WASHINGTON • Legally Blonde fans remember the scene in the 2001 romcom where Reese Witherspoon's character Elle Woods, a Harvard Law student, helps reunite her manicurist friend Paulette Belafonte (played by Jennifer Coolidge) with her bulldog, Rufus.
Standing at the door of the trailer Paulette and her ex-husband once shared, Elle lectures him about common law marriage and the equitable division of the assets. "Huh?" he asks quizzically. "I'm taking the dog" Paulette yells as she grabs her beloved pooch and runs for the car.
It is an iconic moment in romcom movie history - and one that gets played out in similar ways in real life when couples who own a dog together break up.
As couples now tend to put off marriage and children until later in life, getting a pet together has become a big step for many couples looking to advance their relationship.
"I felt like getting a dog together was more solid than a ring," said Ms Liz Szwejbka, a 25-year-old social worker from Buffalo, New York, of getting her dog, Moose, with her boyfriend. "A ring you can take off and give back... Owning a dog is a whole different story."
Sharing a pet together can teach couples a lot about their compatibility as future spouses. "It's a great way to gauge your capability as a team," said psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Rachel Dack.
But relationship experts warn that it is important to wait until your relationship is sure to go the distance before adding a furry family member. Pets introduce time, financial and travel constraints. Restless puppies waking you up at all hours of the night, expensive boarding facilities and finding little "gifts" on the new carpet can create stress in the relationship, at least temporarily, while you are adjusting.
"If you're concerned about your relationship, speak up about that before you involve a pet," said Ms Dack.
Even trickier than raising a pet together is figuring out what to do with it if the relationship ends. Often, both people want to keep the pet in their life, but maintaining joint custody post-break-up can be problematic. For one, "it drags out contact that is not useful for the person who is struggling to move on", said Ms Dack.
Matchmaker and chief executive of Exclusive Matchmaking Susan Trombetti stressed that after a tough separation, it is important to let yourself heal. "You need a clean cut until you're over it, so you can't be sharing a dog."
Who should ultimately end up with the pet depends on who can best care for it. "You have to have the pet's best interest at heart," said Ms Trombetti.
Ms Mary Flaherty, a 26-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, who works in finance, found herself left to care for a dog and cat alone after she and her ex broke up. "He said I should take the animals. He didn't even offer to do anything," she said. "He didn't want to deal with it."
Ultimately, she decided the animals would have a better quality of life living with her mother.
If neither person can provide adequate care for the animal alone, sometimes giving it up becomes the only option, as was the case with Mr Chris Michaels. After the 25- year-old truck driver in Binghamton, New York, parted ways with his girlfriend, their individual time and financial constraints became an issue.
"Since she wasn't able to take care of them and neither am I because of my job, the only option was to surrender them (to a shelter)," he said. "But both have been adopted into loving homes since then."
According to Mr Matt Williams of the Humane Rescue Alliance, while break-ups are not the main reason people surrender pets, it is a contributing factor. When individuals are having issues tending to a pet alone, but do not want to relinquish them, the shelter will work with them to figure out their options and help create a care plan, he said.
While discussing the possibility of the relationship failing is not anyone's idea of fun, having a contingency plan in place in advance can lessen some of the burdens of a break-up, especially if it is a messy one. "A lot of people reach out to me when they have a break-up and a very common, painful dimension in the break-up is 'But we have this pet together, what do we do?'" said Ms Elisabeth LaMotte, a psychotherapist and founder of DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.
"I think it's very important to discuss what you would plan to do if the relationship doesn't last."