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Joint Custody for Pets

When a pair of friends decided they both wanted a dog but didn’t have time to care for a pet, they came up with a better idea: They’d share one.

Friends Leslie Zucker and David Swaney take turns caring for Roscoe, who divides his time between their homes. Photo-illustration by Jesse Lenz

When David Swaney and Leslie Zucker decided to get a dog seven years ago, they headed to the Washington Humane Society, fell for a seven-month-old rottweiler/chow mix, and worked through a list of names until they agreed on Roscoe.

But Swaney and Zucker weren’t a couple. They didn’t even live together. The two friends simply shared a love of dogs, geographic proximity, and work schedules that prevented them from adopting a pet separately.

“She was working at home at the time and going out a lot at night. I was at work during the day and home a lot at night,” says Swaney, who teaches government at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. “We thought: Between the two of us, someone is usually around.”

During a typical week, Swaney drops Roscoe at Zucker’s on his way to work. Zucker, a training consultant in international development, walks Roscoe and plays with him before leaving for the office. Then Roscoe hangs out with Zucker’s boyfriend, Eric Shimelonis, who works at home as a composer.

Most nights, Swaney picks up Roscoe after school, takes him for a run in Rock Creek Park, and keeps him at his house in DC’s Columbia Heights. They sit on Swaney’s front porch greeting neighbors as they come home. While Swaney works on his computer, Roscoe keeps a paw on his leg. The dog sleeps on a chair by the front door, but if Swaney so much as coughs, Roscoe goes to check on him.

“It’s guilt-free enjoyment and love of a dog,” says Swaney. “I would worry that I was neglecting a dog if I had one full-time.”

Swaney and Zucker’s friends rave about what a great idea it is to share a pet, but they don’t know anyone else who does it.

“This is a new one for me,” says Jim Monsma of the Washington Animal Rescue League. “But there are enough homeless animals out there that could use a good home, so if this works well for the people and it works well for the animal, we’re all for it.”

A dog-sharing company called Flex Petz launched in three cities in 2007; it was scheduled to open in DC but shut down due to money problems.

Swaney and Zucker split the cost of food and other bills, take turns with vet visits, and never have to worry about finding a dog sitter. As for logistics, they use a Google calendar to keep track of schedules, and they text, e-mail, or call when they want extra time with the dog—“when we’re having company who would appreciate him or if we’re just lonely,” says Zucker. Weekends are flexible.

As if this arrangement weren’t unusual enough, another family entered the mix four years ago when Swaney’s neighbors, Anne Theisen and Arloc Sherman, were looking for a way to appease their then five-year-old son, Darrow. They boy wanted a dog, but his parents knew it was too much responsibility.

“Doing it this way, Darrow really knows what it’s like to be responsible for another living thing,” says Theisen, whose family usually watches Roscoe on Wednesdays. The dog sleeps with the boy, gently reminding him when it’s bedtime. “Arloc runs with him. Darrow likes to take him to the park and throw balls with him. I like snuggling with him,” Theisen says.

The only downside? Big life decisions can be tough. Swaney and Zucker agreed early on that if one of them moved far away, the other would get to keep the dog. So when Zucker was looking for a house last summer, finding a place near Swaney was a priority. She settled in Takoma Park, not far from Swaney’s school.

It’s this kind of cooperation that makes it all work. Says Swaney: “We’re like divorced parents that didn’t go through the divorce.”

This article appears in the May 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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