Adopted a dog and the original owner shows up - what to do?
May 3, 2014 8:14 PM   Subscribe

I adopted a dog a month ago. The shelter held him for 10 days, but no one came to claim him. Now the shelter has received a call from someone claiming it is their dog, with a very sad story (death in the family) about why he was lost and no one looked for him. I feel very bad for these people if their story is true, and wonder if the dog would be happier with his original owners. I'm also very attached to the dog, as is my kitten, and have been crying a lot at the thought of giving him up. I can't get another dog now that I've started working in the afternoons - I had a lot of time this month to help him rehome. The dog was found not neutered despite being several years old, which makes me nervous about previous vet care, so I have asked the shelter to look into vet records. How can I make this decision? I have strong feelings on both sides of the argument.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What is the shelter saying you should do?
posted by katypickle at 8:16 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have any idea whether you should give the dog back or not. I think that's your decision to be made without input from MetaFilter. I suggest talking to the shelter, as they will likely provide you both with some guidance from a practical perspective (like if you are obligated to return the dog or not) and from their own experience (for instance, their impression of the suspected previous owners).

A thought if you do consider returning the dog: make the ostensible previous owners work for the dog. Ask for a large (say >$1000) donation to the shelter in exchange for the dog. If the owners really were in such a bad scenario and really do want the dog back, then they get their dog back and you make a tangible improvement to the lives of many animals. If the owners are neglectful as you suspect they might be, they would be disinclined to pursue the arrangement.

I have no idea what your legal obligations are here. However, I'd suggest that even if you are legally obligated to return the dog, they would have to take you to court with a questionable case to do anything about it. If that were to occur, you'd have lots of notice in order to return the dog. In short, I think what you do is entirely up to you.
posted by saeculorum at 8:21 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is no way a death in my family could cause me to suddenly not know where my pets were. Even if I had to go out of town, a reliable friend would be coming to care for them. Having a death in the family is indeed very sad, but I wouldn't do anything unless the shelter suggests you're legally obligated to. But I wouldn't want any more contact with whoever was alleging to own the dog unless you were seriously considering giving said dog back. Plenty of rescue pets come without vet records.
posted by Sequence at 8:28 PM on May 3, 2014 [51 favorites]

I pretty much agree with Sequence...I suppose if they left the dog in the care of a friend or someone else who turned out to be less than responsible that would be one thing. But even a death in the family wouldn't make me suddenly not care about my dog's whereabouts. 10 days is a LONG time.
posted by radioamy at 9:01 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ten days is too long unless something of apocalyptic proportions is happening. I have no idea about the legality, but morally I'd say keep the dog and give it bundles of love every day.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:10 PM on May 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

For me to return this dog, there would have to be significant vet history with this dog attached to this family, as well as photographic evidence that the dog was theirs. Barring either of those things, I think you have the moral high ground for keeping this pet unless you believe that the other family could provide him with a better life.
posted by Night_owl at 9:11 PM on May 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

10 days is a long time - and only the amount of time that he was in the shelter. Who knows how long he was on the streets before then? It's a miracle that he wasn't hit by a car, or drawn into some other misfortunate circumstance.

And now, one month later, his previous owners have finally decided to look for him?

They were negligent. If they couldn't even take the time to contact local shelters and email photos of him, they do not deserve to have him back.
posted by invisible ink at 9:19 PM on May 3, 2014 [17 favorites]

My gut reaction is that you should return the dog. The period after a death can be very chaotic. The dog didn't necessarily get lost due to negligence. Some dogs like to run away. Maybe this dog ran, and then the family was unable to look for him or looked but didn't find the right shelter at first.

As for neutering, is it possible the family wanted to breed the dog? Does the dog seem healthy and happy otherwise? Do the previous owners seem honest in their communications? It strikes me as unkind to judge a bereaved family as negligent without more evidence. You have only had the dog for a month. If he was truly loved by the previous owners and they telling the truth about the death, losing their dog will add to their pain.

