Some adoption or rescue organizations have developed contracts that purport to give them perpetual rights to control dogs that are adopted-out. Some of these contracts purport to give the members of the organization the right to enter the new dog owner's home without prior notice or permission, dictate how and where the dog can be kept, and other things.

These contracts have not been tested in court. They can result in liability being shifted back to the organization, if such agreements are valid in the first place. Here is the story of one such interaction between this kind of rescue group and a family that adopted one of the group's pit bulls:

Dear Mr. Phillips:

My family has been struggling with a Pit Bull rescue group that we adopted a dog from about two years ago. About six month after adopting the dog my wife became pregnant and we decided that this dog was not a good fit for our family because of its behavior around young children. We notified the rescue of this decision but said that we would "foster" the dog until they could find a new home.

Given the stigma on pit bulls we assumed that this would take some time, but after over 1 year and the fact that we now have a crawling infant we had had enough and told the rescue that they needed to come get the dog.

They then informed us that the adoption contract we signed gave them an additional 4 months before they needed to take the dog. After the 4 month they would take the dog but we would owe a $500 "damages" fee.

The contract also states that we have no rights to take any other actions to find another home for this dog on our own. We can't give the dog away, we can't sell the dog, we can't euthanize the dog. According to them my only options are to keep the dog, or give it back to them after paying the $500 penalty.
Here is a copy of their e-mail message to me:

"Once a foster home is found or the four month period expires, I will make arrangements with you to receive the dog. At that time, bring her to us and a check for $500 will be required since you are breaching the Life Long Commitment Clause. By signing the contract you acknowledged that adopting a dog is a commitment for the life of the dog, and since you are choosing not to honor that commitment, payment of damages is required. If you choose to contest the payment of damages, the rescue will have no choice but to pursue legal channels in order to recover the cost of re-homing the dog. In the past, the courts have awarded the rescue damages, court costs, and attorney's fee which would far exceed the $500 you were originally asked to pay, so please consider that when making the decision not to pay."

So, my questions are:

Do I own this dog or do they? Am I liable for this dog or are they? If I own the dog can they sue me for giving it away to someone else? If they own the dog can they force me to pay them to return it?

The contract in question contained the following clause, giving the adoption organization the right to send anyone into the family's home at any time, without permission or notice:

examinations

The contract contained a provision requiring the family to break the law by not turning the pit bull over to animal control in the event that the dog attacked anyone:

indemnification

Contracts like the forgoing are dangerous because they purport to give the adoption organization, and any person acting on behalf of it, the right to behave in a manner that otherwise would be criminal. An example of such behavior was seen on YouTube in 2007. Comedienne Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, Portia de Rossi, "adopted" a Brussels Griffon mix on Sept. 20, 2007. When the dog did not fit into their household, they did what dog owners almost always do: they gave the dog to someone with kids, who seemed fit to provide the dog with a good home. In doing so, however, they infuriated the person who "adopted out" the dog. The latter ran an "adoption agency" for dogs and, when she "adopted out" a pooch, she made people sign a contract that restricts what can be done with the dog in the future. On the basis of the concept of "adoption," and the wording of that contract, the "adoption agency" reclaimed the dog from the new family. The video showed a person rushing into the family's back yard, snatching the dog and then running off with it.

There is an old saying, "Let the buyer beware." Today, one must beware when adopting dogs and signing contracts pertaining to dogs. It is likely that contracts such as the one quoted above would never be enforced in court. Nevertheless, defending oneself against a lawsuit is costly in terms of time, money and emotions.