When You Buy a Dog: What Did the Seller Promise?

Even if your state doesn't have a specific law that applies to sales of dogs, if you're a dissatisfied buyer you may be entitled to a refund or replacement under general warranty (guarantee) law. Because dogs are considered property, their sale is subject to essentially the same rules as the sale of a washing machine or a lampshade. These rules, however, vary from state to state.  Usually, the result depends on what promises, if any, the seller made to the buyer.

Express Warranties

If the seller promises you something (say, that the dog is a rare purebred Albanian lizard hound) and you base the decision to buy on that promise ("I would never have bought the dog if I had known it was half Albanian lizard hound and half poodle!"), the promise is called an "express warranty." If the express warranty is violated, you can sue to get back the purchase price.

EXAMPLE: A man paid $3,000 for a dog he intended to enter in bird dog field trials. He claimed the seller had expressly promised that the dog was trained and ready to compete in major field trials. Once he had the dog, however, he discovered that it was infected with heartworms and was not trained well enough for major competition. He sued, and a jury believed him and ordered the seller to give him back what he'd paid. (Brown v. Faircloth, 66 So. 2d 232 (1953.).

What's the difference between an express warranty and mere sales talk? Not surprisingly, buyers and sellers sometimes disagree. The general rule is that if something the seller said really becomes part of the reason the deal is made, it's a warranty. But if the seller just natters on and on about how her dogs are the smartest or prettiest or happiest dogs in the world, most courts wouldn't hold her to that promise. But who wants to argue about such things? You'll save your breath, and lots of time, money, and aggravation, if you get all of the agreement in writing.

Implied Warranties

Even if a seller doesn't make explicit promises, implied promises often float about when a sale is being negotiated. If you're an unhappy buyer, you can rely on an implied promise just like you can rely on an express one—that is, you can sue to get your money back if the promise isn't kept. But you don't want to. Implied promises are by their nature hard to prove, and you'll spend a lot of time fighting over who said what.

You may, however, be stuck with an unsatisfactory dog and only the seller's implied promises. So, briefly, here are the two kinds of implied warranties:

Merchantability. One promise that is implied in most sales is that whatever is being sold will perform as well as items of its type should. In the context of the sale of a dog, this means that the dog should be healthy and not suffering from any kind of abnormal defect. For example, it doesn't matter that a seller doesn't promise, specifically, that a dog doesn't have mange; you have the right to expect that a dog offered for sale is healthy.

Fitness for a particular purpose. This kind of implied promise arises if the seller recommends a certain product for a certain purpose. Let's say you want a guard dog to roam around your used car parts lot at night, and a kennel owner, knowing this, recommends a Doberman named Spooky. By making the recommendation, the seller impliedly warranties Spooky as a guard dog. Spooky looks fine to you, so you buy him. It turns out later that the seller neglected to tell you that Spooky, traumatized as a pup, turns tail and hides if anyone so much as looks crossly at him. The seller breached the implied warranty of fitness, and you're entitled to your money back.

If You're Unhappy With Your Purchase

Consumer protection, warranty, and breach of contract laws differ from state to state. But some advice generally applies:

  • If you are dissatisfied after buying a dog, promptly tell the seller so, in writing. If you have a written agreement, refer to it. Keep a copy of your letter.
  • If your state has a "lemon law" for pets, check its provisions and see what you must do to exercise your rights under the law.
  • If the seller doesn't make things right by giving you a new dog or your money back within about 30 days, think about bringing a lawsuit in small claims court.
  • If you file in small claims court, don't worry about learning all the ins and outs of warranty or contract law. The judge will probably decide more on the basis of fairness than on legal technicalities.
  • You can help the judge come to the conclusion you want by bringing to court any evidence you have of the laws or warranties you think have been breached. You may want to take an advertisement, or witnesses who heard what the seller told you. For example, if you bought your dog after answering a classified ad that offered "AKC-registered, champion-sired Brittany spaniels for sale," but the pups turn out to lack a pedigree, bring the ad with you.

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