Many dog control ordinances attempt to give animal control authorities the power to pick up, impound, and sometimes even destroy dogs. But the government's authority is limited by the U.S. Constitution. Here's where the dog's legal classification as "property" comes in handy: The Constitution says the government can't deprive you of your property without giving you due process—that is, notice and a chance to have a hearing. There are, however, important exceptions to this rule: If a dog is unlicensed or running at large, you've probably lost your right to be notified before the dog is picked up or, in some cases, destroyed.
Dogs Running at Large
If a dog running at large poses an immediate danger to the public, most courts agree that the government has the power to impound and destroy it, without first notifying the owner. If a dog is in the act of attacking a person or livestock, anyone, including government employees, may lawfully do anything necessary to stop it.
Laws may not, however, give animal control authorities excessive power to act without first trying to notify an animal's owner. For example, an Idaho statute that said that any dog "running at large in territory inhabited by deer" was a nuisance and could be killed by a game warden was ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court. Similarly, the Michigan Attorney General issued a legal opinion that in that state, animal control officers were not authorized to kill a dog merely because it was running at large. Only a court could order the dog destroyed.
Dogs in Owners' Possession
Occasionally, animal control authorities seize a dog that isn't running loose. Only dogs that have bitten someone or, even more rarely, proven to be an incorrigible nuisance are taken from their owners this way.
Unless a dog is running at large, or an emergency requires immediate action, most courts would agree that an owner who has possession of a dog is entitled to:
- notification before the dog is seized
- notification before the dog is destroyed, and
- a chance to argue, in court, that the dog shouldn't be destroyed.
Most courts, then, would rule unconstitutional any law that allows animal control officials to seize or destroy a dog (in its owner's possession) without giving its owners notice and a hearing. The case of Missy, a black Labrador that was reported to have bitten three children, provides a good example. The county Department of Animal Regulation ordered the dog's owner to confine Missy to an enclosed kennel. Several years later, when the owner had to go into the hospital, her son and daughter-in-law took the dog to their house. When Missy allegedly bit another child, the department ordered the dog seized and destroyed.
The county ordinance did not provide for any notice or hearing before destroying a dog, but the county conducted a "courtesy" hearing at the request of Missy's owner. The hearing officer ruled that Missy should be destroyed. A trial judge agreed. Finally, an appellate court reversed the lower court ruling and declared that Missy "shall live and ‘enjoy the noonday sun.'" The county ordinance was unconstitutional, the court said, because it didn't require a hearing before a dog was taken and destroyed. The courtesy hearing was not enough to satisfy the law. (Phillips v. Director of the Dept. of Animal Regulation, 183 Cal. App. 372 (1986).)
Enforcement by humane societies. Local animal regulations are usually enforced by city and county animal control, health, and police departments. Sometimes, however, a humane society or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) provides animal control services under a contract with the city or county. Or it may have limited powers—for example, to take charge of injured or abandoned animals, or arrest people at an organized dog fight without first getting a warrant. When it is acting in an official capacity, a quasi-public organization such as a humane society is subject to the same constitutional requirements as any other government agency. That means it must respect dog owners' due process rights, discussed above.
What Happens to Impounded Dogs
So many dogs show up at animal shelters every day—strays, dogs abandoned by their owners, dogs declared vicious by courts—that many facilities are strained to the breaking point. They can't keep all those animals forever; many dispose of dogs after only three to seven days. For a dog there are only four ways out of the shelter: it may be reclaimed by its owner, adopted, sold, or destroyed.
Reclaiming a dog. If your dog is impounded, you can probably bail it out by paying a fine and a per-day charge for its keep at the shelter. If you don't have one already, you'll also have to buy a dog license and get any necessary vaccinations for the dog before it will be released to you.
Finding out that your dog has been picked up may be the tricky part. All shelters are supposed to notify owners whose dogs they impound. Of course, unless yours is an exceptionally smart and articulate dog, the only way the shelter knows you're the owner is to read the dog's identification or license tag (or unless you've outfitted the dog with a permanent ID, tattoo, or microchip; see "Lost and Found Dogs," below). Both you and the dog may be out of luck if it comes to the shelter tagless. Many shelters also have some procedure for making a public announcement about dogs they pick up. This may be posting a list at the shelter, city hall, and police station, or publishing descriptions in the newspaper or, in small towns, even on the local radio station.
If you think your dog may have been picked up, remember that some cities have several shelters. Call all the places to which the dog might have been taken: humane societies, SPCAs, and city and county shelters. Some animal shelters don't give out information over the phone. In any case, it's much better to go in person. Leave a picture or description of the dog at each shelter. And if you don't get a satisfactory answer, keep asking. It's all too common, unfortunately, to hear stories of people who were told on the phone that their dog wasn't at the shelter and found out too late that the dog had in fact been there.
Adopting a stray. Most shelters try, of course, to find new homes for dogs they take in—private homes, rescue groups, or nonprofit agencies that will train them as assistance dogs—but they are usually defeated by the sheer numbers. There just aren't enough owners to go around.
What if someone adopts your dog? You might get it back, if you act quickly and animal control officials are sympathetic. If the shelter made a mistake—didn't notify you although it could have, or let the dog be adopted too quickly—you should have the right to your dog.
If you don't act promptly, however, the dog may be gone for good. A Georgia man, for example, couldn't get back his purebred Keeshond, which was found wandering without a license tag and turned over to the humane society. Nine days later, someone adopted it. The owner finally inquired at the dog shelter; when they told him a dog answering the description had been adopted, but refused to tell him the new owner's name, he sued. The court stood firm for the shelter, ruling that the city had properly used its power to dispose of dogs. (Johnston v. Atlanta Humane Soc., 326 S.E.2d 585 (Ga. App. 1985).)
Selling impounded dogs. Many shelters are allowed, by law, to sell dogs that aren't adopted within a certain time. Who buys stray dogs? Research labs. Allowing public shelters to sell dogs for research is, of course, an emotional and controversial issue. Lawsuits challenging such policies on animal cruelty grounds have failed. But public pressure can be an extremely effective tool; working on legislators to change the laws, instead of fighting them in court, is probably a better strategy.
Some cities, and some states, prohibit their shelters from selling animals for research. California law requires any animal shelter, public or private, that turns dogs over to a research facility to prominently post a large sign, stating that "Animals Turned Into This Shelter May Be Used for Research Purposes."
Destroying impounded dogs. Shelters across the country destroy thousands of dogs every year; some shelters are so crowded that they can hold unlicensed dogs only for a single day. Licensed dogs usually are granted a few more days. The law often specifies only that the dogs must be destroyed in a "humane manner"; most are given a very quick and humane death by lethal injection.
What to do if your rights are violated. If the government injures or destroys your dog without giving you the notice and hearing required by law, you can sue and collect for your damages.
Lost in the Storm
Thousands of pets were left behind during the chaos in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rescuers plucked dogs from rooftops and out of the floodwaters—and with no safe place to put them in New Orleans, took them to shelters all over the south. Many were adopted by people eager to help. Later, many determined owners tracked down their dogs, but not all the dogs' new families were willing to give them up. It wasn't always possible to prove a dog's identity (many lacked identification), and some new owners accused the former ones of neglect.
Lawsuits against new owners and rescue organizations followed. Courts generally ruled for the original owners, finding that they had not abandoned their animals and still owned them.
Following Katrina, Congress passed legislation requiring state and local emergency agencies to include pets and service animals in their evacuation plans—if they don't, they won't qualify for FEMA funds.