Missing dogs and the law regarding ownership

Who does the law regard to be the legal owner of the dog?

A dog may be a domestic animal but when it comes to 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, due to the fact that the person who lost the dog owned the dog ‘absolutely’, they retain ownership of the dog.

Does the person who has re-housed the dog have any rights?

The fact 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; where they do make such a claim, however, they have no right to retain the dog pending payment.

What if the person who re-housed the dog refuses to give the dog back?

If the person who re-housed the dog refuses to give the dog back to its owner, it is open to the owner to make a claim for ‘wrongful retention of goods’.

Proceedings for wrongful retention of goods are commenced in the county court or High Court (a case concerning a dog would usually 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 in good faith (in which case the new owner would have the right to keep the dog as long as they didn’t know it was lost or stolen when they bought it), 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. It’s therefore a good idea 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 six 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?

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.

Failure to comply with the Control of Dogs Order 1992 is a criminal offence punishable by a fine. 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 seven days.

As of April 2016, all dog owners must get their dogs microchipped by the time they are eight weeks old and ensure their details are kept up to date. If they don’t, they face a fine of up to £500 under the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015. Once you have had your dog microchipped, your details are kept alongside the dog’s microchip number on a database, thus allowing it be returned to you if it’s lost or stolen.