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From the Editor

Dog Licensing in Maine;  

A Historical and Legislative Analysis


By:  David Deschesne

Editor/Publisher, Fort Fairfield Journal April 4, 2012

Many people have wondered why dogs are required to have licenses, but cats, hamsters, goldfish, birds and other household pets are not. After a thorough review of Maine Senate Journals, Maine Revised Statutes and various entries in the Laws of Maine over the past one hundred years, I have been able to piece together an answer to that perplexing question and provide some context into why dogs were ever licensed to begin with. To all my critics out there, who think I’m a “whack job” or a “kook”, I remind them I have the original source Maine law books in my own, personal library and have cited them accordingly in the footnotes of this editorial.

Maine was founded as a state in 1821; at that time, there were no licensing requirements for dogs. The first mention of dogs in any context is in 1889, where a bill was proposed in the Maine Senate to grant dogs the same protection as other domestic animals. However, the Senate’s Committee on Legal Affairs reported that law out of committee as “Ought Not to Pass.”1

Then a proposed law seems to be an answer to some growing animosity toward dogs by sheep farmers in Maine that same year.

Sheep were abundant in Maine in colonial days and every farm had its flock. Sheep benefit the farmer with income twice a year, wool in the Spring and lamb in the Fall. After a brief growth in the wool market during the war of 1812, farmers returned to raising Devon sheep as soon as the wool shortage ended. The raising of sheep for mutton increased in Maine from 1820 to 1870.2

Dogs at that time were considered a nuisance and while some were kept as farm tending animals, the social value and esteem as household pets didn’t develop until over half a century later.

Because there was so much financial devastation to sheep flocks by dogs, there was favor for a law that would reimburse owners of sheep for damage done to their flocks by those dogs. When the Committee on Agriculture reported on “An Act to protect sheep owners from damages done to their flocks by dogs”, there were no less than five amendments offered to the bill.3 Less than a week later it was taken from the table and indefinitely postponed.4 Because the Maine House had wanted the bill passed, but the committee in the Senate was unable to agree on the language, a second committee of conference was established. The second committee hearing on the topic was still unable to agree, so the proposal was defeated.5

In 1891, The Committee on Taxation proposed a bill; “An Act in relation to the license fee for dogs.”6 after several amendments, it ultimately passed the Senate and was presented to the Governor for his approval.

That same year the Committee on Agriculture presented a report relating to the necessity for further legislation for the protection of sheep from damages by dogs.7 The report suggested a law authorizing the towns to pay the owners of sheep killed by dogs and other wild animals, the damage suffered thereby. 8

These bills were passed into law and subsequently updated in 1893 and 1895.

The gist of the law, “An Act for the better protection of sheep”, was that it required every dog over four months old be licensed. It required towns, cities and plantations to keep a record of the dogs, their gender, and their owners. License fees paid to the town or city clerks would then be passed on to the state treasurer prior to September 1 of each year and placed in a fund that would reimburse farmers for sheep killed or damaged by dogs.

Licenses for male dogs in 1891 cost $1.15 and female dogs $3.15—the equivalent of $97 and $267, respectively, of purchasing power in today’s Federal Reserve Note paper money.

The law required the mayor of each city, the selectmen of towns and the assessors of plantations annually, within ten days from the first day of May to issue warrants to one or more police officers or constables directing them to either kill or cause to be killed all dogs that were not licensed within their city, town or plantation. Such officers would receive one dollar for each dog so killed. Any city or town officer who refused to comply was punished by a fine not less than ten dollars nor exceeding fifty dollars. (The $1.00 per dead dog reward in 1891 had about the same purchasing power of $85.00 today. The $10 to $50 fines in 1891 money, which was based on gold coin, is roughly equivalent to $800 to $3,000 in today's Federal Reserve note debt-based paper money.)

According to that 1891 law, when any person within the state sustained damage done to their flock of sheep by a dog(s), the town, city or plantation would pay for the damages directly, from the dog licensing fees, then take action against the owner of the dog. If the town or city officers were unable to identify the owner(s) of the dog(s) they could apply to the state treasurer for reimbursement, as long as said reimbursement did not exceed the total licensing fees collected by that town or city.

