The Joys of an Unlicensed Dog

Licensing your pets trusts bureaucrats to exercise better judgment and restraint in the treatment of animals than they've ever demonstrated before.


We bought a license when we adopted our dog, Max, in 2002. We'd taken him in after finding him wandering in the desert and brought him for a checkup and vaccinations. The veterinarian giving him his shots asked us if we wanted to make things legal.

"Sure. Why not?" is probably what we responded. Anyway, the vet did the paperwork and we ended up with a tag that I never bothered to put on his collar and that expired a few months later (Yavapai county licenses are good for one calendar year). That was the only dog license we ever purchased despite owning two mutts over the subsequent 14 years.

Asking for permission to do things isn't something that comes naturally to me—especially when it's something that I plan to do anyway. My family loves dogs and we're going to keep them and care for them no matter what jackass government officials think, so why complicate matters by pretending that I care about their opinions?

I'm not alone in my resistance to asking "mother, may I" before rubbing Fido's belly. The UK abolished dog licenses in 1987 because, according to a parliamentary research paper, they were "held by only around half of dog owners" even though they cost just 37.5 pence (around half a buck at the current conversion rate). That is, charging roughly what you might collect from a sweep between the sofa cushions, the British government could get only half of dog owners to comply with the licensing law.

The UK has since implemented mandatory microchipping and registration for dogs, effective this year. But despite criminal penalties for noncompliance, and the fact that microchipping offers owners benefits in terms of recovering lost pets that don't apply to licensing, a survey of pet owners found that "53% of recipients had no plans to have their pets chipped despite the new law."

The country's Kennel Club remains opposed to licensing, warning, "it is the responsible dog owner who will end up paying a further tax on dog ownership, whilst the irresponsible will continue to flout the law."

Well, the irresponsible and those who resent being bossed around—many of those survey respondents expressed resistance to being told what to do.

License advocates try to peddle bureaucratic requirements as a means of assuring that lost pets can be recovered (a goal better met by voluntary ID tags, microchipping, or tattooing), encouraging vaccination against rabies and other diseases (something responsible owners will do anyway, while irresponsible ones are unlikely to find a vaccination requirement more compelling than a licensing requirement), and protecting against dangerous animals.

Trying to meet this last goal is guaranteed to anger some dog owners, since it depends on charging higher license fees or refusing licenses entirely to specific dogs accused of being dangerous—or, more controversially, to entire breeds of dogs. Owners are asked to identify their dogs' breeds when applying for a license, and trust that those breeds will remain legal and not subject to exile or execution in years to come.

In recent years, bans have mostly focused on "pit bulls" based on a satanic-cult-style panic over their supposedly murderous temperaments and allegedly super-canine strength. But research published last year found that when animal shelter staff were asked to evaluate dogs and determine their breed, "one in five dogs genetically identified with pit bull heritage breeds were missed by all shelter staff" and "one in three dogs lacking DNA for pit bull heritage breeds were labeled pit bull-type dogs by at least one staff member."

Given that Denver alone killed about 3,500 dogs of banned breed between 1990 and 2009, you might hope for some degree of accuracy in those evaluations. I would have to have a lot more faith in local animal control officers than I do to ever trust my mutts' lives to their judgment—even if I were to ever concede politicians' wisdom in designating certain lineages as beyond the pale.

But dog licensing isn't just an ill-considered tool for protecting the public—it's also a means for picking the public's pocket. When King County, Washington bought marketing lists of people who'd purchased pet food but didn't own dog licenses, its subsequent threat letters were clearly intended to boost the health of nothing other than the local government's coffers. As the Seattle Times pointed out, "the county says its pet-licensing agency, which has been using direct-mailing lists since 2012, made more than $80,000 in profit from pet-licensing revenue from last year's letters."

In its formal defense of its data mining and threat letters, Regional Animal Services of King's County claims "By better identifying which households have pets, we've increased the number of cats and dogs that are licensed. That has increased revenue that we've used to improve services." The agency also says that only about 23 percent of pets in the county are licensed, leaving lots more people to be squeezed.

So pet owners who are well-motivated to care for and identify their own animals should submit to mugging by government officials who might use the funds to ban their beloved beasts—possibly by accident–in the future. Sounds like a swell idea.

Max passed away in September after many long and unlicensed years with our family. We'll mourn him for a while, then give some thought to bringing a new dog into our home. I don't know what our next pet will be like, but I can tell you that we won't be consulting any bureaucrats when we make our decision.

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  1. Sorry to hear about Max. The cruelest joke played by the universe was to make dog’s lives so much shorter than those of people.

