I want a dog license

October 19, 2010 at 2:38 pm 21 comments

Dog licenses have been required in the United States since settlements were large enough to breed conflicts between neighbors. 

In his book “Pre-1900 Dog License Tags,” William J. Bone, D.V.M. wrote that dog licensing was first addressed in the U.S. during the 1700′s when several states passed laws desinged to control dogs and collect taxes to reimburse livestock owners for dog depredation. Dog licensing was first instituted in England at about the same time.

Of course dog catchers and dog pounds followed right on the heels of dog licenses, (though the first animal protection societies weren’t created until about a century later) and licensing provided revenue that helped support dog catching.

Back in the day, dog licenses cost money but they also sometimes offered certain priveleges and protections. According to Diane Bandy in Indiana Dog License History:

A dog who was licensed in Indiana, had certain privileges of running at large and escaping a death sentence imposed by officials. A dog who ran at large, licensed and not bothering livestock was also protected legally. If someone shot a licensed, non provoking dog, they could be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined anywhere from $5-$50 along with liabilities to the owner for injury or death.

Sadly, the idea of combining certain priveleges (running politely at large) with specified responsibilities  (staying out of trouble and wearing a tag that identifies you) did not gain much popularity. Over time, dog licenses became little more than a way to collect revenue and keep track of canine populations. And because license laws are notoriously difficult to enforce, scofflaws became the norm rather than the exception.

So much so that the national dog licensing system in Great Britain was abolished in 1987. According to a House of Commons Research Paper published in January of 1998:

The national dog licensing system, which was abolished in 1987, did nothing to contain the problems caused by irresponsible dog ownership since it had long ceased to command any public respect. Less than 50% of owners bothered to register. As a result, there is no evidence that the number of strays is higher since the abolition of dog licensing.

According to this article in today’s Star Tribune, thirteen years later some cities in Minnesota are following suit:

Are city dog licenses going the way of VCRs and film cameras? In an age when dogs sport name tags and personalized collars and have microchips injected between their shoulder blades, Golden Valley Police Chief Stacy Altonen thinks the answer is “yes.”

Next month the Golden Valley City Council is expected to drop a requirement that residents license their dogs, joining Plymouth, Minnetonka, Brooklyn Center, New Brighton, Falcon Heights and Northfield in the no-license category.

Altonen said the city is simply dropping an ordinance that wasn’t effective and that cost the city in staff time. Only about 600 dogs — a fraction of the canines residing in Golden Valley — were licensed each year.

A significant lack of compliance combined with the difficulty of enforcing license laws mean that dog licenses are becoming a net drain on finances in many areas. Advocates of licensing point out that license tags can provide a way to return lost pets to their owners but Altonen is quoted as saying that:

“In 17 years here, I can count on one hand the dogs we returned because of city tags. We return more dogs with microchips … or because people call right away when they lose their dogs so when we find them we know who lost them.”

Dog owners have historically been required to do little more than pay a fee and show proof of vaccination to license their pets. In exchange they’re received a shiny tag and a spot in the city database. Given the pathetic number of people who comply with license laws, most of us obviously see little value in that.

Why don’t dog licenses allow dog owners to do anything with their dogs?

A driver’s license gives you access to public roads. A concealed carry permit gives you the right to carry a handgun. But – someone who wants to drive a car or carry a concealed weapon has to pass a test to demonstrate at least a basic level of competence to earn that license.

Before you get your hackles up, I’ll say that I think that dropping the generic dog license requirement is a good thing. I don’t need a license to own a car, just to drive one on public roads. And I think that if municipalities want to institute revenue-generating programs that truly serve dog owners they need to reconsider what a dog license represents.

According to Merriam-Webster a license is:

1. the approval by someone in authority for the doing of something
2. the granting of power to perform various acts or duties
3. the right to act or move freely

Note that in all three cases a license is defined as granting the holder permission to do something. The problem with dog licenses is that they don’t function as “licenses” at all, they’re just an annual tax on dog ownership.

Dog licensing has become a way to collect revenue; a convenient tool to track data on pet ownership; and in some areas, a hammer to try to force compliance with vaccination, spay-neuter, breed-specific and other dog-related legislation. Since most people don’t license their dogs, I would assume that (despite what many try to tell us) these are not things most dog owers put a high value on. 

I don’t think I should need a license to own a dog. But I’d like to have the option of getting a dog license that functioned a lot like a driver’s license. To get it I’d take a written test to demonstrate basic knowledge of dog safety and dog-related laws and then my dog and I would take a skills test to demonstrate our ability to navigate the community in a safe and sane manner. If I demonstrated my ability and willingness to accept specific responsibilities and passed the test, I’d get a license that gave my dog and I certain privileges (such as on and off leash access to specified areas) that unlicensed dog owners do not have.

