Dog tags are on sale again this month, but few pet owners in St. Mary’s buy them. Most probably don’t know that they’re required by state law.
In fact, so few people bought dog licenses over the years that in 2009, St. Mary’s County government tried to do away with the requirement.
Nationwide there are 1.47 dogs for every household on average, according to the American Humane Society. In St. Mary’s County, there are 42,909 homes. If pet owners here hit the national average, that puts 63,000 dogs in the county.
However, the county treasurer’s office typically sells around 1,000 dog tags each year.
“It is state law. It is done for protection and safety,” said Treasurer Jannette Norris, who is mandated to sell the tags. All dogs 4 months old or older are required to have a St. Mary’s County dog license and each dog needs to have a valid rabies certificate to get a tag.
At the dog park at John G. Lancaster Park in Lexington Park on Tuesday afternoon, Justin Gantt played with his two dogs. Neither of his dogs are tagged and though he’s lived in St. Mary’s County for three years, he said he was not aware of the requirement.
But with so few people complying with that requirement, he said, “It doesn’t make sense to me that they would keep it on the books.”
“I’ve never been anywhere where they don’t have tags,” Norris said. “But oftentimes, [dog owners] don’t bother” to get them.
In St. Mary’s, licenses for unaltered dogs are $7.50. The annual fee is $2 for a spayed or neutered dog.
“It’s such a small amount of money” generated, Norris said.
“If it goes toward the dog park in general that would be a good idea,” Gantt said of the revenue. “The dog park’s a good community thing.” What money is collected in St. Mary’s is given over to the county government’s general fund.
The St. Mary’s animal control office doesn’t have the manpower to enforce the dog tag requirement, said supervisor Tony Malaspina. When animal control is called out though, dogs are checked for a license and rabies vaccination, he said, but “as far as going door to door, I only have four people. We try to enforce it, but to do that we couldn’t answer any other calls.” The office gets an average of 8,000 calls a year.
With minimal compliance over the years, the animal control office sought to just get rid of the requirement five years ago and the county commissioners agreed. But in the end, “you can’t get rid of that at a county level, because it’s state law,” Malaspina said.
Before 1943 and the establishment of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, when St. Mary’s County was almost exclusively rural, roaming dogs were often a problem for farmers. There were many instances reported in the county newspapers of dogs killing sheep.
In recent years, that “hasn’t happened around here in a large manner,” Malaspina said.
On April 11, 1874, the Maryland General Assembly established a state tax on dogs, requiring a metal tag on each animal. The annual fee was $1 per male dog and $2 for females, and the money was to go toward schools. Other counties already had taxes on dogs established, usually to compensate owners of killed sheep.
Per the 1874 law, any dogs running at large without a tag were to be killed by constables. Several counties were exempt from the law, including Calvert and St. Mary’s counties.
The St. Mary’s Beacon newspaper said of the law in March of that year, “the bill is defective in many particulars and will not accomplish the end desired, namely the protection of sheep. It authorizes the sheriff to kill all dogs not licensed upon the owner’s premises, thus calling for the commission of a trespass by those officers executing the law. It also makes the landlord responsible for the taxes on his tenants’ dogs.”
It wasn’t until the early 1950s that St. Mary’s County had a dog license law in place, when the cost was $2 a year for male dogs and spayed females. For unaltered females, it was $4 a year.