What To Do When A Previous Owner Wants Their Dog Back

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When you're thinking about adding a new furry friend to your life, many people strongly support adopting a dog versus getting a dog from a breeder. The typical narrative says that adopting a pet means that you found a previously unloved or forgotten pup and happy, loving home. Who doesn't want to be a part of that story? And most of the time, that's what happens. When you adopt a dog, you've helped to give them a new, better life.


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However, there's another side to the adoption story that can happen. When you adopt an adult dog, you're adopting a pet that was previously owned by another family. While it doesn't happen very often, it is possible to adopt a pet from a shelter that was lost from a loving home. And sometimes, those former owners eventually find out what happened and want their dog back.


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Take, for example, this story of a lost dog in Waco, Texas.

Tracy Hendrick's dog, an English bulldog named Jack Frost, went missing shortly after she moved to Waco, Texas. Tracy visited the animal shelter three times and searched her neighborhood for Jack Frost. Months later, she learned that Jack Frost had been found and adopted by another family. She was stuck in the difficult situation of wanting her dog back, but realizing that another family loved him too.


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Hendrick's situation was complicated by the fact that she hadn't gotten the dog microchipped, so it was difficult to prove that she had owned the dog. The shelter recognized the new family as the official owners, because they were registered on the dog's microchip. Jack Frost got lost again and ended up at the shelter, but Tracy had to wait seven days to allow for the current owner to claim the pet before she was allowed to re-adopt him.


What should you do if you find yourself with an owner who wants their dog back?

While the former owner didn't appeal directly to her dog's new family, it's a scenario that can happen after you've adopted a dog. Particularly if a dog was lost, it's possible that its old family will finally track the dog down and want it back. This is a tough situation for everyone involved. While there are some laws that govern how dog ownership is handled, they don't always offer a clear answer. There are also major moral questions about what's best for the dog and the families in question.


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You should probably start the process by answering some questions, and asking some questions of the previous family. Don't be afraid to be tough and suspicious. If you want the best for this dog, you may need to get a little nosy.



  • How long has the dog been with each family?
  • How do you feel about the previous owners? Do they seem trustworthy?
  • What is the dog's response to you versus the previous family?
  • What were the circumstances under which the dog was lost?
  • What were the circumstances when you adopted the pet?
  • Can the shelter offer any more information about the pet's history?
  • Does the previous owner have photos to show how the dog's life was?


Here's how animal shelters factor into the whole process.

Most shelters would prefer to reunite a found pet with its family. It's easier, faster, and usually means that they can rest assured that the dog is returning to a happy home. However, because of how busy and often overcrowded shelters are, there are some things you need to understand about how they operate when a dog is found.


  • Shelters want to reunite dogs with their families, but sometimes dogs are found without any identification or the microchip information is out of date.
  • Most shelters have a mandatory "hold time," but it can be shorter than you'd expect. In some places, it's as little as 3 days.
  • Shelters may not immediately receive a found dog, so it could take days or weeks before it enters their system.
  • Many shelters are motivated to get dogs adopted, because they simply don't have the space to hold dogs for long periods of time.

There are some laws that would dictate who the true owner of the dog is.

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According to our legal system, pets are property, much like a TV or a couch, so for the most part, whoever currently has the pet is considered the owner. However, in these tricky situations, there are a few specifics that you should consider.


• The shelter may be subject to mandatory hold times, and if they didn't follow those laws, there could be a problem. Most states or cities have laws that establish how long a found pet must be held at a shelter. States may also have laws that require a previous owner to be notified, and hold periods usually don't start until that notification happens. If a previous owner can prove that the shelter violated the law in allowing you to adopt the dog, then there might be a problem.

• Adopting a pet creates a binding contract between you and the shelter. As long as the shelter didn't violate any laws, then the contract you signed to adopt the dog is legally binding. That means you own the dog, and it's your decision whether you want to return them to a previous owner or now.

• If you found the dog but did not try to contact a previous owner, then they might have stronger claim. Many states require all found dogs be taken to animal shelters, so that the animal can more easily be reunited with its family. Some people avoid taking dogs there for fear that they might be euthanized. However, animal shelters create a legal paper trail, and they are the most common place an owner will look for their lost dog. If a previous owner can proved they tried to find their animal, then they might still be considered the legal owner.

• In more complicated cases, a judge might look at "proof of ownership." When it comes to dogs, judges may look at registration, microchipping, vet bills, and other documentation to determine who is the legal owner of the pet.

However, in the end, it will usually be the new owner's discretion as to where the adopted dog will live.

Most of the time, the current owner has legal rights to the dog. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that you deserve to keep it. If you've talked with the previous owner and gotten a sense of the legal situation, then it will probably be up to you to make the call about whether the dog would have a better life with you or a previous family.


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Try to focus on what's best for the dog, rather than your own feelings. It may sound harsh, but it will be easier to handle the process emotionally if you focus on your furry friend. Try to think about all the different elements that make a dog's life happy.

  • Living situation — Who has a home that's better suited for the dog?
  • Lifestyle — Whose lifestyle and work schedule fits better with the dog?
  • Family composition — How does the dog feel about other pets and children? Think about which situation offers the most ideal family for the pup. Particularly, if there are children and other pets involved that the dog is extremely attached to the do?
  • Financial situation. Particularly if the dog is older or requires special medical care, which home can offer that?

Once you've gone through this list, focusing on the dogs needs and happiness, then you can think about yourself. If you honestly feel that you offer the dog a home as good as or better than the previous family, then it's okay to feel like you should keep the dog. However, if you love the dog but feel like the dog will be happier in their previous home, that's also totally fine. It's a complex situation without a clear answer, so you'll have to trust yourself and believe that you're doing what's best for the animal and everyone else involved.

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Regardless, it's nice to know that your pet is so loved, that people can't decide who gets to love it more.

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.


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