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Want to Share a Dog?

How joint ownership of a pet can enhance and simplify your life.

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illustration of dog standing at 2 different house entrances
Jan Buchczik
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I was born sharing. As a twin, I shared a womb. Once outside, I learned to share possessions, and my parents’ attention. Now as a mother and wife, I share a bed and a house and a bank account and a value system and a fridge.

But sharing a dog with someone outside the home?

It’s a unique idea, and one that I have been pondering since my beloved Juno, a black Labrador mix, died a year ago. As a travel writer, I spend several months a year away from home. And with our youngest child heading to college in September, it has been almost unbearable to imagine an empty house without another dog.

That’s when the idea for a dog share — the concept of two parties sharing ownership of and responsibility for a dog — began to percolate. As I was to learn, dog sharing is becoming more commonplace, particularly the unintentional arrangements like those resulting from divorce proceedings in which pets become another “possession” to be divided up or assigned a legal guardian.

To gauge the feasibility of dog sharing, I consulted with people who have experienced it and veterinarians who specialize in dog behavior.

Photographer Laura Bombier and her cousin Nina Bombier were sitting on a dock at their neighboring cottages, chatting over a glass of wine, when they came up with the idea of sharing a dog.

Laura lives alone and has always owned dogs, but she wanted time to travel and be away on photo shoots. Nina, a lawyer with a young family, also loves dogs but works long hours and wanted help with training a puppy.

It’s been just over a year since they became proud joint owners of Luna, a silver Labrador, and so far, so good!

Luna gets a lot of focused love and attention and exercise with each owner. The cousins schedule biweekly trade-offs for each to recuperate from the rigors of puppy ownership. They jointly work with a dog trainer to have a shared vision around discipline issues — such as agreeing on a no-hopping-up-on furniture rule. They have found a convenient drop-off place in between their Toronto homes, and each has a similar schedule for feeding and walks.

The women are also happy to accommodate each other in a crunch. When Nina suffered a knee injury, Laura took the dog for a full month.

Veterinarians, who I thought might have more misgivings about sharing a pet, similarly found that the arrangement can work well, under the right conditions.

The key is to have a consistent and predictable routine for the dog that is maintained in both homes, says Toronto veterinary psychiatrist Sagi Denenberg, who has consulted on some two dozen dog shares. Minimizing stress and giving the dog stability is mostly about keeping regular routines, such as feeding times and sleeping times and locations.

“The owners need to be able to read the dog’s body language and behavior to gauge how the pet is tolerating and accepting change,” says Denenberg. Early indications of stress include lip licking, yawning, stretching, shaking (the way they would if they were wet), squinting and panting. Almost 99 percent of the time, you will see these behaviors before more overt ones like barking, biting, restlessness, whining and having accidents.

He explains that if the dog shows these symptoms, the transition needs to happen more slowly. Transitioning could mean having the dog stay in the original home longer, while the other person visits for a daily walk. Or the second owner could take the dog only for the occasional weekend to start, in the same way a child might visit a grandparent.

Leslie Sinn, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Ashburn, Virginia, says her knee-jerk reaction to the idea of dog sharing was that it wouldn’t work out. Yet, three dog shares in her practice turned her into a “believer.”

Two of the cases involved divorced couples whose dog moved back and forth between households with the kids as part of a joint custody arrangement. The third was a widow with a Labrador puppy and some unforeseen health issues. Concerned neighbors with young kids reached out to help her with dog walking, and this eventually evolved into shared care of the dog.

“It’s proven to be hugely beneficial for the older woman, and the dog is happy, healthy and thriving,” says Sinn, who sees both parties together for vet appointments. The older woman takes the dog in summer, when the family is on holiday, and the family takes the dog when the woman travels during the year.

“I get teary [just] talking about it,” Sinn says.

How to plan for a dog share — and avoid pitfalls

Proper planning, an agreed-on “contract” and consistency are key to a successful dog share.

Here are some tips:

· Decide ahead of time on details: how to divide vet and food bills, what costly medical procedures you would sign off on, how the dog will be trained, food choices, walk times and amount of exercise. And whether the dog can be on furniture.

· Choose a mutually convenient time and location for pickups and drop-offs.

· Consider starting a dog share in puppyhood, when the animal’s routines are not already established.

· Be flexible with your co-owner. “You need to be communicative and open-minded, and not go in with a fixed idea of how things will be,” says Laura Bombier.

However, after 15 to 20 moves between the homes at whatever interval the two owners agree on (one week being common), if the dog is still not adjusting, you may need to give up.

“If you really love the dog, you have to let it go,” says Denenberg.

But that doesn’t mean giving up on having a dog altogether.

Alternatives

If you just want occasional canine companionship without the responsibility of ownership, you could:

· Register on an app like Rover to be a walker or sitter for dogs in your neighborhood.

· Volunteer at a rescue shelter.

· Join a pet house-sitting community like TrustedHousesitters. When you travel, you can get free accommodations in exchange for taking care of a dog or other animal.

· Foster a dog.

With the veterinarians I consulted concurring that dog shares can work for the animals and for us humans, I’m more convinced than ever this could be for me. Maybe I can have it all — a sense of unbridled independence and comfortable domesticity — so I can escape to foreign destinations and then return home to a furry friend.

Would you ever share a dog with someone? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

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