Who does the law now regard to be the legal owner of the dog?
A dog may be a domestic animal but when it comes to the question of ownership the law treats a dog in the same way as it treats any moveable property or possessions (commonly referred to as “chattels”). Ownership of chattels, or the dog in this instance, is said to be “absolute”.
Where a person owns something “absolutely” they own it unconditionally and are free to treat, use or dispose of it as they wish. Obviously in the case of a dog this is subject to certain legislation, for example, relating to the welfare of animals.
Where a dog has strayed and found a new home, as the person who lost the dog owned the dog “absolutely”, he retains his ownership of the dog.
Does the person who has re-housed the dog have any rights?
The fact that the person who re-housed the dog has looked after and fed the dog does not give them any right to hold onto the dog. However, they are entitled to make a claim for their reasonable costs associated with keeping and feeding the dog but where they do make such a claim they have no right to retain the dog pending payment.
What if the person who re-housed the dog refuses to give me my dog back?
If the person who re-housed the dog refuses to give the dog back to its owner then it is open to the owner to make a claim for “wrongful retention of goods”.
A claim for wrongful retention of goods involves proceedings being commenced in the County Court or High Court (normally in relation to a case concerning a dog such proceedings would be brought in the County Court). In those proceedings the owner would seek “delivery up” (the return of) the dog.
Ordinarily a claim for “conversion” would be made at the same time in case the dog cannot be returned, for example because it has since been sold to another person, has run away or has died. Where conversion is ordered the Court will order a sum of money to be paid instead of the delivery up of the dog.
However, before such a claim can be made there has to be both an unequivocal demand for delivery up and an unequivocal refusal to do so. For this reason it may be wise to formally write to the person who has re-housed the dog requesting its return.
A claim for wrongful retention of goods can be made at any time up to the expiry of 6 years, which starts to run from the date upon which the unequivocal refusal to return the dog was made.
Is there anything I can do to minimise the risk of this happening again?
It is a requirement, under The Control of Dogs Order 1992, that every dog in a public place should wear a collar displaying the name and address of the owner. By complying with this requirement the risk of a lost dog finding a new home may be minimised.
It is worth noting that failure to comply with The Control of Dogs Order 1992 is a criminal offence punishable by a fine and that if a dog is not identified correctly it may be seized by the local dog warden who has the power, under The Environmental Protection Act 1990, to sell or destroy a dog if it is unclaimed after a period of 7 days.