Case of puppy love: Ex-couple goes to court

Doreen Houseman has only a portrait of Dexter, and some of his toys. She is trying to regain custody of the pedigree pug.
Doreen Houseman has only a portrait of Dexter, and some of his toys. She is trying to regain custody of the pedigree pug.
Posted: July 28, 2009

Doreen Houseman is happy that her battle to gain custody of Dexter the pug has won the support of pet lovers across the country. But that's not what's important to her.

Her case has set legal precedent in New Jersey, but that doesn't impress her much, either.

Houseman just wants her dog back.

Tomorrow, a second trial on the custody of the nearly six-year-old brown pooch is set to begin. The Williamstown woman plans to testify again that her ex-fiancé broke an oral agreement to let her have the dog after she moved out of their house.

In March, a three-judge appeals panel ordered a new trial, saying Superior Court Judge John Tomasello should not have treated Dexter as just another piece of furniture during the first trial, in Gloucester County, in 2007. The new trial will be heard in Salem County, where Tomasello is now assigned.

Gina Calogero, Houseman's attorney, said the appeals panel had issued a "landmark decision" on pet custody, which she called an "emerging field and cutting-edge law." Calogero, who specializes in animal rights cases, says many judges are now being asked to decide who gets the pet when there is a breakup.

"Ten years ago, I never heard of any such case," said Calogero.

Now, she said, more than a handful of scattered cases have been decided and published - in Florida, California, Pennsylvania, and other places - but with no real consensus.

Before the ruling was issued in New Jersey, Houseman, a 35-year-old customer service manager, went on the TV circuit, appearing on Today and elsewhere to discuss her love of Dexter and how the courts behave when it comes to pets.

In an interview last week, Houseman said that having her pet taken from her was "like dealing with a death." She felt she had been wronged.

Tomasello had ruled Dexter was simply property and should go to the person possessing it. "Dogs are chairs; they're furniture; they're automobiles, they're pensions. They're not kids," he said, declining to consider Dexter's sentimental value as he divided the couple's assets.

Eric Dare, a Williamstown police officer, would keep the dog and would compensate Houseman $1,500 - the pedigree dog's purchase price - the judge said. "Canine affection" is irrelevant, Tomasello said.

Houseman decided to fight the ruling. Both the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Lawyers in Defense of Animals joined the appeal. They suggested the judge should also weigh what was best for the dog. That had been done, they said, with the dogs that belonged to former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, after he was involved in a dog-fighting ring.

Dare's attorney, James M. Carter, scoffed at the notion that courts should get bogged down in animal "custody battles." He said nasty litigation over dogs will wreak havoc in Family Court if judges must now add that detail to their responsibilities.

"As far as the legal community goes, many attorneys realize this would be the first step down a slippery slope. A ridiculous amount of time would be spent on these issues," Carter said.

But the appeals panel said that Dexter was like "heirlooms, family treasures and works of art" whose "special subjective value" should be factored in by the court. Money damages were not adequate compensation.

The panel stopped short, however, of saying the dog's best interests should also be considered. That might prove too difficult for judges.

Houseman and Dare began dating in 1993, bought a house in 1999, and were engaged in 2000. Then, in 2003, they purchased Dexter. When they separated in 2006, Houseman said her main concern was that she get Dexter, who had been pampered with birthday parties and boasted a large wardrobe. She said Dare promised he would not keep the dog from her.

Dare did not dispute these facts, according to court records. He could not be reached for comment.

Houseman, who now lives with her parents, said Dare had allowed her to take the dog when she moved out on July 4, 2006. She let Dare have the pooch on selected weekends and also when she was away on vacation.

But the arrangement soured nine months later, Houseman said, when she began dating. She dropped Dexter off at Dare's house in February 2007 before leaving on a trip, but when she returned in March, she said Dare refused to give the dog back. She said he told her, "You'll never see him again."

"I was blindsided," she said. The next day, she contacted a lawyer.

Houseman says she is happy she won another chance to prove she should be reunited with her dog.

"I hope he remembers me. I keep hearing that a dog never forgets your scent and your voice," she said, with a nervous laugh.

Dare's attorney says Houseman is not telling the whole truth. Dare is the rightful owner, who paid for the dog and the veterinary bills, Carter said. Dare initially allowed Houseman to visit with the dog twice a week, but never agreed to surrender the animal to her.

After a few months, "things weren't working out" and Dare wanted to end the visitations, said Carter.

The attorney said he hoped the appeals ruling did not open the floodgates to other couples who break up and disagree over who should get their pet.

"If you tell family judges they have to treat every pet as a child to determine which 'parent' keeps the pet, or how to divide parenting time, this will add a heavy burden on an already heavy caseload," Carter said.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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