Best of luck with your tough decision.
posted by Comet Bug at 9:35 PM on May 3, 2014 [23 favorites]

I should add that I do understand the other side of your dilemma. I don't think you're obligated to give him back, but I tend to think it would be kind to the family to do so unless you have more reason to question their care of him.
posted by Comet Bug at 9:41 PM on May 3, 2014

Give the dog back. How would you feel if your dog got lost and someone refused to return him? Give him back to his original owners and get your own dog.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:03 PM on May 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

It's been at least a month and a half since the dog disappeared--a month with you, ten days at the shelter, and presumably at least a day or two on the street before the shelter got him. Even if he was there dog, even if there was a tragic death, you don't just not look for an animal in your care for six weeks.

If this was two days after you'd gotten him, yeah, sure, benefit of the doubt. But multiple weeks later? No way. You owe these people nothing, and not knowing where their dog was for six weeks is, to me, plenty of reason to suspect that they're not great dog parents anyhow.

Unless the shelter can legally compel you to return him, keep the dog. Love the dog. Be happy.
posted by MeghanC at 10:07 PM on May 3, 2014 [11 favorites]

My vote is leaning towards keeping the dog. Six weeks is a long time. Sure, I'd want someone to return my dog if it got loose, but I wouldn't be puttering around for six weeks before looking for it, barring severe injury or hurricane katrina level disasters.

It might be different if the dog was obviously well cared for (neutered and chipped. No one who is going to breed a dog hasn't chipped the dog!! Unless they are breeding for horrible purposes.), but having a dog you can't be bothered to take to a vet and then not dealing with its disappearance for six weeks?

Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if the "tragic death" is being exaggerated or doesn't exist. It's not like the shelter is going to ask to see a death certificate.
posted by Dynex at 10:12 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to be very careful before you give this dog up to the owner. This is neglect by the owner that the poor dog ended up in the shelter. In many cases these dogs are put to death in a week. He was lucky you got him in the first place! The fact that he is not neutered is wierd-not sure what breed this is but it might be used for breeding. Also he is not chipped? Just plain ole neglect, these people do not deserve this dog. Is the dog happy with you? Does he look forlon? Sad, depressed? Dogs that are treated well miss their owners and seem out of place for a few months.

You owe it to this pup to make sure he is okay. These folks have not taken care of him well. He deserves a good owner.
posted by jbean at 10:16 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's nice when questions have such cut and dried, black and white answers.

DO NOT under any circumstances give the dog to these supposed owners. There IS no excuse for failing to even look for a dog until 10+ days had elapsed. Death in the family is NOT NOT NOT an excuse. These folks have demonstrated without a doubt that they are NOT fit to have a feeling creature dependent on them. Would they effing fail to bother claiming their CHILD because something trying happened in their lives? When you take on the responsibility of caring for a dog, you don't get "do overs" or excuses.

Go forth and be a GOOD dog owner.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 10:23 PM on May 3, 2014 [13 favorites]

Based on your timeline of events, the dog was in the shelter for 10 days, you've now had it for a month, and we don't know how long it was on the street. This means, at a minimum, it took this family 40+ days to get in touch with the shelter about their dog.

There is nothing other than death (my own death) or a coma that could possibly keep me from looking for my pet as soon as I realized it was missing, even if a close family member had recently died. I would be walking the streets, calling up every vet and shelter in the county, posting flyers, and doing anything else I could think of to find my dog as soon as possible. That this family failed to do this until after their dog had been missing for more than a month speaks pretty strongly to their being negligent pet owners.

Ensuring the dog is adequately provided for should be your number one priority. I absolutely am with everyone else who says you should keep this dog.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:26 PM on May 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify,

IMHE, animals that want to be found and/or trust their owners tend to stay nearby home and get found promptly.

Animals searching for better circumstances escape and roam.

