Stealing a dog is a crime you can go to jail for — even if you think the dog should be yours or it’s better for the dog.
What crime is stealing a dog?
In most places, a dog is considered personal property. Dog theft normally falls under the general theft or larceny laws.
The level of the crime will usually depend on the value of the dog. For example, in some places, thefts under $1,000 are normally misdemeanors and thefts over that amount are felonies.
A small number of states have specific laws for pet theft. In those states, the penalties for stolen pets will often be higher than the penalties for general thefts.
What is the penalty for stealing a pet?
The penalties under stolen dog laws vary based on where you are.
There’s a general rule that misdemeanors have sentences of up to a year in jail, and felonies have sentences for one year or longer. In many stolen pet cases, the actual penalties are lower.
Pet thieves without a criminal record could receive probation or have to pay fines instead of going to the county jail. Of course, a judge who is sympathetic to dog owners might be more likely to give a more severe sentence compared to other types of theft.
What if the dog is yours?
If you believe the dog is yours, you may believe it’s not stealing to take it back. The law may not always agree with you.
In many cases, you may need to call the police or sue to get your dog back.
If you enter someone else’s property to take back your dog, you could potentially be charged with crimes such as trespassing or breaking and entering.
If the other person also claims to own your dog, taking your dog back could also be considered dog theft.
What if someone is abusing or neglecting a dog?
If you believe that someone is abusing or neglecting a dog, you may feel that it’s right to rescue the dog.
Even then, taking the dog without the owner’s permission is still pet theft. The law doesn’t want people deciding that other people should lose their dogs.
The legally correct thing to do is to file a complaint with animal control or file a police report. If you take the dog on your own without going through the correct legal process, the owner could file dog theft charges against you.
What if I find a stray dog?
If you find any stray animal, you should take it to a vet or animal shelter to check if it has a microchip with the owner’s information. You should also report the missing dog to the police.
In many cases, local animal shelters will let you keep the dog until the owner is located. You may also be able to get legal adoption papers after a certain amount of time has passed.
If you don’t report a missing pet to local law enforcement and attempt to find the owner, keeping the dog could be considered pet theft.
How do I know if someone contacting me about a lost dog really owns it?
If you post flyers with a lost pet, there’s a good chance you could be contacted by someone looking for bait dogs or who is trying to get a free pet.
The best thing to do is to have the dog checked for a microchip. You could also ask to meet at a vet that knows the dog or to see photos of the owner with the dog. If you’re still not sure, ask the police to help you verify the owner.