    1. What about old people who die before their pets?

      Do you think it would be less cruel to reverse the life spans and make the pets suffer, especially when they become dependent on their humans for sustenance?

      1. Look at Debbie Downer over here.

    2. I’m just glad they can’t talk. If they could, they would only talk abut food–all day and all night.

      And it wouldn’t be like Baylen Linnekin. It would just be, “How ’bout some food? Gimmie some food! You’ve got some in the refrigerator. I know you do. Gimmie some food. Gimmie some of that food! Food. I want your food!”

      1. I see you have owned a Pug.

          1. Or a corgi. If a corgi can sniff it and it doesn’t fight back and win, he eats it.

            1. I don’t know how ours hasn’t died yet, she will eat anything small enough to fit in her mouth. Her favorite is wood charcoal.

              Still, love her to death, even if she will never shutup and is stubborn as hell.

    3. Would you really want to have the same dog for your whole life?

      I’m probably less sentimental about pets than most. But it seems to me, hard as it can be when they die, that seeing the whole life of the animal is part of the interest and pleasure of having a pet.

  2. Without the license, how can you be sure it is a dog and not a cheap knockoff?

    1. My brother’s friends boss’ uncle’s kid once bought a dog in Mexico and smuggled it into the US. Now the dog runs a string of taco shops across Souther Arizona and takes in a quarter mil a year – true story.

      1. I heard all Chihuahuas were high-strung and lazy.

        1. They’re not high-strung – they’re passionate.

        2. Ankle nippers

  3. You should have to attend 1000 hours of dog care school. You think you’re better than hair-braiders?

  4. I’m not alone in my resistance to asking “mother, may I” before rubbing Fido’s belly.

    I would do so before you try rubbing my dog’s belly, at least if you want to survive the experience.

    But at least she’s microchipped- her breed (Great Pyrenees) is notorious for wanderlust.

    1. Asking the dog is just polite. Asking the government is just silly.

      1. Government has more guns and jackboots than my sweet puppy does.

  5. Dear reason, while I appreciate many of the technical policy articles, please keep the regular Too Chilly columns coming. I think this more emotional but not histrionic appeal is a good way to introduce people to the slippery slope of “why the government could be smaller”.

    1. I second that. Tucille is great. If there is going to be a libertarian moment, it’s probably more likely to happen through the sort of “principled scofflaw-ism” that he seems to live. These laws are stupid and pointless and no one needs them. Sensible people should ignore them as much as possible.

      1. A Too Chilly article is a great refreshing jolt compared to the crap statist-lite articles published by certain authors here at HNR that need not be named.

    2. Maybe he could serialize his new book ….. there is a new book coming, right? Right?!?

  6. Owners are asked to identify their dogs’ breeds when applying for a license, and trust that those breeds will remain legal and not subject to exile or execution in years to come.

    “Lab mix” has always worked for me with my mix of everything dog. She’s probably got some banned breeds in her, but I dare any bureaucrat to prove it.

    1. “Lab mix”!
      OMG it’s a GMO dog. Mixed breeds should be created the old fashioned way, not in a lab.

      That can’t be safe. Think of the children.

      1. Think of the children.

        But my child **is** a lab mix.

    2. Please don’t ‘dare’ a bureaucrat. They are notoriously egocentric, and they cheat. Remember, they only have to ‘prove’ your dog is a pitiful to THEIR satisfaction, not some objective standard. Oh, you could sue them after the dog is dead, on the grounds that it was absurd to claim a lapdog was a pitfall, and you might well win. But the bureaucrat wouldn’t be the one paying the judgement, and your dog would still be dead.

      This is why I have, off and on, championed the legislation of a hunting season on Bureaucrats and elected officials going back to the late 1970’s. We really need to thin the herds, and natural predation doesn’t seem to be doing it. I’m thinking a limited season, but no bag limit. If that doesn’t seem to be doing the job, we might consider a varmint bounty.

      1. A fair limited season would be a moratorium during the first month after they’re sworn in, so they have the opportunity to either vote non-statist, or get a head start for the border.

        It’s only sporting.

        1. Legally Mandated Disclaimer TM for the NSA snoops: the preceding was all tongue in cheek jesting. Because open season on statists is bad. Well, arguably maybe not bad, but certainly unlawful.

    3. I like to have a big bowl of lab mix at any parties i throw.

  7. I’m basically a Beagle supremacist.

    I’ve got a problem with the way they rank dogs in terms of their intelligence. It typically goes by their trainability, which is a bogus standard. We wouldn’t rank people that way.