Owners who do not want to lose their pets, depending on their politics and the pets demeanor, get their animal fixed, have a collar, or get the pet chipped. At least one of these three scenarios has to be in play for me to believe these were responsible dog owners.

Most dogs take a collar. My wild kitty is chipped because she refuses to stay indoors and defeats all collars. The last time I had a dog, chips were not popular, but she had a proper collar and never ran off when let outside in the backyard to do her business, or run off when she was off leash. She did not actively seek to escape her warm bed or food bowl, either.

If the owner was the deceased family member, and there was some trauma that precipitated the dog getting lost, I STILL think you have rightfully inherited this pup.

Without more more details to sway the argument, I can not see it any other way.
posted by jbenben at 10:26 PM on May 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am not seeing in the Op's post that they are in fact negligent dog owners. Not everyone believes in spaying/neutering pets and some people cannot afford to chip their pets. Because they haven't done those things it seems they are being condemned.

I would want more information from the shelter about why they couldn't look for so long. From your post I cannot tell other than it is a very sad story. That isn't really enough info to go on for me.

Sometimes things happen in a persons life that are so bad that pets drop to the bottom of the list. And they can't get help in a crises to deal with their pets.

Please don't condemn because they are not doing things your way. Give them a chance to tell you the whole story.

The mention of a $1000 donation to the shelter seems like blackmail to me and icks me out. If they could make that kind of donation to the shelter they probably could have dealt with the whole situation better.

PS I have rescued and fostered dogs. Weird things happen between people and pets and it doesn't always mean the people are awful and undeserving.
posted by cairnoflore at 10:38 PM on May 3, 2014 [19 favorites]

I think your moral obligation depends on what their story is (and whether the shelter believes it). It's hard to imagine what excuse they could have for not contacting the shelter for so long even with a death in the family.

If it's the owner who died (and the family didn't realise their dog was missing rather than boarded with friends or something), maybe the family would be glad to rehome the dog with you.

If it's not the owner who died (but e.g. maybe the parents lost a child, and were so overwhelmed with grief they had no energy to also look for their dog which went missing at the same time), they might still be glad to rehome the dog, if circumstances are so hard they can't cope with looking for a missing dog.

If it's a more minor death, but they have some other reasonable excuse, e.g. they actually live hundreds of miles away and have been frantically searching for the dog and had no idea it had roamed so far, or something like that, they probably do want their dog back and would take care of it, and you need to return it.

The lack of neutering and chipping makes me suspicious, but in itself doesn't mean they are terrible people. Some people I know are strongly anti-neuter for reasons I disagree with, and I can imagine not everyone chips their animals either.

I'd be more interested in knowing whether the family had followed their legal obligations to register the dog with the local council, or whatever you have to do in your jurisdiction.
posted by lollusc at 12:00 AM on May 4, 2014

People who do not spay, chip, collar their pets, and don't look for them for over a month are bad owners who should not keep animals, full stop.

Merely wanting a pet, or thinking you are a good owner despite these multiple failures is not an excuse. You saved the dog this tone, and did all the right things. You may not be around next time.

Shitty animal carers also get possessive about their pets, just like goods ones do, but are under no obligation to enable their neglect -and this is assuming the story is even true which could very well be the case.

It's your dog now, they ceded ownership when they let an unchipped, non-spayed animal escape and get picked up by a shelter. Tough, but that dog could just as readily died because of their neglect.
posted by smoke at 12:18 AM on May 4, 2014 [16 favorites]

If the original owner can prove the dog is theirs, he should be returned to them.

If the dog is being mistreated by his original owner, animal services should be called.

Everything else is just an excuse, I'm afraid.
posted by Georgina at 2:38 AM on May 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Reminder: Ask Metafilter is not a discussion space. Please just answer the question if you have an answer, and try to help the OP. If you want to have a conversation or debate with someone, use email.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:41 AM on May 4, 2014

Give the dog back if they can prove that the dog was theirs, was otherwise well taken care of, and that there were extenuating circumstances originating from the death of a loved one. Let your conscience be your guide, but let them have the burden of proof. If they can meet the burden of proof, your conscience will be clear and you will have done a wonderful thing.

