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A breeder is refusing to return this Georgia family's dog -- and they have legal grounds to do so

A common contract allows the dog to be stripped from the family.

ATLANTA — A Georgia family is digging for answers after a contract is keeping their beloved emotional support dog in a breeder's custody.

The family sent their dog Gracie to the breeder while they were on vacation. And now the family says the breeder won't give Gracie back.

"She sent me a text message and said that she was not going to return Gracie because she felt like Gracie had been abused," Sameca Hart said.

The Georgia family said now they are in a legal struggle to get their dog back. But they've lost more than just their pet.

"My son instantly began to bond with her," Hart said. "And it was less of her being his puppy and more of him being her guy."

Hart said her 11-year-old son suffers from PTSD, a diagnosis that stems from a car crash that affected his facial features and his young football career. 

"She did carpool, she knew when she woke up in the morning it was time to get dressed and get him to school, his routine was her routine," Hart said Gracie.

Hart said their dog also had a tremendous impact on her young adult daughter who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression.

"There was one time when where she was experiencing an episode and Gracie put her weight on her to make sure she did not get up and get out of the bed to potentially harm herself or fall. And even when she tried to wander away from the house, Gracie hovered over the front door," Hart said.

But all the love and support Gracie offered the Hart family came to a halt after their vacation.

11Alive spoke with the out-of-state breeder by phone who expressed concerns about what she says are scars around Gracie's neck that are indicative of a prong collar used improperly during training.

But the Hart family believes the marks came from Gracie scratching her neck during repeated ear infections and an inflammatory skin disease. Her treatment is cited in a 14-page medical record the family sent us from their veterinarian.

"I felt like it was a personal attack on my integrity because what you’re essentially saying is that I abuse this dog that I consider my youngest child," Hart said. "It made me feel horrible because she’s spoiled rotten. She has a wardrobe. She has a room of her own. She is pampered, she goes to the spa when she is at the vet. We literally do everything we can for this dog."

But the problem with getting Gracie back has to do with the contract the family signed with the breeder. 

It's a co-owner contract which means both the family and the breeder own Gracie, even though the family purchased her. The contract gives the breeder exclusive breeding rights and the right to use Gracie in competition. 

It also allows the breeder to take Gracie back, something the family is distraught over.

"My daughter's medication had to be recalibrated. Her anxiety has been on high alert, her depression has been triggered. It’s been rough," Hart said.

The mother of two said it's changed up their lifestyle in more ways than one.

"Now, I can’t even leave her home alone because Gracie is not here. But I knew she was in good hands with Gracie being here. I could run to the grocery store and grab a couple of things and come right back. I’ve lost that freedom," Hart said.

Attorney Tom Salata shared his legal perspective and said because it doesn't appear a crime has been committed, Gracie's ownership becomes a civil dispute. 

Salata said there are statutes in many states that allow disputes about livestock and domesticated animals to be brought to court. But he also says based on the co-owner contract, the breeder has the right to take the dog back if they believe something is happening to the animal that can interfere with its breeding. 

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