A few years ago I had the good fortune of getting to know Dr. Marty Greer when she was a student in the Law School’s part-time program. Dr. Greer is a veterinarian and lawyer in Lomira, Wisconsin. While in law school, Dr. Greer brought a service dog in training to class with her. The dog, Bahari, even attended her Law School graduation. (See photo)
Over the years, Dr. Greer and I have chatted about the intersection of contract law and dog ownership. When entering into a relationship with a purebred dog, it’s important for a potential owner to realize that he or she is entering into a legal contract with the dog’s breeder.
A contract for the sale of an animal can be complicated. Positive communication and decision making early in the negotiation process are important for establishing a good relationship between a breeder and a potential owner. A contract for an animal creates a three-way relationship for the animal, the new owner(s), and the breeder(s). People’s emotions, as well as the dog’s well-being, are at stake. When done right, lifelong friendships can result. While this blog is not intended to provide legal advice, my questions and Dr. Greer’s answers are designed to give a reader a sense of the things the parties need to consider when contemplating the purchase of a dog.
You are a practicing veterinarian, a lawyer, and a breeder of Pembroke Welsh Corgis. What is unique about contracts for the purchase of a purebred dog?
Dr. Greer: First, there is the aspect of a live creature, albeit a piece of property under the law in all states at this time. Then there is the aspect of the live creature being a purebred dog. Unlike other property, what is best for the dog or other animal has to be an important consideration in the terms of the contract. Other property does not have preferences and feelings. If an owner is no longer able to care for and keep the dog, provisions should be made in advance. The egos and preferences of the humans involved should be tempered with what is in the best interests of the animals. Many breeders/sellers have a clause in their contracts that provide the animal should be returned to the breeder or that the breeder should be involved in rehoming the animal if the buyer is unable to provide for the animal. In the past, breeders have been embarrassed when dogs they produced ended up in “Rescue”.
“Rescue” is a term that has several meanings as pertaining to dogs.
1. The actual “rescue” of a dog from an imminently dangerous situation – such as a fire or hurricane.
2. “Search and rescue” where dogs are used to find lost people, children, and other animals after kidnapping, natural disasters, and so on.
3. Perceived “rescue” of a dog or other animals from situations that may appear to be less than ideal living conditions or care. In my experience, this is not always an animal that was in an unsuitable situation. After more information is gained, it often turns out that many of these animals were doing well and did not need to be “rescued”. We have many clients who were told their animal was “abused” with no real evidence that an accusation was founded. “Rescue” therefore is a buzz word used by many organizations to better market animals whom they want to rehome.
As you can see, this emotional use of the word “rescue” triggers a hot button with breeders who are condemned by others for having a dog end up in “rescue”. For this reason, breeders feel compelled to be included in the rehoming efforts when a dog was sold to a home that turns out not to be a “forever home”.
In the world of dogs, both purebred and mixed breeds, breeders/sellers also are interested in controlling the reproductive future of the animals. Purebred dogs and other purebred animals historically have been the group of animals sellers wish to control. Some breeders do it for their egos, but most do it because they feel they are committed stewards of their breed and want to have only the superior specimens included in the future genetics of the breed. Most have the best interest of the animal at heart. However, a few are frankly control freaks. There is no reason to believe that other responsible stewards can’t be included in the fold of protecting the future of the breed.
Other sellers want to control other aspects of the animal’s care – sometimes again to control the animal’s environment and sometimes because they want to use their past experience to protect the new owner and animal from untoward problems. For instance, if a dog is predisposed to a known allergy, communicating a way to avoid the allergen is in everyone’s best interests.
Health guarantees are also unique to animal sales. A warranty inherently is different on an animal than it is on a non-living piece of property. A breeder may include a health guarantee, or the law may include a warranty of fitness for a particular purpose if the contract between the buyer and seller are silent. When the contract includes a health guarantee, the contract should specify boundaries on how much and when money should be spent for the care of the animal. The stakes are higher than when a used car is sold with a warranty, and a decision must be made on how much to spend on repairs. Having the terms specified in advance will save money and prevent conflict between the parties.
