The only thing that can prod me through writing a book is caring about my topic. Everybody knows I care about dogs. But in my new novel, Earnest, I care specifically about dogs’ distress when their people separate and their human family falls apart. Earnest, a lovable, galumphing Lab, faces this crisis.
Half of U.S. marriages end in divorce and forty percent of cohabiting couples split up within five years — so there are millions of “Earnests” in the world. Many are hauled off to a shelter if neither partner wants or is able to care for them. Others are fought over in custody battles. Fifteen years ago I read about a San Diego couple who spent $100,000 on a trial to determine who would get their pointer-greyhound mix. The wife won, and the judgment seemed rational and tidy. But I kept thinking, what about the dog?!
Legal wrangling over a pet is fraught with peril. Though a few enlightened judges consider the animal’s feelings and wellbeing, usually judges consider him a material possession to be disposed of like a sofa. Or in court they have the ex-partners call their dog at the same time, and award him to whomever he runs. Even if no judges or attorneys are involved, the separation can be hard.
Earnest gets upset when his family breaks up. He misses the partner who’s moved out and left him. He can’t seem to adjust to the monumental change and loss. The tension between his people also tarnishes his sensitive soul. He mopes and pines. Usually impeccably behaved, he gnaws on a table leg. Normally a promiscuous glutton, he stops eating.
Fortunately, in my story a wise veterinarian intervenes and enlightens Earnest’s people about how to help him through the crisis — advice that any separating couple might heed: Stop fighting in front of your pet. Share custody and meet for weekly walks so he’ll see that his world hasn’t fallen apart. Individually spend extra time with him, and try not to make big changes in his routine. Keep his life as stable as possible.
When people are fighting, often nobody stops to notice the pet. A sad state, indeed. I hope my new book will raise awareness of the dog’s point of view so all future “Earnests” will be treated with consideration. Reducing their grief is my latest crusade!