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Owners dodging dog licenses in Akron

By jim Published: March 2, 2009

By Rick Armon
Beacon Journal staff writer

See Spot run.

See Spot run without a dog license.

Nearly 100,000 unlicensed dogs live in Summit County and the community has one of the worst compliance rates for dog owners among urban counties in Ohio, according to a new Beacon Journal analysis.

State law requires dog owners to get new licenses each year. But only about 30 percent complied last year in Summit.

Only Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties, with 24 percent and 28 percent, respectively, had worse rates among the largest Ohio counties. Lucas County had the best compliance at 55 percent.

Individual counties are missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars — in some cases, millions — because people aren't licensing their pets, according to the analysis.

In Summit, each 10,000 dogs licensed equates to $140,000 — money the county uses to support the local animal shelter.

No one seems to know why the percentage of licensed dogs is so low. Theories range from the cost to people ignoring the law to the county doing a poor job of marketing and enforcement.

''I don't think they are aware of the law,'' Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes ''And a lot of people feel that if the dog doesn't go outside, they don't have to license it.''

''I wish I knew the answer,'' said Craig Stanley, Summit County director of administrative services, who oversees the animal shelter.

License history

Ohio's licensing law can be traced to the 1800s. It was enacted to protect farmers whose livestock was being killed by dogs and later to defray the cost of dog-control programs.

Today, officials tout licenses as a way for responsible owners to protect their pet, especially if it runs away. Instead of being euthanized or put up for adoption, licensed dogs are returned to their owners.

''People don't want to spend the money, but it saves them a lot of heartache if they lose their pet,'' said Karen Conklin, executive director of the Humane Society of Greater Akron.

Dog estimates

The Beacon Journal estimated the number of unlicensed dogs last year based on a formula from the American Veterinary Medical Association: The number roughly equals six dogs for every 10 households in a community.

According to that formula, there were 139,098 dogs in Summit last year. The county sold only 42,234 individual licenses. (Kennel licenses were not included.)

So far this year, the county has sold 26,940 tags. Officials expected a dip because the fee jumped from $8 to $14 this year.

Even smaller counties sold more licenses last year than Summit.

Lucas sold 62,398, and the cost there was $25. Stark County, where the fee is $12, sold 48,373.

Montgomery, which has about the same population as Summit, sold about 30,000 more dog tags. A license there costs $16.

''It's not something you change overnight. It's a culture,'' Lucas Dog Warden Tom Skeldon said about increasing the number of licenses sold.

Lucas and Montgomery officials attributed their success to aggressive marketing and enforcement. Both counties advertise on television and radio, and they hold media events that garner TV and newspaper coverage.

Lucas held a contest the past two years to award the ''No. 1'' license. This year, it was a cutest dog photo contest.

The winner got a free license and the dog's picture now appears on county registration forms.

Montgomery also partners with veterinarians to spread the word about licensing.

Stark County Auditor Kim Perez attributed his county's higher percentage to the low cost of a license and proactive enforcement in Canton and Massillon. The county advertised on the radio until budget cutbacks.

More recently, the county has stationed workers on some weekends at various businesses, including grocery and PetSmart stores, to sell dog tags and to improve awareness.

''People are seeing us and remembering us,'' Perez said.

Many counties, including Montgomery and Stark, also sell dog tags online.

It's important to focus on enforcement, Skeldon said. Lucas has sent workers door to door in neighborhoods where compliance seems low.

Franklin County, which has more than 100,000 licensed dogs, does the same.

When people realize they will be caught and fined, they comply with the law, Skeldon said.

''We're viewed as part of public safety,'' he said. ''When someone buys a dog license, he's not just paying for a dog license but paying for public safety. That's the way we've played it, and we try to deliver for the people.''

Summit lagging behind

Summit County has no marketing or educational campaign.

The county mails out renewal notices to dog owners who had licenses the previous year and relies on new dog owners to step forward on their own.

Unlike many other counties, Summit also hasn't allowed dog owners to buy licenses online with a credit card. That is expected to change this year.

The ''No. 1'' license in the county is held by Lynn Vallee, a county worker who oversees the licensing program and owns a Schnorkie (schnauzer/Yorkshire terrier cross) named Max.

''Needless to say, even if I wasn't the director, my dog would be licensed,'' he said.

Summit also hasn't been aggressive in its enforcement.

There is a disconnect between County Executive Russ Pry's administration, which runs the animal shelter, and Fiscal Officer John Donofrio's office, which collects the dog license revenue.

When asked why there isn't a better marketing campaign and enforcement, the administration said it was the fiscal office's responsibility to sell dog licenses. When asked the same question, the fiscal office said it only collects the money and that the animal shelter should focus on boosting the number of licensed dogs through enforcement.

Donofrio added that he doesn't have the money to spend on an advertising campaign.

He said he'd like to work with the animal shelter more to boost licensing. But with most counties having poor compliance, perhaps the state should step in and help, possibly mandating that veterinarians report unlicensed dogs or requiring sellers to notify the county when a dog is purchased, Donofrio said.

Stanley pledged that the county will be more aggressive this year in citing dog owners who haven't licensed their pets.

The county is planning a door-to-door campaign and might visit events where people take animals to check on dog owners.

He declined to say when or where the campaign would begin, saying the county doesn't want people to hide their dogs.

''I'm not giving anybody a heads-up,'' Stanley said.

Last year, the county and city of Akron issued 446 dog-related citations. Owners caught not licensing their pets can be fined — with court costs alone up to $109 — and they have to get a license and pay a $14 penalty.

Dog owners

Steve and Cheryl Paul of Springfield Township own 14 dogs — the most licensed in Summit by an individual household.

Cheryl Paul, who works with the Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network, was surprised so many owners don't have licenses.

''The reason I comply with the law is that when you own a dog, you take on the whole package, the whole responsibility, and that includes spay and neutering, and vaccinating and vet care,'' she said. ''It's a small piece of what a responsible dog owner does. Why do we do that and others don't? I don't have a clue.''

Other dog owners, though, said some people don't care enough about their animals and don't treat them like members of the family.

''A lot of these people have pets for the wrong reasons,'' said Sara Houck of Akron, who has two Pekingese/Chihuahua mixes named Poppy Fernando Balboa and Ivan the Dragon Drago. Both dogs are licensed.

It's also a matter of money, said Mary, who declined to provide her last name. Her dogs are not licensed this year because her husband lost his job, she said.

She would rather pay for veterinary care and dog food than a license, she said. If her husband finds work, the dogs will be licensed again, Mary said.

Several dog owners who declined to be identified said they don't have licenses because their dogs stay indoors and there's no chance they will run away.

''We've got a kennel full of dogs that won't get out,'' Stanley said about that attitude.

Dog owners said the county needs to do a better job of educating the public, both about the licensing law and the benefits of having a license. It also would help if the county sold dog licenses online, they said.

''Just educating people about the purpose of the license would help,'' said Radara McHugh of Akron, who owns a terrier mix named Rascal.

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