I want a dog license – but I want it to be license that says my dog and I have demonstrated that we’ve earned the right to hold it.

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rob McMillin  |  October 19, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Why don’t dog licenses allow dog owners to do anything with their dogs?

    An interesting wrinkle: a local dog park has its own licensing that operates through an affiliated no-kill shelter. Basically, what it does is provide some revenue for maintenance of both. It seems to be largely self-enforced (there’s a sign at the door asking for the license). But in general, no, they don’t let you do anything.

  • 2. Christopher@BorderWars  |  October 19, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Interesting idea. I donate the license fee to the city to cover the cost of the poop bags and waste removal that they supply along the major walking paths. Those are great. I’m sure the fee also goes to the animal control officer (whom I have stopped to help catch a stray dog more than once), also an invaluable service. Better a caught dog than a dead dog on the road.

    But I don’t license my dogs because I don’t see any benefit of being profiled and put on a list without really any benefit to offset what I’m giving up. If a license allowed me to run my dogs off-leash, or gain access to a dog park, then I’d consider it.

    As it is, licensing is just a liability should the dog laws change or a neighbor complain about the barking dog (not mine!), etc. There’s not a whole lot of justification for the city to know about my dogs.

  • 3. SmartDogs  |  October 19, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    I’d like to see some kind of basic test/license requirement for dog parks. I’ve had so many bad dog park experiences I don’t go to them anymore – and I don’t recomend that my clients go to them either. I know of some private and public dog parks that require dogs and their owners to pass a basic temperament test (dog) and sign some kind of formal acknowledgement that the human is aware of, and will try to follow, park rules. I think that’s a great idea and I wish there was something like that here. I would also be happy to pay an annual fee for the privilege of attending.

  • 4. SmartDogs  |  October 19, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Christopher – you nailed it on the liability issue. I think it’s laughable that I am expected to pay a fee for a “license” that grants me no privileges and confers a potentially large liability on me.

  • 5. ruthcrisler  |  October 19, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    I want a dog license, too, at least the way you frame it. And I want to able to take a special driving exam that will allow me to drive without a seatbelt, while talking on the phone, and drinking a beer.

    But I’d settle for the dog license.

    In Chicago, I think around 10% of dogs actually sport a license, though it may be higher now that the city requires proof of a license to get a dog park pass.

  • 6. Viatecio  |  October 19, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Count me in too for wanting one of them fancy dog licenses about which you speak!

    I can tell you that Franklin County will never go license-free, though…the funds from that directly support the county shelter, which is why there’s a 50% discount for the fee if your dog is altered (unless for medical, show, breeding or hunting reasons, vet signature required).

    The county where I lived when I went to college had dog wardens that allegedly went door-to-door to check for dog licenses. I never got any proof of that, and to their credit, they did everything they possibly could to care for the dogs in their shelter, so while I will fault the money-making scheme (if it’s true), I can’t deny supporting their cause for responsible animal ownership and adoption.

  • 7. Cynthia Eliason  |  October 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Where I live, the dog license fees fund a low-cost spay/neuter program for low-income pet owners. It also funds the cost of caring for strays. It’s been effective at reducing the numbers of unwanted litters – it’s very rare to see litters of puppies in shelters here. For that reason I don’t mind paying the annual fee. If I DID mind, I’d have to pay it anyway because the licensing law is enforced very well here.
    I do like the idea of some special privileges for licensed dogs, but I don’t know just what that might consist of in a place where the dog control ordinance doesn’t mention leashes! Our dogs can be off leash (but not “at large”) with no special permit required, and I can’t think of any reason to want to change that.

  • 8. pawsnmotion  |  October 19, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Great points. I’ve had discussions with MACC officials on the topic and it’s a huge push/campaign for them right now (doesn’t sound like Minneapolis will be doing away with licenses anytime soon). Their system for renewing licenses is so old and dysfunctional that they currently don’t have the ability to allow people to renew on an annual basis from the time they first get the license, rather they have to renew everyone at the same time in the calendar year. This also means that if you happen to license your dog initially in December and they require everyone renew in January, you’ve just paid for a year of licensing and gotten one month out of it.

    I’d like to see a dog license enable me to take my dog inside public places. I know it will never happen, but it’d be cool to be able to walk to the grocery store for a couple of items with the dogs, or over to a coffee shop and have them accompany me while I’m inside (since I’m obviously not going to leave them unattended). I’d pay for that privilege.

  • 9. SmartDogs  |  October 19, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    I’d like to think it can happen someday, preferably in my lifetime.

