September 21, 2023

Epic Law

The Law Folks

Are Dog Rescue Adoption Contracts Becoming Leasing Agreements?

In my ongoing research into dog rescue groups, I have discovered an alarming change that some groups are making to their adoption contracts. A new item is being added to the contract that effectively gives the rescue group the “right” to reclaim the dog you adopted at any time in the future.

A puppy mill rescue group close to my home added the following item to their adoption contract during the summer of 2011:

I will agree that a representative of (rescue group name) may periodically wish to see the dog, my residence and the living conditions which I provide for the dog, and I further agree to surrender the dog to a representative of (rescue group name) if for any reason he/she considers the conditions provided by me for the dog unsuitable.

This clause is ridiculous for several reasons:

(1) The rescue group insisted on a home visit to inspect your residence before they approved you for adoption. They already know what the living conditions are.

(2) Another item says you must agree to “assume all risk of ownership.” You must assume the risk, but they can remove your dog at any time. Apparently “ownership” does not mean what we believe?

(3) An additional item says you are responsible for all expenses incurred after the adoption. You must pay for everything related to the dog you adopt, but they can still take your dog at any time in the future. Of course, they reimburse you for neither those expenses nor for the adoption fee you paid. (FYI. You do not actually pay an adoption fee. You make a DONATION. This is the reason they do not have to reimburse you.)

(4) Another item says you may not give the dog away. As an example, this would mean that if your life changes, you may not give the dog to your grown child. You are not free to make decisions about the future ownership of the dog you adopt.

(5) Another item says that if the dog is lost or dies, you must notify the rescue group. I have no idea why.

(6) If they feel the need to sue you to enforce the contract, you must pay all legal costs, including theirs. This means that if you try to keep “your” dog, they can sue you and you will be forced to pay their legal fees as well as your own.

(7) We are not this restrictive with the adoption of children.

Thus, while you agree to assume all risks, pay all necessary costs, and have no say into future ownership of the dog you adopt, you really do not OWN the dog. If they can come to your home at any time to reclaim the dog you thought you adopted, you obviously don’t own it. You leased it.

My reaction to seeing this item the first time was “Why would anyone agree to sign this contract?” There are, of course, several reasons people sign these contracts.

The first reason is same reason people often get themselves into trouble with contracts–they don’t actually read it. Or, if they do read the contract, they don’t really understand the ramifications. The rescue may simply represent the contract as a standard adoption contract which many people believe means they do not need to read it. This is NEVER true. Always READ the contract thoroughly and be certain you understand and can live with every item.

A second reason for signing these contracts is not believing the rescue group would ever really come take your dog. I recently read about a situation involving this group’s partner rescue. A woman’s living arrangements changed. She moved into an apartment. Someone reported this to the rescue. The group felt an apartment was wrong for the dog she had adopted, so they reclaimed her dog. IT DOES HAPPEN! Keep in mind that once they have reclaimed a dog, the rescue is free to again adopt it out (sell it). Beware and do not assume anything!

A third reason is that people do not foresee a situation in which the rescue group would feel the need to reclaim the dog. This attitude is very short-sighted. Getting divorced, moving, having a baby, having grown children have babies or move back home, losing your job, or developing a long-term illness are just some of the situations that might make the rescue reconsider your adoption.

A fourth reason that people sign these contracts is to avoid disappointing the family. If you don’t read the contract before looking at any animals, you may find yourself in the situation of having children who have fallen in love with a dog, are excited to take the dog home, and have even named it. Not signing the contract means turning to your family and saying “never mind.”

A few people sign these contracts because they believe the contracts are not legally defensible. The truth of this view varies by region; but I doubt if anyone wants to pay double legal fees to find out. Some people have an “over my dead body” attitude about anyone removing their dog, but again, this might not be worth testing.

What everyone must understand is that virtually every rescue group has its application to adopt and the adoption contract available to read online. ALWAYS read these before looking at any animals. If you attend an adoption event, go to the information table and ask to read these items BEFORE looking at any animals. If you find this or a similar “leasing” clause, move on to a different rescue. NEVER ASSUME the rescue will not reclaim “their” dog or pursue legal means of doing so.

If you happen to find this clause AFTER you have found your perfect pet, it is worth trying to get the rescue to compromise by adding a time limit for this clause. I believe that most human adoptions are final after one year. All dog adoptions should become FINAL at some point. You should never have to fear having your loved canine family member reclaimed. All of your human family members will adapt to any change. So can your dog!