If your dog goes missing in Pennsylvania, if large kennels operate without a license, if a puppy mill forces dogs into unsafe conditions, a state dog warden is supposed to take care of it.
But there are fewer and fewer dog sitters these days. It’s not because the services they provide are in less demand, but rather because the cost of dog license fees – which pays for sitters – hasn’t increased since 1996.
In recent years, the state Department of Agriculture, under whose direction the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement operates, and lawmakers have made multiple unsuccessful attempts to raise the fee. A Senate bill proposed this year raising dog license fees was the most comprehensive yet, Agriculture Department spokeswoman Shannon Powers said, but it also seems unlikely to reach the governor’s office. This means the dog law problems in Pennsylvania will only get worse.
Pennsylvania has more kennels than most states. It was known as a hotbed for puppy mills until public outcry prompted the legislature to pass new kennel regulations in 2008. Today, the state has among “the highest standards for dog kennels nationwide,” Powers said.
Dog sitters are supposed to inspect kennels twice a year to ensure dogs are humanely housed, i.e. kept in clean spaces with enough room to move around and receive medical care appropriate.
“In order to enforce those standards, to inspect the kennels, to make sure the dogs aren’t kept in unacceptable conditions, we need to have dog sitters in place,” Powers said.
Dog license fees in Pennsylvania are $6.50 for a dog that has been spayed or neutered, $8.50 for intact dogs; the bill in the state Senate would set a flat fee of $8 per year. Pennsylvania’s neighboring states charge up to $20 per year.
While state dog license fees have remained flat, office costs have more than doubled, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said last year.
The number of kennels the department must monitor has increased 19%, and the number of inspections sitters must perform has increased 85% since 1996. And as the cost of living has risen, the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement has found it impossible to maintain enough staff to handle the workload. He had 14 fewer goalkeepers in 2021 than in 1996.
The office, which was designed to be self-supporting through license and court fees, survived on funds allocated to agriculture general fund of the ministry to ensure the functioning of its operations. It used $1.5 million from the department’s budget in 2021-22. The bureau had to end practices like shelter grants and door-to-door programs that encouraged people to fire their dogs, Powers said.
The bureau has been successful in enforcing the regulations despite its funding crisis, according to Kristen Tullo, Pennsylvania state director of the Humane Society of the United States. Pennsylvania had eight kennels on the Humane Society’s “Horrible Hundred” list of the nation’s most problematic kennels in 2021, but only five kennels this year, after revoking the licenses of three repeat offenders.
But with the office’s funding crisis only getting worse, Tullo isn’t sure how long he can keep up. It’s life support, she said.
“This may be the last year that we’ve been in a state where we’re able to inspect kennels,” Tullo said.
Pennsylvania is already seeing the impact in counties like Lancaster, which has three times as many kennels as other counties but no dog sitters, Powers said. Dog sitters from other counties must leave their areas to inspect Lancaster kennels, which leaves their counties unguarded. If a dangerous or stray dog is discovered in an area without a canine guardian, the job falls to the local police.
The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement has been publicly asking the Legislature to increase licensing fees for dogs since 2016, Powers said. D-Berks County Sen. Judy Schwank, who is among lawmakers who have introduced bills to that effect, said the battle has been uphill.
This year, Senator Elder Vogel of R-Beaver County introduced a bill to increase dog license fees, kennel license fees and other regulations. Previous bills had given the Department of Agriculture the power to raise fees in the future, which some lawmakers had opposed, Schwank said, but not Vogel’s.
Powers called the bill a “comprehensive solution” with “huge support” from kennels, shelters and dog owners. The Humane Society takes issue with some of the shelter regulations in the bill, though it supports the bill as a whole, Tullo said.
Proposals to increase dog license fees languish because some lawmakers view the idea as politically unpopular and they fear a public backlash, Rep. Dan Moul of R-Adams County told Spotlight PA llast year.
“Believe it or not, people are going to spend thousands of dollars to go out and buy a dog, but you raise their dog license fee by five dollars, they have a meltdown,” Moul told the outlet.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf tried to increase funding for the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement in this year’s state budget, but that effort also failed.
“We haven’t yet found the right magic ticket that will work. But I’m not giving up,” Schwank said.
In the meantime, Powers wants people to know that the law requires them to register their dog.
“People don’t know they need a dog license, but when their dog sprints around someone’s legs and gets loose, or comes out of a hole in a fence, or whatever, they want their dog back,” Powers said. “Dog sitters and that dog license is what gets your dog back.”