Ownership and Possession of Dogs & Related Legal Issues
A dog owner should take certain steps to establish their ownership of their pet. This may prove critical if they lose the dog. Among other things, a dog owner should make sure to license the dog in compliance with the rules in their city or county. They also should take photos showing the dog with them, which they can keep in their home and car. A dog owner should keep records of vaccinations received by the dog in their home and car as well. Finally, a dog owner should consider microchipping their dog and may want to get a collar with tags that provide information about the dog and the owner. This may include the name of the dog, the name and contact information of the owner, and the vaccination record of the dog.
Microchipping involves putting a permanent ID chip in the shoulder of the dog. A microchip can be scanned to identify the dog owner, who will be contacted by the microchip company. Someone who finds a stray dog should ask a vet to check for a microchip.
Even if a pet owner carefully looks after their dog, they may be accidentally separated. If the owner finds the dog again, they may need to prove ownership to regain possession.
Regaining Possession From a Private Party
Sometimes a person or family finds a dog who appears to have no owner. In many cases, they may be legally required to turn over the dog to animal control. If this is not required, though, they may decide to keep the dog. A dispute may arise if the original owner finds the dog and wants to take them back. The outcome of this dispute may hinge on whether the original owner abandoned the dog or mislaid or lost them. The dog will stay with the person currently in possession if the original owner abandoned them, while they likely will return to the original owner if they mislaid or lost the dog. A dog is considered mislaid if they were accidentally left in a place where they were no longer intended to be, while a dog is considered lost if they escaped from the owner's control and were found in a place where they were never intended to be.
The rights of the original owner usually take priority over the rights of other people in either situation if they can prove their ownership and have found the dog in a reasonable time. If a long time passes before the original owner finds the dog, ownership rights may automatically shift to the person who currently has the dog. To acquire ownership, though, the person in possession must have reported the dog as lost so that the original owner had an opportunity to find them.
Some potential ways to prove ownership when it is contested and unclear include:
The original owner can describe identifying marks on a dog and link them to certain events during their ownership of the dog
The DNA of the dog matches hair on a grooming brush
The dog responds to the name given by the original owner
The original owner can describe specific, distinctive behaviors of the dog
Documents and photos show services for the dog obtained by the original owner, or activities in which the original owner engaged with the dog
Separate forms of proof may apply to service dogs or emotional support animals, which often have distinctive documentation.
Regaining Possession From an Animal Shelter
Sometimes a lost or misplaced dog will end up at an animal shelter, which will keep the pet while it tries to locate the owner. Once a certain time expires, the shelter may take various steps if it has not located the owner. For example, it may sell the dog or put them up for adoption. The new owner then would gain full rights to the dog and take priority over the original owner.
An animal shelter sometimes may have the authority to euthanize a dog if they cannot find the owner within the required time.
To avoid these consequences, a dog owner should contact animal shelters and animal control if they have mislaid or lost their dog. They may want to check shelters regularly to see if their dog has arrived there. To facilitate the process of getting a dog back from a shelter, an owner also should make sure that a dog has certain identifying features, such as a special collar, a microchip, or a tag with the contact information of the owner. This can help prove to the shelter that they are the owner of the dog, and it may legally require the shelter to hold the dog for longer while trying to locate the owner.
Preventing Animal Control From Gaining Ownership
Sometimes animal control will arrive at the property of a dog owner after a complaint that the dog has acted aggressively. This may cause animal control to classify the dog as a dangerous dog and demand that the owner turn over the dog to their custody. However, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects dog owners in this situation. Unless animal control presents a warrant or another court document authorizing the seizure, they do not need to surrender the dog.
Voluntarily surrendering the dog to animal control without asking for a warrant may create challenges when an owner tries to assert their rights later. This is because giving up the dog is considered a waiver of ownership.