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Regulators’ Bark Is As Bad As Their Bite

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Regulators’ Bark Is As Bad As Their Bite

August 23, 2017

When almost every issue is divisive, Saturday’s National Dog Day is a rare chance to come together in appreciation of “man’s best friend.” However, even dogs, and the people who watch them, are not exempt from overly intrusive licensing.

Regulations from New York City’s Health Department preclude anyone without a licensed kennel from earning money to care for a pet. The app Rover, which matches would-be pet sitters with owners looking for an affordable option, has been warned that users of the platform are in violation of those rules.

In contrast, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed legislation this summer to allow people, many of them using apps, to watch up to three dogs without being subject to the regulations and licensing requirements that applied to traditional kennels.

Last October, New York officials sent a letter to DogVacay.com, a company since acquired by Rover, asking that DogVacay.com confirm that all of the more than 9,000 would-be sitters have the required license. While there has not yet been a wave of fines or arrests, two sitters in apartments were cited with fines starting at $1,000. 

The relevant section of the city’s health code defines a boarding kennel business as “a facility other than an animal shelter where animals not owned by the proprietor are sheltered, harbored, maintained, groomed, exercised, fed, or watered in return for a fee.” Sitters looking after the dog of a friend or family member as a favor do not run afoul of the law, but any sitters who are compensated would need to obtain a license in order to comply.

Unfortunately, even interested sitters who would be willing to go through hours of training or pay fees would not be able to obtain licenses. Licenses cannot be issued to private homes.

As one owner told the New York Daily News: “It’s up to the owner to go and make sure that it’s safe… The moment you hand the leash over to someone else, that’s a responsibility, that’s your choice as a pet owner.”

No one wants dogs to be put in harm’s way. New platforms such as Rover provide owners with more information and empower them to find reputable, reliable sitters who can provide affordable care to their beloved pets while they are at work or out of town. Banning Rover reduces options for owners and raises the price of boarding pets.

Sitters operating without kennel licenses are not in a chaotic Wild West of pet sitting. Rover accepts fewer than 20 percent of potential sitters and requires background checks. Each portal for potential sitters shows where they are located, provides verified reviews, and the number of repeat customers.

Far from a leap of faith to trust a complete stranger, platforms of this nature empower owners by giving them information that would allow them to choose the best dog-sitting options.

Dog-sitting also offers an opportunity for dog lovers to supplement their income by looking after someone else’s dog for a night or two, or taking dogs for walks. Widespread enforcement of the licensing requirements would make it impossible for these people to offer their services. The few heavy fines that were handed out to unlicensed sitters could already be having a chilling effect.

Fortunately, it looks like these rules may soon be removed. City Council health committee chair Corey Johnson said he had previously been unaware that these regulations were in place, saying “to have a law on the books that says that’s illegal is antiquated and not practical.”

Legislation that removes prohibitions on pet-sitting outside licensed kennels would be a welcome dose of sanity, and would put the decision-making over pet welfare back in the hands of their owners. It is unfortunate that burdensome rules, citations, fines, and deterrence of companies such as Rover were put in place without even the health committee chair being aware of them.

A regulatory framework should not expand to the point where rules are not well-known or understood even by policymakers. Licensing creates barriers between people seeking to supply a service and those who would happily pay them for it. Some professions need licenses, but many others do not. In this case our (often) four-legged friends are also collateral damage.

As National Dog Day approaches, jurisdictions should consider copying Colorado rather than New York City. Regulators at all levels of government should exhibit restraint in issuing regulations, and should recognize when they become outdated by the development of new products or apps such as Rover. 

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @CharlesHHughes

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