    She’s so smart, she does exactly what she’s told every time? I don’t think so.

    They say Beagles aren’t very smart because they don’always take commands consistently, but what about their independent thinking and problem solving ability, huh?

    How do you explain that?

    A lot of it boils down to desire and the intelligence of their handlers. If a Beagle doesn’t want to do what you want to do, that doesn’t mean it’s stupid, and if you’re not smart enough to train a Beagle, that doesn’t mean the dog isn’t smart either. Maybe Beagles need a handler that’s at least as smart as they are.

    I’m just sayin’.

    1. I’m lucky, i guess, that my beagle is lazy.

    2. Ken,

      I’m down with you. I grew up with a beagle and she was fantastic. I agree that hounds are often given the short end of the stick when it comes to rankings, but nothing sounds sweeter than listening to a beagle trailing a cottontail through the woods.

      Our beagle would escape the yard all the time and wander down to the local fast food joints on the tourist beach and mooch food. She could do all sorts of tricks (and stare at them with her big brown eyes) to make the touristas give her hot dog after hot dog.

      1. Now that is an extended euphemism.

      2. Yeah, that’s social engineering.

        They’re good at that.

    3. I had a beagle. He was a stubborn pain in the ass, but also the most loyal and loving animal I’ve ever had under my roof.

  8. More Trumpista anti-government propaganda.

  9. Registration is the first step to confiscation. First they came for the military style assault dogs and I said nothing…

    1. +1 tail thing that goes up

  10. I think this more emotional but not histrionic appeal is a good way to introduce people to the slippery slope of “why the government could be smaller”.

    “My teacher told me those government programs keep people safe. Why don’t you want people to be safe?”

  11. Last year when I was visiting my home State of MT, I saw they were advertising dog licenses that don’t expire. You pay a little more for that license but over the life of the pet it will be cheaper. All my dogs where licensed when I got them, but renewing the license a little less likely to happen. The funny thing is where I live they seem to be mostly interested in having proof that vaccinations for rabies are up to date. When they get their shots I take the papers in, and have the information updated. They usually ask if I want to renew my license, I say I don’t have the money right now and off I go. But when I have been too late getting them the information about vaccinations that’s when I start hearing more from animal control.

    Now if only there was some kind of technology that allowed information to be shared between my vet and the town so that they know that the dog has been given his shots.

    1. My county requires proof of vaccination to get a license, which is why our cats are unlicensed. They are indoor cats, and we do not vaccinate anymore since one of them developed a tumor at the injection site (it happens). Our vet is OK with that, the risk of more tumors is greater than the risk of getting rabies since they are indoors.

  12. So that’s what kind of cured my Hubris. I grew up with big dogs, so I tried to pick up a wire haired terrier. That Bitch was vicious, and tore a chunk a out of my flesh. I could have maybe sued, but I warned not not to pick her up.

  13. Where I currently reside, we have this bloated dirt-bag of a mayor who pushed through a ban on pit bull dogs — in spite of a popular outcry that this would be the equivalent of racism applied to dog breeds. “Oh, he’s a pit bull? Then he must be guilty of something.”

    The smug prick actually pulled a Maduro and set aside a massive petition to stop the law, as well as ignoring the unanimous recommendation of a panel of dog experts he took the trouble to consult. (So much for the left-wing appeal to authority: it matters only when that authority confirms what they already believe.)

    I wish someone would feed the obstinate, malodorous windbag a knuckle sandwich. And maybe they could follow it up with some kicks to the prodigious mayoral rear of such force that his ass crack would grow at a similar rate as his municipal budget.

  14. Hey, I’m all for letting people live their own lives, within reason. BUT…

    anyone who owns a little yappy dog in a city should be required to get that dog de-barked, and if the owner does NOT get the dog de-barked, then the government should confiscate the dog and ship it to North Korea to be eaten by the hungry children there!!!!

    (De-barking is a surgical operation which disables the dog’s voice-box.)

    1. Noise pollution = VIOLENT AGGRESSION.

    2. Am I am missing a reference there? Is my sarcasm detector on the fritz today?

      Please tell me that is so….

  15. Houston requires vets to send in information on dogs that they vaccinate to the city and then the city sends out notices to dog owners. We have several little villages that are completely surrounded by Houston and they don’t require vets to notify anyone. Many people who show dogs will get their dogs vaccinated at vets who have offices in the villages since the dogs are intact (and the license fee is much higher) as will pit bull owners so the unintended consequence was to push business out of the city and the licensing rate it still low.

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