat just to understand what they need and what their situation is- if they think they might like my help in their custody resolution. And my website is Who keeps the dog- yeah.

Andrew Hatherley: It could also be who keeps the cat. 

Karis Nafte: Could also be who keeps the cat. I do work with cats, but it was too long of a website to say who keeps a dog or cat. So I just kept it simple, but yes, we do cats- also done a couple of pigs- done a couple of potbellied pigs.

So it can really be anything.

Andrew Hatherley: That's the subject for another podcast episode. Thank you so much, Karis.

Karis Nafte: Thank you, Andrew. Thanks for having me. 

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Advisory services offered through Hatherley Capital Management, LLC. Divorce financial analysis services offered through Wiser Divorce Solutions, an affiliated company