Best of luck with the decision.
posted by chinabound at 3:03 AM on May 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kinetic Jr works with animals and says this happens more often than you'd imagine.

According to her, people make the rehoming decision based on these factors:

1) Original owner's care. Non-neutered and non-chipped male indicates possible breeder dog, show dog, or not the highest quality care, but it does not indicate negligence.

2) How long the animal was mis-homed. Up to 2 weeks is the standard to return a dog to the original owners.

3) Investment of new owner. If you've paid for substantial medical care for a neglected dog, then you have more of a claim to keep him.

Your question has some gray areas. How long was the dog missing? Did the shelter say it was a reasonably healthy dog?

My daughter says it sucks and it's horrible, but...have the shelter director or manager speak to the original owner and find out exactly how the dog ended up at the shelter and why the dog wasn't chipped or neutered. If there's a incredibly reasonable story (they were far away, nobody told them the dog was missing), then offer to return the dog.

It's hard but it's the right thing to do.

And don't cry! You did a great thing and there WILL be another dog for you.

There's always another dog.
posted by kinetic at 4:39 AM on May 4, 2014 [23 favorites]

By the way I meant to add, creative alternative solution sometimes can be the best way. If you do have to give the dog back, it sounds crazy, but they might be amenable to visitation rights where you could take the dog on the weekends or something like that. If you can establish good faith on both sides and you both approach it with a win-win mentality it doesn't necessarily mean that you or the other party will end up losing. You never know…
posted by chinabound at 4:51 AM on May 4, 2014

The only thing that could compel me to give the dog back is legal obligation, and I don't think they would have that on their side since the shelter did everything by the book and you have adoption paperwork, etc. IANYL, but shelters have holding periods for that very reason and the owners did not come forward in that time. Animal control around me will only hold a dog for 3 days before it goes up for adoption so 10 days is pretty generous.

I see no moral obligation/argument as valid since it's been 40+ days and that's a completely ridiculous amount of time to finally begin searching for a lost pet.

I do, however, disagree with those who said a happy pet will not wander. That is simply not true. There are several breeds that have wandering pretty much built in, and most dogs don't have terrific boundary and recall training. I believe training is very important, but I also believe having a collared, microchipped dog is more so for this very scenario!
posted by rawralphadawg at 5:02 AM on May 4, 2014

This is state specific information so check your state for more accurate information, but this is relevant. From here (just did a quick Google search to find).

Q: My missing dog was adopted from the pound before I had a chance to find her there. They said they only keep the dog for 3 days, they found her Tuesday night and she was adopted Friday morning. How can I get her back?

A: Courts, including in Georgia, have held (but with some exceptions based on the specific facts of the case) that ‘owners’ of lost dogs forfeit rights to the dogs who had been held by an animal shelter for the number of days required by law and then adopted. One such Georgia case involved a dog (wearing no tags or other means of ID) who had wandered from his ‘owner’s property, found at a shopping center and brought to the Atlanta Humane Society. The dog was held for nine days and adopted out. The court found in favor of the Atlanta Humane Society and stated that, “The owner has a right to redemption if that right of redemption is exercised in three days.” The court further found that it was appropriate for the Atlanta Humane Society to refuse to release the name of the adopter to the original ‘owner.’ However, if a shelter adopts out an animal before it was legally allowed to do so (the 'owner' redemption period had not expired) the original ‘owner’ should have a reasonable claim for the animal’s return though these cases can get very complicated when the shelter no longer has possession of the animal. If the shelter is unwilling or unable to get the animal returned to you, consult with an attorney in your state regarding a lawsuit.

posted by rawralphadawg at 5:25 AM on May 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I forgot to add this: also have the shelter administrator 100% ascertain that you're all talking about the same dog. Have they confirmed this without a shadow of a doubt with records and photographs? It's a moot point if not.
posted by kinetic at 5:31 AM on May 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is surprising to see the variety of responses here. It's a difficult question. However, this is what shelters do: they take in stray dogs, give the owners a reasonable amount of time to claim them, and then they adopt them out to new owners if they aren't claimed.

