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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.
Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter? Check out our demand letter tool.
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 courts.
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 at your designated time.
You and your roommate 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 determined when you split your property after a divorce, and it is probably not a small claims lawsuit.
Here are some examples of lawsuits involving dogs:
A Solano small claims lawsuit was filed against an ex-partner for the return of their dog.
The person who filed the lawsuit wanted either their dog returned or to be reimbursed for the price of the dog and other expenses related to its care that they had paid for.
The judge in this case ruled that the person who filed the lawsuit, with the help of the Solano County Sheriff’s office, could go and retrieve the dog from the ex-partner.
In addition, the judge awarded the person who filed the lawsuit $125.00 for court costs.
In Fresno, someone filed a small claims lawsuit against their ex-partner for not returning their dog.
The person who filed the lawsuit had reported their missing dog to the police. Later, they discovered that someone had found the dog and had returned it to their ex-partner. The ex-partner had kept the dog without telling the true owner (the person who filed the lawsuit).
The judge in the case ruled that the ex-partner had to return the dog to the person who filed the lawsuit, which was the other ex-partner. If the dog was not returned by the time of the next hearing, the ex-partner would have to pay the value of the dog, which was set by the judge at $5,000.
It's important to note that in small claims courts, including those in California, you can typically only sue for the value of your property. However, in some cases, a judge may order someone to return the property instead via a “conditional judgment.”
What To Do Before Suing Someone Who Took Your Dog
Step 1: If the Person Who Took Your Dog is an Ex, Consider Who Has Custody of the Dog
Most of the time, couples who have broken up or divorced want to know, “who gets custody of the dog after a breakup?” If they aren’t sure, they end up in situations where one person will take the dog even if they don’t have the legal right to.
Under the law, animals are generally considered legal property (although they are regarded as family members in our hearts!). It's important that you confirm this is the case in your state, as laws regarding animals have changed in recent years. For example, California has recently established a "pet custody law" (which only applies to divorces) that treats pets more like family and less like property (this law only applies if you were married to the other dog parent). See California Family Code sec. 2605.
The fact that animals are considered property is not always bad news. For example, if your ex gave you the dog as a birthday gift while you were together and now wants the dog back because you guys broke up, they probably won’t be able to take the dog back. Generally, property given as a gift is not required to be returned, unless there was some type of agreement that the item would be shared or returned. In the case of a dog, for example, if there was an agreement that if you broke up, your ex would take the dog back, then the dog would need to be returned.
If the person who took your dog was an ex-wife or husband, the situation may be more complicated. During a divorce, the property is divided according to the laws of the state where the divorce is taking place. Since dogs are usually (but as we learned, not always) considered property, you may want to look into family laws in your state to figure out how property is divided after a divorce. Note, you would have to handle these issues in a family court during the divorce proceedings and not in small claims.
Step 2: Communicate Directly With the Person Who Took Your Dog
Consider communicating with the person who took your dog if you are able to do so.
Here are some factors to consider when taking this approach:
Many disputes get resolved through open communication. You want to make sure that your ex or the other person who has your dog understands that they have taken YOUR dog.
Have the person who took your dog try to step in your shoes, so they understand how horrible you feel not having your dog. This may help them understand why you would like your dog back immediately.
If they are not budging, explain to them that you intend to escalate the situation if they don't immediately return your dog.
Step 3: Save All Evidence
You want to make sure to save all evidence related to your dog, so you have it ready to go. If the person that took your dog was your ex, they might think they are the true owner of the dog. It is extremely important you are prepared to prove you’re the true owner of the dog 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. Or ask them to testify at your small claims hearing when the time comes.
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.
Step 4: 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.
Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to someone who took your dog? Below are a few suggestions:
Why you immediately need your dog back.
Your contact information.
Provide alternative solutions like mediation. States have many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation, and most courts also have free mediation available (you may be required to file a lawsuit before accessing free court mediation). We go over mediation later on in the article.
Give them a few days to respond (usually about 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 any alternative.
Send a demand letter even if you don’t end up escalating the dispute to small claims court, as a demand letter is a quick and effective tool that can help you resolve a dispute. Check out our demand letter tool here.
Step 5: 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).
Generally, you will need to file the police report with the police department nearest to where your dog was stolen. Call the police non-emergency line to confirm their process for reporting stolen property and if they have authority (or jurisdiction) over the address where the dog was stolen.
If you are able to file a police report for your dog, make sure you keep a copy of the police report. You can use this police report as evidence in your small claims hearing.
If the police believe your situation is a civil dispute (or they chose to call it a civil dispute), you may be able to request a civil standby:
A civil standby usually consists of a sheriff or police officer accompanying you to reclaim your property.
The role of the police in these situations is to “keep the peace” while you try to retrieve your dog back.
A civil standby may be helpful if you anticipate the encounter will be violent or dangerous.
Note that not all police departments may offer civil standbys as an option.
Step 6: Consider Consulting With an Attorney
If you have any doubts or concerns about suing someone in small claims court for taking your pet, consider consulting with an attorney.
Below are some things to consider before consulting with an attorney:
There are attorneys who specialize in animal law, and who may have experience in cases relating to pet theft.
If someone takes your property, such as a pet, and you want to sue them in small claims court, you can also consult with an attorney who deals with the tort law of "conversion" (which is a fancy way of saying taking property).
Small claims courts were designed to empower everyday people to resolve their disputes without the need for an attorney. You always have the option of going to small claims court on your own without the need for an attorney.
Step 7: Consider Suing Someone in Small Claims Court for Taking Your Dog
Many people do not think of taking someone to small claims court to get their dog back. However, small claims courts are equipped to handle cases regarding the ownership or custody of a dog.
