February 25

Getting Your Rescue’s Dog Back


You’ve seen it before – an adoption goes bad and the rescue group wants its dog back, or a foster decides she’s keeping a dog. If it hasn’t happened to your group yet, it will.

First, get everything in writing. Have a written adoption contract and a written foster contract. Both foster and adoption contracts should spell out:

  • Who is responsible for transportation expenses and to where.
  • Choice of law and venue. If your group is based in Tennessee, you really don’t want to have a New York court apply New York contract law to your case (well, actually, you might, since New York is doing some good stuff with animal laws). Even more important, you don’t want to litigate your case in New York. You want to do it in Tennessee, in the county in which your pro bono lawyers might be willing to step up. You’ll get a judgment from your court then “domesticate” it in the foreign jurisdiction for enforcement. Remember that whole bit about Sister State judgements from Civics class? Yeah, that.
  • What constitutes abuse or neglect. Okay, be reasonable. If you’re going to insist on organic raw fed beef only, the courts are going to look askance at you.
  • Who pays attorney’s fees if you bring an action to get your dog back. Be aware that in most jurisdictions, this has got to be reciprocal, i.e. if it make the other side pay your attorney’s fees if they lose, it also means you have to pay theirs if they win. Ouch.
  • Arbitration — for or against. Definitely something to consider.
  • SPELL OUT that money damages will never be an adequate remedy in case of breach of contract.

Second, chip your dogs and require that the rescue be a backup contact on the chip. Put it in the adoption and foster contracts. In some jurisdictions, courts look at this as proof of ownership. Others look to the name on the rabies vaccination paperwork. Have all that done in your rescue’s name, even if the foster is taking the dogs in for shots or vetting.

Third, pay all your dog’s expenses, particularly as it related to vetting. Don’t be one of these rescues who asks fosters or FTA (Foster To Adopt, not Failure To Appear) to pay up front for vetting and wait for reimbursement. For fosters, the rescue should pay for all vetting, either at their own vet or by calling in a credit card, as well as heartworm preventives, wormers, and flea/tick meds.  You do the reimbursement dance, you don’t value your fosters enough. Send ‘em my way. I could use them and I’ll treat them right.

Another thing about paying expenses and not stiffing your fosters: when you go to court and ask for your dog back, the court’s going to want to say it’s just property and here’s some money for it instead. That’s not what you want – you want that particular little ball of fluff back, not the $89 pull fee she cost you. What you’re asking for is an equitable remedy, not money damages, and to get equity, you have to come to court with “clean hands”. That means not owing the foster for vetting and not having done stupid stuff.

Fourth, follow up with your adopters. Have a protocol in place. Touch base with them at specified intervals: one day, five days, two weeks, one month – have a definite program. This will not only let you keep tabs on your dog, it’ll also increase the sense of community and belonging, which will eventually result in a more active donor base.

Finally, keep an emergency fund on hand. Easier said than done, I know, but you’re going to find that while it may be easy to get the lawyer on your Board to do a little pro bono review of contracts and bylaws, getting one to litigate a case is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Litigation is time-consuming and expensive. Even filing fees are normally going to run at least a hundred, probably more. Depending on where you are, you can expect to be asked to put down a couple of grand as a retainer.

Are you guaranteed to get your dog back?Wish I could say yes, but the truth is that many courts still regard one dog as pretty much the same as the next and are going to want you to just take some money for it. Yes, this is changing, but you’ll still run into it. You can improve your odds by doing what I’ve outlined above and by remembering this one important legal axiom: it’s often as expensive to be right as it is to be wrong.

Do this or I can’t do much to help you.

There’s another way to approach adoptions and rescue ownership, and I’ll spell that out in a later article. It’s a little complicated, but it will eliminate most problems getting your dogs back.


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