What to do if your ex took your dog

May 9, 2021
What to do if your ex took your dog
People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

Your ex took your dog after you broke up. Now what? We all know that pets are family and the thought of being without them is devastating. In this article, learn some of your options for when an ex takes or steals your dog. This also applies if your roommate, friend, or other acquaintances takes your pet without your permission.

In this article, learn about:

  • Common types of small claims lawsuits over pets.
  • What to do before suing your ex to return your dog.
  • The maximum amount you can sue your ex for taking your dog in small claims court.
  • How much it costs to sue someone who took your dog in small claims.  
  • How to file a small claims lawsuit against your ex.
  • What to expect during a small claims hearing.
  • Mediation as an option for resolving your dispute.
  • Fun fact, lawyers are not allowed to represent you or the other party in small claims! This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.  
Looking for help with filing, serving, and preparing for the small claims hearing?

Common types of small claims lawsuits over pets

We often receive the question, can I sue my ex for stealing my dog? The answer is yes! Disputes over pets are very common in small claims court. Here are some examples of small claims lawsuits involving pets:

  • Your ex girlfriend kept your dog after you broke up. When you broke up, you had agreed that each of you would share custody of your beloved Fido. One day, she failed to show up to deliver your dog for your designated time.
  • Your roommate and you agreed to get a dog. You decided to move out after you could not handle your roommate anymore. Your roommate insists your dog is theirs.
  • One day you realize someone stole your dog. As you are walking in your neighborhood looking for your dog, you realize your neighbor took your dog!

Keep in mind that if you were married to the person who took your dog, the custody of the dog may be determine when you split your property after a divorce and it is probably not a small claims lawsuit.

What to do before suing someone who took your dog

The first thing to do when someone has taken your dog, is to communicate with the person who took your dog if you are able to do so. Many disputes get resolved by openly communicating. You want to make sure that your ex or the other person who has your dog understands that they have taken YOUR dog. Most of the time, you will get your dog back this way. Have them try to step in your shoes so they understand how you feel as this may help them understand why you would like your dog back. If they are not bulging, explain to them that you intend to escalate the situation if they don't immediately return your dog.

Save All Evidence

You want to make sure to save all evidence related your dog so you have it ready to go. In many cases involving pets, the question is about who actually owns the pet. Your ex may think they are the true owner of the dog so it is extremely important you are prepared if the situation escalates to small claims.

Here are some questions you may receive and suggested evidence to think about when suing about a dog:

  • Whose name is registered with the vet as the parent? Ask the vet to give you a copy of any forms they have on file.
  • Who has paid the vet bills? For example, you can show that you paid vet bills using your bank statement.
  • Who bought the food, medications, or toys? If you have receipts, you can include them.
  • Do you have your dog listed as an emotional support animal? You can include a copy of your doctor's note authorizing your ESA.
  • Who purchased the dog or who is listed on the adoption paperwork? Ask the breeder or the adoption center for a copy of their records if you don't have them.
  • Who was responsible for walking or feeding the dog every day? You can ask your neighbors for a written statement if they saw you walking the dog.
  • Do friends and family believe you own the dog? You can ask your friends and family for a written statement of how they saw you taking care of the dog.
  • If you believe your dog was stolen, have you filed a police report that your dog has been stolen? Get a copy of the police report.
  • Does your dog have a microchip that lists you as an owner? Get a copy of the microchip record.
  • Do you have text messages with your ex about the dog? The judge will likely want to see those text messages or emails.
  • Pictures and videos of you with the dog.

You want to start collecting as much evidence as possible before suing in small claims as this may help you convince your ex to return your dog before having to escalate the situation.

Send a Demand Letter

A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could write to your ex and ask them to immediately return your dog. If you eventually decide to sue in California small claims court, you are required to first request your dog back before you can file the lawsuit (unless you have a good reason why you can't request your dog back). While you can request your dog back orally, it is suggested you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter.

It is very common to request reimbursement via text message or by phone but you may have a higher chance of getting your dog back if you do it in the form of a letter. Letters are oftentimes taken more seriously than demands via text message or phone.  

What to include in the demand letter?

Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to someone who took your dog? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Why you immediately need your dog back.
  • Your contact information.
  • Option to mediate your dispute (there are many organizations in California that provide free or low-cost mediation and most courts also have free mediation available but many times you have to file a lawsuit in order to obtain access). More on mediation below.
  • Give them a few days to respond (usually about 7 to 14 days).
  • Let them know that if they don't respond, you intend to sue because you didn't feel like they left you with an alternative.

Consider filing a police report

As mentioned above, if you believe someone stole your dog, you can consider filing a police report stating that your dog has been stolen. The police may take action or they may say they don't get involved in "civil" disputes (which means you have to pursue your dispute in court). If you are able to file a police report for your dog, make sure you keep a copy of the police report.

Preparing for small claims

Once you are ready for small claims, you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit. On the SC-100, you will be asked how much money you are suing for. While everyone knows your dog is invaluable, you still need to be able to list an amount. The maximum you can sue for in California small claims is $10,000. In the event that the judge decides that you cannot be returned your dog but you should still receive money for your dog, the judge will establish how much you are owed. Unfortunately, this may occur and you need to be prepare to establish how much your dog is worth as they are considered property not family under California law :( The most straightforward way is if you purchased your dog from a breeder you know how much your dog costs. If you adopted your dog, this is a lot harder and the judge will have to make a decision of how much you are owed.

How much it costs to sue someone in small claims

  • It costs between $30-$75 to file a small claims lawsuit.
  • Once the lawsuit is filed, the person who stole your dog has to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them. This is called serving. You can serve for free if you have a friend or family member deliver the lawsuit to them or you can pay between $40-$75 to have the lawsuit professionally served.
  • If you are on California public benefits like Medi-cal, Food Stamps, SSI, you pay $0 in court fees and serving costs.

How to file a small claims lawsuit against an ex who took your dog

Step 1: Complete "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)

  • This form starts the California Small Claims Court lawsuit process.
  • It is also known as the "complaint" or "claim."
We can help you prepare and file your small claims lawsuit!

Step 2: File "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court"

Each California Small Claims Court has a different procedure for filing. You have to check with your local small claims court whether they allow filing in-person, by mail, online, or by fax. Or we can file your case for you!

Step 3: Serve the person who took your dog

Once you file your California small claims court lawsuit, the next step is to notify the person you have sued that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" (also known as "service"). You must serve the person you sued at least 15-20 days before the small claims court hearing (sometimes you are required to serve at least 30 days before the hearing).  There are several ways you can serve the person you have sued including by having a friend serve, hiring a process server, or hiring the sheriff. You cannot serve your own lawsuit. We can help you with serving the small claims lawsuit.

The Small Claims Court Hearing

Once you file your small claims lawsuit, you will get a hearing date scheduled anywhere between 30-70 days later. During this time, the person who took your dog, may call your to try and return your dog as they know you are serious. If you get your dog back, you can close your small claims lawsuit.

To prepare for your small claims court hearing:  

  • Prepare your evidence. Review the section above for a suggested evidence checklist you will need for your lawsuit. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why your dog belongs to you. Remember, it is not good to show up to court without any documents or receipts. The judge wants to be able to base their decision on the evidence you bring to court showing exactly why you need to get your dog back (for example, because the dog is yours and you can prove that the dog is yours).
  • Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing. You want to make sure you start with a broad statement like this: "Your honor, I am suing my ex boyfriend because they took my dog, Max, and they refuse to give him back. I have prepared my evidence today to show you why Max belongs to me." Then go into the details.
  • Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, your filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for these costs.
  • Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, one for the person you sued).

Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?

  • Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or the other person at the initial hearing. If the person you sued loses the small claims lawsuit and appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.

Mediation as an option of resolving your dispute

What is mediation?

Mediation is a meeting between you, the person who has your dog, and a neutral 3rd party called the mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Mediation tends to be very successful between people that a longstanding relationship and a relationship that will likely continue for the foreseeable future. If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit.

How can I try to mediate the dispute with the person that took your dog?

In California, there are many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation. Run a google search for "mediation near me" and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. Many times they are run by volunteer mediators.

Many California small claims courts also have free mediation available. Each county runs their small claims mediation a bit differently so reach out to us for more information on your court. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.

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