    I was involved for a while on a committee that was putting together a test designed explicitly for this kind of thing. Sadly it has not gotten off the ground partly because the organization we were preparing it for decided they wanted to hand it off to a cheesy registry that would have used to generate profit and give themselves an air of (IMO undeserved) respectability.

  • 10. SmartDogs  |  October 19, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Cynthia – from this and other things I’ve heard you say about dog laws where you live – they sound very good. Here it’s a mish-mash. Strict leash law in town (though not terribly well enforced from what I see) and no laws on dog-at-large (other than state dangerous dog law) outside the city limits. There are also a few large areas where off leash dogs are legal in town. But I see an increasing number of poorly trained, ill-behaved dogs squired around town by inattentive owners and I expect our laws will be changing…

  • 11. jan  |  October 19, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    I always wonder how much livestock my four little guys would have to eat to pay for the license they have to have.

  • 12. EmilyS  |  October 19, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    I just can’t believe someone has written a book about dog licenses…
    :-)

  • 13. H. Houlahan  |  October 19, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    There isn’t even the pretense of licensing as a way of enforcing rabies laws here.

    They don’t ask for proof of vaccination, just the money.

  • 14. Donald McCaig  |  October 20, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Dear Doggers,
    In my appalachian county, licenses mostly function to ensure rabies vaccinations and the animal control officer will visit if you have a dog w/o license. Since the population is small, I’m known as “the dog guy” and can take my dogs pretty much where I want – but, dunno if this is as true in other parts of the country – fear of dogs is common so I don’t take them into the farm equipment dealer or feed store unless it’s too hot to leave them in the vehicle.

    Last time I was in the UK, I was disappointed to see the loss of rural pubs and fewer B&B’s that accepted my dogs. Tesco and the malls don’t allow them – just like here.

    Donald McCaig

  • 15. MIke  |  October 20, 2010 at 6:06 am

    I do believe that was the most amazing thing about our trip to Germany recently – dogs off leash in restaurants, just sitting under the table. And walking through every shop in town with owners. I’d gladly get whatever training/certification necessary if we could get that kind of freedom here.

  • 16. Kayleigh  |  October 20, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Viatecio- Do you mean Franklin Co., Ohio? I live in Fairfield co. and the fees from the licensing support the “shelter” here too. There isn’t any discount for having altered dogs though. The wardens do the door to door checking thing, and busted me one year. I believe I had to pay an $80 fine.

  • 17. Viatecio  |  October 20, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Yes, Kayleigh.

    So I guess door-to-door checks are not unheard of in our great state. By the by, the county to which I was referring regarding the practice was Hardin Co. Sad little pound up there, but they do what they can with the tax money, fines and license fees they get. Rumors were swirling of some grants to build a new-n-improved facility, but last I checked, it was still 30 dogs in a building no bigger than my old apartment.

    I’d rather live in a place that has no discount, honestly. It’s a good incentive, but it screws people who really are responsible and capable of caring for (incl. training, supervising and properly confining) an intact dog that isn’t a show dog, hunter, or medically exempt. OTOH, I don’t mind the extra money supporting the Franklin Co Shelter. They do a good service, and hopefully their new digs at Northland will be a boon for them.

  • 18. Suzanne  |  October 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I was just talking about this with my husband the other day. The city I live in requires that dogs be licensed, but I have no idea where the revenue goes since there is no AC, no spay/neuter clinics, no shelter, and no dog parks. What am I getting out it, again? I don’t think it’s a surprise that compliance is very low even though the fee is only $5-$10.

  • 19. CarolG.  |  October 22, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    My city, Mishawaka, IN, is building a dog park which will be open to dogs who are both vaccinated and have a local license. This will motivate me to pay over the cash.

  • 20. Rob McMillin  |  October 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    We haven’t been to the dog park since getting Maddy and Libby. Maddy (aka Bitey) for obvious reasons, Libby, because, well… I dunno. But yeah, it seems like there are troublemakers who don’t understand how these things work.

    Our former pair were fine individually, but together became a tag team from Hell on any smaller dogs. I had to stop taking them.

  • [...] I can understand and respect where the law comes from concerning leashed dogs in public. Dogs must be kept on leash when outside of a confined yard to avoid harassing/attacking people, annoying other dogs, being hit by a car, or getting lost and ending up as a shelter statistic (and no, I do not call it “euthanasia”–it is killing healthy adoptable animals, plain and simple). The law does apply to me as much as it applies to everyone else, and simply the fact that my dog is trained does not give me license to let her off-leash when others cannot enjoy that same privilege (although Janeen gives a similar notion some critical discussion in a very thought-provoking blog…check it out!). [...]

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