Wayward pooches will get a free ride home, provided they have a clean record and a current dog license, under a new program implemented by Jackson County Animal Control.
Officials are hoping the program, launched in the fall, will encourage dog owners to license their pets, which will increase revenues for the county shelter and help owners more quickly retrieve their animals while avoiding the hefty fines and fees associated with reclaiming an impounded canine.
"If your dog gets out, and is unlicensed and at large, it is close to almost $200," said Barbara Talbert, shelter director.
"The fees have jumped in recent years. If people have two dogs, that is almost $400."
State law and a county ordinance require that all dogs older than 6 months be licensed and vaccinated against rabies, she said. Fees and penalties to bail out an unlicensed dog begin at $180. The annual licensing fee for a spayed or neutered dog is $20, while it's $30 for non-neutered animals, she added.
To qualify for the "Free Ride Home!" program, dogs must have a current license, and no prior incidents or visits to the pound for the past year, Talbert said.
It's estimated about 41 percent of dogs are licensed countywide, but officials acknowledge the number is probably lower. Licensing fees provide about $443,000 in revenue, about one-third of the department's total budget.
Dog licensing provides life-saving identification for pets, and can help get animals returned to owners safely and quickly, Talbert said.
If Fido wanders out an open gate and is picked up by an animal control officer, the pooch will be returned to its home free of charge, if it's licensed, Talbert said.
"If an officer finds a dog in the field, and we can read the license, we will make an attempt to find the owner," Talbert said. "If there is a safe way to leave (the dog) at his home, we will."
If Fido must be taken to the shelter, there will be no penalty for running at large, or, obviously, for being unlicensed, she said.
If the owner does not immediately pick up the dog, the first night of boarding, normally a $14 per-night charge, will be waived, Talbert said.
More licensing would also reduce lengths of stay for animals brought into the county's animal shelter, she said.
Shelter officials in December proposed an animal control ordinance that would require veterinarians to report rabies vaccinations of dogs to the Jackson County Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees animal control, within 60 days.
Based on those reports, officials would send letters to owners of unlicensed dogs, reminding them that state law and a county ordinance requires that all dogs older than six months be licensed and vaccinated against rabies.
Jackson County Animal Control officials presented the proposed change at a December workshop before the Board of Commissioners. Jackson Baures, division manager for Jackson County Environmental Public Health, said the change could boost licenses in the county and revenue for Jackson County Animal Control.
Multnomah and Lane counties each saw their licensing revenues more than double after passing similar ordinances in 2007 and 2005, respectively, he said.
Animal Control officials said there is some resistance to the proposed change from the veterinary community, which has voiced concern about privacy infringement and a worry that rabies vaccination numbers could drop.
Baures said he believes mailing a letter respects pet owner privacy more than the old practice of Animal Control officials going door to door checking up on unlicensed animals.
If passed, the new ordinance's effect would be reassessed after a year.