Be aware that even if the court agrees that the dog is yours, they may not be able to force the person who took your dog to give them back. Instead, the court will award you money damages (in this case, the value of your dog).
How Can Small Claims Court Help You Get Your Dog Back
Suing in small claims court can be an effective way to recover either the value of your dog or your dog back.
Most small claims courts will only let you sue for the value of your property. For example, if you sue someone in small claims court for conversion (taking property), the court will only award you the amount you proved your dog was worth. The court, in this case, can’t force the person who took your dog to give them back.
However, some small claims courts also allow people to file a writ of replevin. This is a court order requiring the return of your personal property by the person wrongfully keeping it.
Generally, to obtain a writ of replevin, you have to provide evidence that you are the rightful owner of the property and that the other person has no legal right to possess them. If the court agrees that the dog is yours, they will issue the writ so you can retrieve your dog.
Before filing your small claims lawsuit, confirm with the court whether you can only sue to get the value of your dog or if you can sue to get your dog back.
How Much Does it Cost to Sue Someone in Small Claims?
Costs will vary by state and even by court. Typically it costs anywhere from $0-$75 to file a small claims lawsuit. Most small claims courts offer fee waivers to low-income individuals, so the cost you pay to file your lawsuit could end up being $0.
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.” This can also cost anywhere between $0-$100, depending on who you use to deliver the lawsuit.
How Long Do You Have to Sue Someone for Taking Your Dog
States have set deadlines that let you know by when you should file your lawsuit against someone who took your dog.
These deadlines are known as the statute of limitations.
The statute of limitations is the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits.
What matters is the type of claim you are filing. So when you are looking up the statute of limitations in your case, you want to look for the return of property (conversion or replevin) statute of limitations.
It is recommended that you don’t wait to file your small claims lawsuit to get your property back. If you wait too long, the statute of limitations may pass before you are able to file.
How Do You Calculate How Much to Sue for?
When figuring out how to calculate how much to sue someone for taking your dog, there are a couple of aspects you need to keep in mind:
Above all, make sure you aren’t suing for more than the small claims limit. You cannot sue for more than this limit. For example, your ex took your purebred Chow Chow, which you paid $11,000 for. You want to sue your ex in a New York City small claims court to get the value of your dog back. The limit in New York City small claims court is $10,000. This means you can sue for up to $10,000 and waive the additional $1,000.
Most of the time, what you will need to calculate is the fair market value of your dog. Check how much other dogs of similar size, breed, age, training, etc., are selling for.
You can also calculate how much to sue for based on how much you originally paid for the dog (if you have evidence of this amount). You can also include other expenses related to the dog, including vet visits, food, and training to your calculations.
Remember, some courts will only be able to award you the value of the dog based on your estimates, not force the person that took your dog to give them back to you.
How to File a Small Claims Lawsuit Against Someone Who Took Your Dog
Generally, there are 3 steps in the small claims process:
File the lawsuit.
Serve the lawsuit.
Prepare for the hearing
We break down each one of these steps below.
Step 1. Filing the Lawsuit
Once you prepare all the required forms, you will need to submit these forms to the court. This is called filing. Not all courts have the same filing options, but in general, most courts allow you to file in one of the following ways:
In-person. You can file your small claims lawsuit in person by going to the courthouse. Once you get to the courthouse, locate the room number for the “Clerk of the Court.” Before you make a trip to the courthouse, confirm the filing fees and the number of copies you need to file, so that you have everything ready to go.
By mail. Most courts allow people to file their lawsuits by mail. Make sure to submit the appropriate amount of copies of your small claims lawsuit along with an envelope stamped and labeled with your address. If you don't do this, the court may not file your lawsuit or will file your lawsuit but not mail it back to you.
Online. Most small claims courts don't accept lawsuits filed online. This is called electronic filing or e-filing. Unfortunately, not all courts have this option, or if they do, the online filing system may be overly complicated because it's designed for law firms.
Step 2: Serving the Lawsuit
Once you file your case, the next step is to notify the person you are suing that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" or "serving."
Who can serve a small claims lawsuit?
Not you! You can’t serve your own small claims lawsuit.
The court clerk. Some court clerks can deliver your small claims lawsuit by mail.
Process server. This is a person who is professionally licensed to deliver lawsuit documents. This is what they do for a living, so they are usually really good at it!
Sheriff. Depending on the county where the other party needs to be served, you may be able to use the sheriff to deliver your lawsuit.
Friend or family member. Some courts allow you to use a friend or family member to deliver your lawsuit for you. Make sure the person you use is also not involved in the lawsuit or with the outcome of the lawsuit.
Step 3: Preparing for the Small Claims Hearing
Once you file and serve your small claims lawsuit, you will be given a time and date for your hearing. To win at your small claims hearing, you need to be prepared.
To prepare for your small claims court hearing:
Research the law. Before going to your hearing, make sure you understand the laws regarding property and dog ownership so you can make a strong argument as to why you deserve to be awarded the value of your dog or your dog back.
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 the court. This evidence should show exactly why you need to get your dog back. For example, you can prove that the dog is yours and that you have a rightful claim to it.
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. Some courts will also award court fees if you win your case. This means the person who took your dog will have to reimburse you for your filing and serving fees.
Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, and one for the person you sued).
Step 8: Mediation as an Option for 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.
The 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 have a longstanding relationship or 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?
States have many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation.
To find these organizations run a google search for "mediation near me" or try “dispute resolution near me.” Many times these mediation centers are run by volunteer mediators, which helps keep the cost of mediation low.
Many courts also offer court-sponsored mediation as part of the lawsuit process or as an additional option. This means you may be referred to mediation before your hearing without having to do anything, or you can request mediation if you would like to try it out. Each court will run its small claims mediation program differently, so reach out to the court for more information.
Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter? Check out our demand letter tool.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.