Kelsey Ramirez and Zach Woolhouse knew that their divorce was wreaking havoc under their roof. They knew that joint custody would be the kindest and fairest choice.
But their wounds were raw, and resentments festered. That’s why they brought in St. Paul mediator Dan Simon to guide them through tough conversations toward a happy resolution for them and their little darling.
Kid? What kid?
Ramirez and Woolhouse were fighting over Moo, a petite chocolate brown dachshund.
Their struggle and eventual detente are featured in a slick five-minute pilot for a reality TV show Simon hopes to sell to Hollywood.
He calls it “Dogs of Divorce.”
I laughed when Simon first told me about it. Then, I thought how great it would be if he could pull it off. Entertaining? No doubt.
More important, the show might encourage happier resolutions for divorcing couples with no pets at all.
I’ve interviewed Simon many times and appreciate his genuine understanding of how painful divorce is on everybody, especially those on two legs. He tries to help divorcing couples tap into what he believes is their “natural desire to treat each other fairly.”
“Focusing on dogs,” Simon said, “is a way to make it [divorce] less heartbreaking and more palatable.”
Simon, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology in addition to a law degree, is teaming up with former Twin Cities radio man Bob Yates and Heidi Marie Johnson, whose job, she said, is “to speak for the animals.”
The idea for a reality show, not surprisingly, grew from Simon’s practice, where couples “have had serious conflict over co-parenting plans for their dog.”
Most clients focused on dog custody don’t have children, Simon said. Their pets are their children. He’d like to help them avoid full-blown litigation.
If you can’t imagine such a thing, type “dogs and divorce” into Google. Or ask your divorced, pooch-loving friends.
“I’m going through a split at the moment, and the worst thing is how guilty I feel at causing disruption and distress to my dog,” writes a follower on the website of international dog whisperer Cesar Millan. “My ex keeps piling on the emotional blackmail, and I don’t know how to handle this in the best way for my dog.”
Not a petty problem
A poll of 1,500 members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, published on divorce.com, reported a 25 percent jump in pet custody issues in recent years. Dogs were the most disputed family animal, at the center of 88 percent of the custody battles. Cats were a faraway second, with 5 percent. There are even books to help couples find their way, including “What About Wally? Co-Parenting a Pet With Your Ex.”
Some might question whether focusing on dogs is wise. But, man, do we love our pets.
“This is clearly not trivial,” Simon agreed. “Sometimes, the relationship with the dog is particularly important when your relationship with your spouse is changing. It really is heartbreaking to come to terms with the fact that you may have to spend less time with the dog.”
Couples he counsels typically decide on one primary owner. Some do agree to shared custody, or are open to the ex taking the pooch on walks. (When kids are involved, most legal experts recommend that the dog travel back and forth with them).
Joint custody plan
Ramirez and Woolhouse, real-life owners of Moo, heard about the pilot through the Twin Cities website sidewalkdog.com. They agreed to be featured in the demo reel, re-enacting their way from “No way!” to “OK, let’s share.”
Their opening scenes reveal clear tensions between them, neither of them able to imagine being cut off from Moo. He says the dog is his. She points out that Moo threw up after the couple fought. She wants Woolhouse out of the picture.
Johnson, who grew up on a hobby farm in Wisconsin and describes herself as “an animal communicator,” tells the couple that Moo “misses when things were at peace.”
Ultimately, the two decide on a joint custody situation. But they’re still not done. Johnson encourages them to stop exchanging Moo in a noisy parking lot, which is stressing the little guy out. They agree to find a different location.
Taking the high road
“I don’t think people understand how much animals are in tune with us,” Johnson said.
“Our world is their world. Dan has a specialty in dealing with couples, and I have my specialty with animals. The two of us can make it a little easier.”
“Heidi does have great intuition about what the dogs want,” said Simon, who laughs when he confesses that he’s a cat person himself. (And should the series find a home, you’ll see cat conflict, too.)
A mutual friend of Simon and Johnson who works in video production got the ball rolling for a potential TV show. Simon then mentioned the idea to his longtime friend Yates, formerly with radio stations KSTP and KFAN, and now living in Los Angeles.
“He got excited and wrote a treatment,” Simon said.
He would be over the moon if Animal Planet, the cable network that brought the world “My Cat From Hell,” grabs the series. He envisions producing 13 half-hour episodes.
His ultimate goal is “to spread the word that people can rise up and take the high road with each other. No matter how angry and distrustful you are, if you take responsibility for how you behave, it’s very likely you can get to a good place.”
And when you do, treats all around.