Dog Licensing Could Aid Animal Welfare Law Enforcement.

Dog with collar and tag

The reintroduction of dog licensing in England & Wales could be an opportunity to aid animal welfare law enforcement and tackle many of the major issues surrounding irresponsible ownership. The old dog licence, which cost a ridiculous 37 pence (18.5p), was scrapped in 1987 on the pretext of being too difficult to administer and enforce. Over the last decade there has been debate and interest in some quarters of resurrecting a new licensing system. There has also been government funded research by academics at Middlesex University into ways of promoting responsible dog ownership which could include a tax on dog owners of £100 per dog.

Those against reintroducing a license scheme insist that it would still be impossible to implement successfully, but it must be remembered that the old system was operating during a time when computers and the internet did not exist. Technology has moved on and we haven’t given up on issuing TV licences, driving licences or fishing licences, so what makes dog licencing any different.

The Dogs Trust appear to be against the idea, preferring education instead, but there seems to be general public support for the move. The Kennel Club, the bastion of dog owning is of course against any form of dog owning restrictions and state that such a move would penalise responsible dog owners who are most likely to comply and states Less caring and irresponsible owners would again get away with it. But licensing should be focused on irresponsible owners.

Northern Ireland, the only part of UK with dog licensing, leads the way.

Northern Ireland enforces licensing and owners must have an annual license costing £12.50 for each dog aged over 6 months otherwise they commit an offence. The penalties include a warning, formal caution, fixed penalty or a fine up to £1000.

A licence has to be obtained prior to taking possession of a dog and puppies must be microchipped at eight weeks. Anyone giving, selling or taking possession without a licence commits an offence and is liable to a £1,000 fine. A licence is invalidated if the owner fails to keep their details updated or correct. Dogs must also wear a collar and name tag and non compliance is also a £1000 fine.

Although these regulations seem quite draconian it could be argued that they could have gone much further when formulating the legislation and have underestimated the potential to curb irresponsible ownership and aid animal welfare law enforcement.

There are so many problems in the U.K. of neglect and general welfare of dogs which licensing could play a great part in alleviating. These include hoarding, puppy farms, overrun pseudo sanctuaries, multi-dog households, dangerous dogs and removal of at risk dogs which is still a difficult procedure even under the present Animal Welfare Act 2006 which was supposed to make early intervention easier. But the measures must be uncompromising if the welfare of dogs is the paramount factor.

Vaccination, neutering & pet insurance should be part of licence conditions.

The cost of a licence needs to be set at a high price to deter people from taking on more dogs than they can afford to care for, which will in effect promote more responsibility. Each dog in a household or premises that cannot substantiate it is a genuine charity or business must have a licence with no exemptions for the owner’s age, financial status or living standards.

Apart from the mandatory microchipping, already required in the UK, there could be an opportunity to add vaccination, neutering and even valid basic pet insurance to the requirement for a licence. A register of animal cruelty offenders could also be allied to the dog licensing scheme. This would be a great step towards eradicating feckless ownership and alleviating the problem of owners whose intent is to be charity dependent and take away the burden or even need for veterinary charities.

Northern Ireland have gone some way towards these ideals, but allow exemptions for owners on certain benefits who can obtain a licence at a discounted price which arguably sends the wrong message about responsibility. The cost of basic insurance is not beyond the means of any ‘suitable’ or responsible owner.

Powers to seize unlicensed dogs

The power to seize unlicensed dogs must be included in legislation similar to car owners caught with no valid driving licence, insurance or MOT who have their cars seized. It is an accepted fact that the so called “less caring and irresponsible owners who would again get away with it” are generally (but not always) those owners that cause many of the problems, and are less likely to be in possession of a licence for all their dogs. Such a power would allow simple removal from harm by enforcement officers if urgent action is required, subject of course to other formalities such as warrants and veterinary advice.

Such draconian measures may sound extreme, but they are the only way to combat the incessant problems of irresponsible and neglectful ownership. Unfortunately, England has a track record of implementing ineffective animal laws borne out yet again by the recent criticism over microchipping, but we need to take the “bull by the horns”. Approaching the issues with half-hearted initiatives has not been successful over the last few decades and although many people advocate education, those that need it most, take little heed. Sadly for the sake of dog welfare we need more stick and less carrot.

Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.