It's over: you adopted the dog. Whether it was a month ago or a year ago or ten years ago, this is now your dog. What would you do if this happened in a year? In two years? Do the original owners just have "first dibs" forever?

This is your dog. They can adopt another dog. This is how it works. It is crummy for them but that's life. Some mistakes can't be undone. Losing a pet is one.

Will you feel worse in a year if you keep the dog or if you give it up? Personally I'd feel worse if I gave it away - it's more uncertain. You know that you can give him a good life. You know nothing about the life he'd have with the new owners. That would personally keep me awake at night. Keeping the dog would not.

Also: visitation? No. Do not let these people into your life. People are all wild cards until you get to know them and you do not want to establish a relationship where you're handing off the dog every weekend or something. That way lies disaster.
posted by sockermom at 5:59 AM on May 4, 2014 [12 favorites]

I don't think it's right to keep the dog if the circumstances prove the real owners were not negligent. There are at least numerous little animal shelters unaffiliated with national organizations in my area that I could see it taking a long time to locate a lost dog.

Animal shelters are also not always sympathetic to good owners who do search for their lost animals and get there a day too late. A cat of a relative went missing and when she was found, we had two days to retrieve her before she'd put up for adoption. We had spent wee ks searching for her. We knew she hadn't gone far from where she went missing because she could be heard mewling. We put out traps and people in the area had sighted her. She wasn't caught until a week after the relative had to depart the area three weeks after she went missing The person who caught her returned her into the area animal shelter a month after she went missing.

Then we had to scramble to retrieve her from the shelter. The cat escaped. She wasn't neglected though she looked that way a month after missing I'm sure. She lives with us now because the cat did better as a single cat than with the other cats the relatives had, but our relative wouldn't have wanted her adopted out by the shelter like that.

Sometimes animals escape and go missing and really don't turn up for some time through mo fault of the owners.

So, yeah, you should probably give the dog back.
posted by zizzle at 6:12 AM on May 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Last year I asked this question.

I found a lost dog and brought it to an emergency vet, who scanned it for a chip (no chip), a collar but no id and unneutered. The vet put out ads on their website and on craiglist and the owners came and got him within 24 hours. They required that the owners bring in documentation that the dog was theirs, and I am guessing, gave them grief for their negligence regarding the id. And even though they were clearly very attached to their dog and immediately rescued him, I was half-hoping I could keep him or that he would go through the adoption process with more responsible owners. It was the right thing to do, though, in this case, to return him to his owners, despite their irresponsibility. Perhaps it was a needed wake-up call for them.

However, your case, is much more cut and dried. The previous owners may have loved their dog dearly, but a month-long gap in trying to locate a beloved pet means that they are beyond irresponsible, no matter what the unique circumstances of their situation are, and shouldn't be able to own a pet. And, tangentially, death in the family is a standard line my students give me. Sometimes it is true, most of the time it is not.
posted by nanook at 7:03 AM on May 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

You didn't mention the dog's age or temperament, but there may be clues there on how best to handle this.

My dog was a stray when I adopted her. She sat unclaimed for five days (the claim period at my shelter), and when no one claimed her, she was spayed and chipped and sent home with me.

My pup was about ten months old at adoption. She'd not been spayed or chipped. She had no collar. She'd never been groomed, and her face was a lion's mane of scruff and tear stains. She was scrawny and bony, but perhaps part of that that could have been due to her time on the street. They found her in winter, and we'd had sunny days but it'd been snowing and below freezing at night. She was terrified of men in hats and overcoats (she'd snarl and bark and go borderline feral; her hair would stand straight up). She wasn't housetrained.

