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.