What are some considerations that owners and breeders should keep in mind when entering into a contract for the sale of a dog?
Dr. Greer: 1. Any transfer of a dog is a “sale” under most state laws. This has implications under the Wisconsin Dog Sellers Act as only 25 dogs can be sold each year by a breeder or rescue organization without being licensed by the State of Wisconsin.
2. The offer and acceptance should be clearly spelled out.
3. The contract should be in writing.
4. The contract should be designed to protect the seller, the buyer, and the puppy.
5. The terms of the relationship and contract should be carefully thought out before the puppy sale takes place. This is the best opportunity to work out the kinks, not after the puppy is in a new home with some difficulty.
6. The terms should include the purpose the dog is expected to fulfill – pet, show, agility, field trials, hunting, and so on. Terms may address these questions:
Whether the dog should or should not be bred, who is financially responsible for what, what is best for the puppy, who registers the dog with the AKC or other dog registry, what the puppy should be named, if there is a kennel name to be included, if the puppy is microchipped, and with whom the microchip is registered.
The sale price, the payment method, and when the transfer will take place.
Who the actual owners are to be – for instance, a married couple, or co-owners in the same or different households. Who is financially responsible for the care, who makes medical decisions, and what happens to the puppy if the buyer/owner can no longer keep the dog.
Medical decisions such as the age to spay or neuter, what vaccines are or are not appropriate, the food to be fed, and if there is to be pet insurance.
If there is a health problem, if there is a health guarantee, and if there is such a guarantee, how long is the dog covered, how much would be refunded or spent on the care of the dog, and if there is a promise of a replacement dog.
If the buyer or seller don’t follow the terms, what is the penalty? How and where are those to be enforced? Who pays attorney fees?
If there is a co-ownership and the dog causes personal or property damage, who is financially responsible?
And of course, any changes need to be in writing. Signatures need to be included.
What should people consider when contemplating co-ownership of an animal? What legal rights do co-owners have to a dog?
Dr. Greer: There are benefits and risks to co-ownerships.
First, AKC or other animal registries are merely registries, not indicators of ownership. Ownerships are dictated by contracts, so these should be specified in the contract. Only contractual co-ownerships provide for legal rights of the owners.
Advantages to co-ownerships include a backup plan if something happens to one owner that precludes them from having possession of the pet during the pet’s entire lifetime. This allows for a smooth transition for the pet and people involved. In some co-ownerships, co-owners may split expenses if the dog is competing and the cost of travel and competition are a burden for one party to bear.
On the other hand, if a divorce or other reason occurs for a co-ownership to dissolve, having multiple owners can be more complicated. These battles can become messy, like child custody cases.
Additionally, a co-owner may be held liable for acts of the animal that create person or property injury, so even the non-possessing owner may be financially responsible for such acts.
The breeding of dogs can become a complicated matter as well. What are some pitfalls to avoid in dealing with multiple parties? What rights do people have to the resulting puppies?
Dr. Greer: Multiple parties make the whole process very complicated. The rights depend upon the terms written into the contract. As above, it is best to discuss all the possible scenarios and write provisions to cover those scenarios. It is best to use an attorney to write the contract – not just to find a sample contract online. And it’s best to have the contract written by someone with contract and animal knowledge as there are many circumstances and a great deal of language unique to animals that could become a hang up for those not regularly involved with animals. Just like any other contract, ambiguity and poor drafting can lead to legal battles. No one wants to find themselves putting the puppy in the middle of a battle.
Dr. Greer practices veterinary medicine in Lomira, Wisconsin. She graduated from Marquette Law School in 2010 and practices law part time. She has leadership positions in numerous state and national veterinary boards and oversight organizations, including the Wisconsin Veterinary Examining Board and National Animal Interest Alliance. She raises and shows Pembroke Welsh Corgis.