I'm inclined to think she'd been neglected. Because she was so young, and because she'd made so much progress with me in just a few weeks (gained weight, solid vet care, grooming, basic training, and a good home), I think I would have decided to keep her.

HOWEVER, if she'd been older and had shown signs/quirks of living in a home for several years; or was oddly calm in new situations; or was generally good with all kinds of people; or had known a couple of commands; or was housebroken or had at least some control/training; or had been groomed recently and had clean ears and teeth... Those are other signs that the dog came from somewhere with a home/family that held a history for her. In your position, if those situations existed to some degree and the story about losing the dog made sense, I'd probably give the dog back.

If it's something in between, I'd talk to your contact at the shelter and ask her for her gut feeling about what to do.

Also: Several people are suggesting the original owners didn't neuter the dog so they could breed him. If your shelter's like mine, they sterilize all animals upon adoption, so breeding would be moot and the dog may no longer be so valuable to them.

Also: I'm with smoke. Are they SURE it's the same dog?
posted by mochapickle at 7:49 AM on May 4, 2014

I think if you choose to keep the dog, you are ethically fine, and in these circumstances, I would keep the dog.
posted by theora55 at 8:25 AM on May 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think they'd have to have a reaaaaaally good story to explain a month's negligence. I'm not even sure what the heck a really good story would be for me to say, "Oh, okay, I totally feel fine handing your dog back now." (Someone died plus the dog jumped out of the car in some state they don't live in as they were on the way to the funeral in a third state, and then someone else in the family ended up in the hospital and they couldn't go back to Ohio to look for the dog when they were in the hospital in New York.... I seriously can't think of something reasonable.)

As everyone else has pointed out, they'd at least have freaking noticed that their pets were gone and have started looking for them long before this if they were good pet owners rather than flakes. And if they are flakes, no wonder the dog roamed looking for a better life. They may love their dog, but that doesn't mean they're good pet owners and should be handed him back.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:29 AM on May 4, 2014

Everyone seems to be assuming that the dog's owners weren't looking for him this whole time. That's a pretty big assumption to make. How do you know they hadn't already contacted all the shelters, and that the workers/volunteers at the one their dog was at didn't just mistakenly give them wrong information? In my experience, animal shelters are pretty poorly run organizations, and most of the time the people answering the phone don't know what's going on. They don't even check microchips 100% of the time.

Find out more about the owners and the circumstances before writing them off as bad pet owners. It's entirely possible that they were out of town dealing with the death and their pet sitter was incompetent.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:17 PM on May 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


The OP stated outright that "no one looked for him."
posted by mysterious_stranger at 11:18 PM on May 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

While I certainly sympathize with the family - IF their story is true (I'm suspecting it isn't) - I would not feel obligated to return the dog to them. Legally, they have no claim to the dog. The state became legal owner after holding him 10 days. He hasn't even been in their care for at -least- 40 days. That's a long time to neglect to search for your dog. Even with an alleged death in the family, you don't just 'forget' to give a crap about your responsibilities for a month - a few days, sure - but over a month? How do they even know the dog you adopted is their dog? How did they even know he was there - 40 days after the fact? Why didn't they reach out sooner? Why didn't they leave info with the shelter when they first noticed the dog missing? And if you're aware your dog is missing - how do you just not care enough for 40 days to do...well...anything?

FWIW I'm looking at it from this perspective: If you hadn't adopted the dog - a dog that's already several years old and thus low-demand in a shelter setting - there's a very high chance he would've been put to sleep. Everyone would've lost and they'd still be out of luck.

You've saved him. You've trained/acclimated him to your life in a way you can't repeat. He is yours, by law and in every sense of the word. Finding the right doggy companion is tough (I'm learning this one firsthand), so I couldn't imagine finding the right one, then being asked to give him back to the very people who let him wind up in a shelter.

Keep him.
posted by stubbehtail at 12:23 PM on May 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

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