In the midst of a divorce, I got a divorce dog to help ease the transition for my daughter.
Her name is Frankie, and my ex-husband and I split custody of Frankie and our daughter equally.
Getting a dog during a divorce helped us all through a difficult time.
Five years ago, I sat in a Brooklyn dentist's office waiting room, scrolling through the PetFinder app on my iPhone. Over the prior 12 months, my dog had died of cancer, my marriage had fallen apart, and I had moved out of our family's home and into a drafty basement apartment. I was feeling tremendous guilt that my then 3-year-old daughter would soon have two homes instead of one, and was hoping to ease her fears with a new pet.
As a chronically lonesome only child myself, I'd always planned on giving my daughter a sibling so that she wouldn't have to rely on the fickle companionship of an imaginary friend or spend hours watching the sisters on shows like "Full House" in hopes that she could somehow teleport through the screen like I had. But when my marriage became untenable, I knew that providing a "forever home" to a dog was the closest I could come to giving her a sibling in the immediate future.
While swiping through a gallery of adoptable chihuahuas and labrador mixes named things like "Dumpling" and "Meatball," a photo of a two-month-old, floppy-eared shepherd mix known as "Frannie" stopped my restless fingers in their tracks. I was slowly learning to trust my intuition, and she somehow just felt right, so I contacted Bideawee adoption center in New York City and begged to meet her immediately. After a proper vetting, the doe-eyed dog on my cracked phone screen was ours that very day.
With the guidance of our mediator, my ex-husband and I created a 50/50 custody plan for both our daughter and our dog. We agreed to share responsibilities, from booking both pediatrician and veterinarian visits to shopping for school supplies and flea prevention drops. These were our two girls, and they were a package deal at every turn.
Pets have been scientifically proven to provide comfort
Our daughter was ecstatic when we walked in the door with "Frannie," who we renamed Frankie. She cuddled her constantly, burying her sticky face in Frankie's black- and caramel-colored fur, repeating softly, "My angel. Oh my angel."
The first month of pet ownership was a blur of exhausted late-night walks, prying shoes out between razor-sharp teeth, and failing miserably at dog obedience school. I thought more than once, "What the hell did I do?" while scrubbing puppy pee puddles out of the shaggy living room rug.
But any doubts I'd had about our decision to bring more shared responsibilities into an already turbulent time were erased when I watched Frankie diligently march next to our daughter on the walks, every Thursday and Sunday, from one house to another. Those painful transition days were often full of tears, tantrums, and forgotten stuffies, but Frankie stood strong as her constant companion.
"When you have a dog that goes back and forth with the child, it's sweet because now they have an attachment pet," Amanda Craig, a family therapist, said.
"The child is going to be comforted by the animal being in close proximity. They're going to feel like, 'I'm not alone. We're in this together.' Even if you have an attachment pet in both places, like a fish, a cat, or a guinea pig, it's going to be a comfort to the child's nervous system," Craig continued. If a pet doesn't work for you, even staples you can have at both homes — like clothes, or other items — can help ease the transition for your child.
"Animals are used widely in healthcare settings to provide comfort, decrease stress, and to calm during times of emotional dysregulation for children," Whitney Casares, a pediatrician, said. "They have the ability to comfort children by increasing their levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, and decreasing cortisol levels, the stress hormone."
Of course, adopting a pet is a serious decision and requires carefully weighing factors like the inevitable financial, emotional, and logistical commitments. And creating additional tethers to an ex-partner can be complicated. But for our family, it was clear that all of the headaches of adding an animal into the mix were worth it.
"If you choose to have a support pet, make sure that you choose wisely when it comes to temperament. You don't want a dog that's always barking or biting," Casares added. "You want a gentle temperament as much as possible so that you don't add more stress to the situation."
Frankie made us feel like a family again
My daughter initially struggled to adjust to life in our new apartment, saying the gut-wrenching words, "I miss home." But oftentimes, just when I thought this rift would swallow us up, Frankie would bound into the room and make us laugh with a tattered squeaky toy hanging from her mouth. She demanded walks when fresh air was just what we needed and slept at the end of our beds, making us feel safe.
Just by sitting obediently under our dinner table each evening, waiting for grains of rice to rain down from my daughter's fork, Frankie managed to make the meals for two feel less lonely than I had feared they would.
And on those first quiet nights, after I'd put my daughter to bed, Frankie would curl her long torso up like a doughnut next to me on our newly purchased couch. I'd light a candle in the silence, and she would stay steady as the primal ache of abandonment overtook me. Her presence made it clear that I didn't yet need to download a dating app or pour over the life choices that led to this moment. I simply needed to be loved unconditionally during a time when I felt shattered.
Over the course of the last five years, Frankie's presence has continued to be a salve for our family. Her gentle nuzzles comforted us as we grieved the sudden loss of my father, and her jubilant howls welcomed in the wonderful man who would eventually become her stepdad.
While we still have moments that are difficult to navigate as a family with two homes, bringing Frankie into our lives remains my best parenting decision. I thought I was getting a dog to help my daughter heal, but I had no idea that in doing so, I was healing myself, too.
Correction: December 5, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Bideawee adoption center.
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