You love your dog—maybe even more than that human you’re living with. But when you finally decide to end the relationship (with the human, that is), your ex takes your beloved pooch with them.
Or maybe you need to be out of the country for work and you ask a trusted friend to watch your dog while you’re gone. Upon your return, your so-called friend refuses to give you your dog back.
Or maybe your dog gets out of the house when you’re bringing in groceries and, after a diligent search of the neighborhood, you can’t find him. Then, about a week later, you see someone walking him down the street on a leash. Claiming the dog is theirs, they refuse to return him to you.
Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself in one of these situations. But if you do find yourself trying to get your dog back, know that you have options.
Step One: Negotiate
Your first option is to try to negotiate the return of your pet. See if whoever has possession of him will give him back to you. If a stranger found your dog and is claiming “finders keepers,” you may be able to convince them otherwise without too much effort. They probably haven’t had your dog long, and they may have not developed a strong emotional tie to him. They also may not have invested in food, chew toys, and vet bills yet—which you can remind them about. Recovering your dog may prove easier than you think.
You’ll have a harder time if they know you or have developed an attachment to your dog—such as would be the case if your ex took it. But there are still a number of routes you can try.
First, try to appeal to their sense of reason. You may have evidence of ownership. For example, you may have the original receipt for the animal or registration papers. You may also have receipts for food and veterinary care. You may be able to persuade them that he’s your dog and they should just give him back.
If that doesn’t work, appeal to their emotions. Explain your relationship with your pet. Here, pictures can be really helpful. Pull on the heartstrings. Describe the difficult times of your life that your dog helped you get through. Explain how you structure your day around walking him, feeding him, and caring for him. You may be able to guilt the other person into returning your dog to you.
And if that doesn’t work, you can always try cold, hard cash. Some people are motivated by money. If you can pay a reasonable amount to get your dog back, it may be worth it to you just to avoid the hassle down the road.
Step Two: Report Your Dog as Stolen
If your attempt to negotiate the return of your dog fails, you should then escalate. Call the police and report your dog as stolen. Many pet owners are surprised to learn that the law treats your beloved dog as any other piece of personal property, like a necklace or a shovel (lawyers call this “chattel“). You can report a dog as stolen just like you could a flat-screen TV.
The police may then contact the person who has your dog and inform them that you brought a complaint. Hearing from the police might intimidate them. At the very least, it may persuade them that you are serious about getting your dog back and are prepared to do what it takes to make that happen. A call from a police officer may be just what it takes for them to do right by you and your pet.
But don’t get your hopes up. The police may be willing to make a call, but few will actually pressure the other person into giving up your dog. If the other person disputes your story (maybe they’ll claim it’s actually their dog), the police will let you know and likely tell you that it’s a “civil matter.” That means that it’s up to the civil (rather than criminal) courts to decide who owns your dog, in the eyes of the law.
That may feel like a brush-off, but it’s still an important step. Filing a police report can be useful if you decide to go the next step and take the other person to court.
Step Three: File a Case in Small Claims Court
So you’ve had no luck negotiating, and a call from the police wasn’t enough to get the other person to cough up your beloved pet. Your final legal option is to sue them. Remember that the law views your dog as personal property. Unless your dog is particularly expensive (perhaps a rare breed or a service dog), the “amount in controversy” probably isn’t high enough to go to a standard district court. Thus, for most dog owners, the case should be filed in small claims court.
Although the small claims process may differ depending on where you live, it is pretty straightforward. You probably can handle this yourself (in fact, in some places, you are not allowed to have a lawyer represent you in small claims court). You fill out a form called a complaint, which sets out who you are, explains the nature of your claim, and conveys what you are asking the court to do. You pay the filing fee, file the claim, and then send it along with a summons to the person who took your dog, in the manner required by law (lawyers call this “service of process“). The other person has a chance to respond, and you both get a hearing date before a judge. Make sure you show up on time!
And make sure you bring with you what you need. Your goal is to prove that the dog, more likely than not, is yours. So you will need proof of ownership to submit as evidence before the judge. Be creative. Anything you have that tends to show a long-standing relationship with the dog can be helpful. Here are some examples:
- Pictures of your dog, from puppyhood to adulthood
- Receipts for the purchase of your dog
- Receipts for food and veterinary care
- Registration papers, if your pet is registered with the American Kennel Club
- Any licenses you have for your dog
- Your pet’s microchip information
- Veterinary records
- The police report reporting your dog as stolen
If you’re trying to get your pet back from your ex, you may even have texts in which they refer to him as “your” dog (e.g., “Your dog pooped on the carpet again”). If you have written admissions from the other person, you’re golden.
One caveat: not to beat a dead horse, but as we’ve said, the law treats your dog, no matter how much you love him, as personal property. Many courts won’t order the return of property; instead, they will order that the losing party compensate you for the value of that property. That means in some places, the judge may award you money instead of ordering the other person to give you your dog back.
But personal property or not, pets are different, and judges are people, too. Even in states that award the value, not order the return, of your pet, you may find yourself in front of a judge with a heart who leans on the other person to give you your dog back. In any case, it’s worth a try.
We depend on our pets for affection and companionship. They become a part of our family. The problem is, someone else may want them to be part of their family. If this happens to you, know that you have options. With a little luck and, in some cases, a sympathetic judge, you may be able to be reunited with your beloved dog for good.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.