Why Aren't Dog Licenses Like Drivers' Licenses?


What if we couldn't just go out and buy a puppy whenever we wanted one? Is it really okay to pick up a Chihuahua with your cheeseburger, or a Groenendael with the groceries?

In this article, I'll be arguing the case for making it more difficult to own a dog. Dog licenses should be like drivers' licenses -- granted subject to passing a test of knowledge and skill. Getting a dog license would involve passing a test to demonstrate that you know enough about basic animal welfare to give a dog a good life, and that you don't intend to engage in any dangerous practices.

The question of whether dog ownership should be denied to some people is often put in terms of whether dogs are rightly seen as property. Legally, all animals are property, and so people argue that if we have a right to own property, we must therefore have a right to own a dog. This leads to the argument being out in terms of whether animal welfare can trump human property rights.

I'm going to sidestep this particular issue by offering arguments that can be accepted whether you believe dogs ought to be property or not. I'll argue that if dogs are fairly seen as property, this still doesn't mean that people have a simple right to own one -- the legal system distinguishes between different kinds of things we can own, and puts restrictions on some of them. And, I'll argue that if dogs are better seen as family members rather than property, this doesn't give us an automatic right to own them like we have a right to family life, because the basis for the right to have our own children doesn't apply to dogs.

After I've given these arguments, I'll then discuss what I see as the major obstacle to introducing a dog license, which is the question of how to avoid prejudice.

If Dogs Are Property

Earlier this year I read a blog post that claimed that the reason we all have a right to go out and buy a dog whenever we want to, is simply that dogs are property, and we all have the unconditional right to own property without government interference. Unfortunately, the author of this article overlooked a class of rights that are conditional, which are rights to own dangerous articles.

The most common example of this is a car. Of course, everyone has the right to buy and own a car, but only people with drivers' licenses have the right to drive. We can only legally do what the car is designed to do when we've proven to the government that we understand the rules of the road in theory and in practice. Or, think about a gun license -- in many countries a person can only own a gun when they can prove that they've undertaken some training, otherwise they are committing a crime.

In both cases, the danger of letting someone have an unconditional right to own or operate an object merits interference. Dogs can also be dangerous, the frequency of attacks on children show this. The danger an untrained, poorly cared-for dog can pose also merits putting up a bar for people to clear before they can legally own one. This doesn't mean that people don't have the right to own a dog, only that dogs ought to be classified as a different kind of property for the protection of others. If we make getting a dog license contingent on proving you have a basic knowledge of dog welfare and skill set for handing a dog, we could potentially reduce the number of attacks.

If Dogs Are Not Property

This last argument is unlikely to convince people who just reject the idea that a living being can fairly be seen as someone else's property, subject to the same rights as couches or minivans.

So let's say that any right we have to adopt or purchase a dog doesn't stem from property-rights. Where else might it come from? One common paradigm is that dogs are family members. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights accords all humans the right to found a family, so therefore we all ought to have the right to take a dog into our homes.

The key point in an argument against this is that the right to found a family was originally intended as a right to have children of one's own. This right to reproduce -- to have a part in the creation of a life that carries some of your genes forward into the future -- is not quite the same as a right to take a child into your home. This becomes clear when we look at adoption agencies. Most agencies from governments and charities have criteria that any potential adopters have to meet before they can be allowed to even meet a child in their system. In fact, the stringency of these guidelines has been a hot topic in the UK in recent years, because it has been argued that they prevent children finding permanent placements in families.

My point is, the reason it is okay for adoption agencies to lay out rules and make prospective adopters go through an often arduous process, whereas there is almost no restriction on who can conceive and raise children that are biologically their own, is because having a child of one's own is seen as a fundamental part of human life. To deny people that would be to remove their genes from the species in the future, something that veers dangerously close to eugenics.

It's clear that buying or adopting a dog has no such biological distinction attached -- requiring stricter testing for people who want to buy a dog rather than rescue one seems more like leveling the playing field than denying a fundamental part of human life. There's no relevant difference between acquiring a dog from a rescue or from a breeder, so there should be no issue in being required to pass the same tests no matter where you get your dog.

A Problem with Prejudice

So far I've argued that making it more difficult to own a dog through requiring that potential owners demonstrate basic knowledge and skills is compatible with seeing dogs as property and seeing them as family members. Now I will raise a worry about how such a system could be used to reinforce socioeconomic bias. I'll make the general case by giving a specific example.

When my dog was experiencing gastrointestinal issues as a puppy, I signed up to a lot of dog food forums and groups. I was surprised by how heated some of the debates got -- whether raw food was better than cooked, whether vegetables and carbohydrates were necessary, anything that mentioned chicken bones -- but the one thing everyone seemed to tacitly agree on was that if you didn't feed your dog expensive food, you were a Bad Person. If it wasn't grain-free, artisan-made, air-dried or fresh from the local organic farm, you might as well be feeding Rex shredded cardboard. This made the cost of admission to being so high that basically only middle-class people were thought of as good dog owners.

Dog food is a vital part of dog welfare, so any kind of dog license testing would probably involve a question about feeding. And, the armchair nutrition experts are a vociferous group, so if there was any consultation about the substance of the test, you can guarantee they'd try to weight it in favor of their own views.

The same goes for dog training. Some shelters mandate that adopters sign their new pups up for obedience classes, which aren't cheap. Nor are they convenient if you don't own a car -- when I got my puppy, the nearest obedience class was a half-hour bus ride away, so by the time we arrived she was a nervous wreck. Should all dogs have to go to (expensive) training as a condition for ownership? What if the family doesn't speak English, but the trainer doesn't speak any other language? Should all dogs have an (expensive) yard rather than a studio apartment, and an (expensive) insurance policy? The list goes on.

The point is, I believe that it's possible for people from any background to give a dog a good life, and I worry that although introducing a dog license system like we have for drivers' licenses could be beneficial, there is also the risk of making dog ownership an elite activity from which people who live in inner cities, or who have less money and less education, are automatically precluded.

So, although there is a case to be made for tougher restrictions on owning a dog for animal welfare reasons, we have to be careful that these restrictions are really doing what we want.

This being said, if the proper care were taken to only include the most important parts of dog welfare and safety on the test and to deliver it in a way that everyone could access and comprehend, I believe that a dog license system could do a lot of good. It would eliminate impulse buying of puppies, which in turn would impact puppy mills, and it would go a long way to identifying potential abusers. There is no rights-based argument against taking such action, although I highly doubt there will ever be a public base of support for it.