At the end of the year, all dog licensing fees collected by the state treasurer and not used were then credited back to the towns and cities against their annual state tax payment in proportion to the amount each paid in to the treasurer.9

Nearly forty years later, the original 1891 law remained virtually intact, but added damages done by dogs to lambs or other domestic animals (such as rabbits), excluding poultry.10

In 1944, poultry was added to the list of animals dogs damage and municipalities were required to pay for any losses incurred. Whenever any poultry owned by a person in Maine was killed or injured by dogs, skunks, foxes, weasels, mink, or coons such owner would be investigated by the town or city officers, then the owners reimbursed by the Maine Department of Agriculture for their financial loss and that money would be derived from the dog licensing fees as collected annually by the towns.11

That same year, a law was passed that amended the requirement for the annual killing of all unlicensed dogs. Town officers and police were no longer mandated to kill all unlicensed dogs every May. Instead, the officer was to seek out, catch and confine all dogs within such city, town or plantation that were not licensed, collared, tagged or enclosed and issue a summons to the person keeping the unlicensed dog. The municipal court then would order such officers to sell, give away, kill or cause to be killed each such dog after a period of six days if not licensed.12

By the 1950’s society’s hearts were softening toward dogs, with many people adopting them as household pets. Also, the various varieties of dogs illustrated that many types such as the miniatures and small sized dogs were not hostile toward sheep. Also, with the declining market in sheep and the further domestication of the dog, there weren’t as many sheep issues that had originally spawned the dog licensing legislation.

As a result of this sea-change in attitudes toward dogs, the Maine legislature allowed licensed veterinarians to treat and house stray, injured or abandoned dogs and receive reimbursement for up to two weeks from the state out of the fund received from dog licenses. The vet was allowed to sell the dog and deduct the sale from the fee requested from the State. If he couldn’t sell it, he could either give it away or humanely kill it.13

Throughout the 1950s bureaus within the Department of Agriculture developed to tend toward the maintenance of dogs as domestic animals, such as providing funding for various animal shelters and humane societies from the dog licensing fees—a far cry from the original intent of the law that considered dogs to be nuisance animals that should be destroyed wholesale, like today’s open season on coyote in Maine.

In 1959, a law was added that exempted guide dogs for the blind from licensing.14

Since the passage of the original law towns and cities that collected the licensing fees were reimbursed at the end of the year by having a credit against their state taxes applied equal to the amount of license fees they paid in, but did not draw from to cover costs to damaged sheep, animals and poultry. However, a 1977 law rescinded that tax credit to the towns then allowed for dog licensing fees to be used for salaries and expenses of state bureaucrats, was placed in a non-lapsing account and was to roll over its funds from year to year.15

Nearly one hundred years after the original dog licensing law was passed to reimburse sheep owners for damages done to their flocks by dogs, the sheep market in Maine had dwindled to the point that it was no longer expedient to keep that law on the books and it was subsequently repealed, along with the mandates for towns to reimburse for damages to livestock, poultry and other domestic animals.16

Currently, any farmer who suffers financial loss for his sheep, poultry or other domestic livestock from dogs running at large has to sue the dog owner individually in a civil suit.17 If the dog owner cannot be confirmed, or if the dog is feral, then the farmer will be unable collect for his damages.

Not willing to give up a tax even if it’s now irrelevant, dog licensing exists today as a tax for revenue generating purposes to fill town checking accounts at the local level and pay entrenched bureaucrats at the State level. Its original intent to reimburse sheep farmers for damage done to their flocks by dogs has long been repealed, forgotten by the masses of citizens who unwittingly pay the tax and local clerks who reflexively and blindly collect it.


1. Maine Journal of the Senate, 1889, p. 141

2. Modern Maine; Its Historic Background People and Resources, Richard A. Hebert, ©1951 Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Vol. 1, pp. 480-481

3. Maine Journal of the Senate, 1889, p. 414

4. op cit. p. 450

5. op cit. p. 487

6. Maine Journal of the Senate, 1891, p. 615

7. op cit. p. 490

8. op cit. p. 224

9. Freeman’s Supplement to the Revised Statutes of the State of Maine, 1895, pp. 30-34

10. Maine Revised Statutes 1930, p. 130

11. Maine Revised Statutes 1944, p. 1578

12. op cit., p. 1577

13. Laws of Maine 1953, p.398

14. Laws of Maine 1959, p. 152

15. Public Laws and Constitutional Resolutions of the State of Maine, 108th Legislature, 1977, p.391

16. see PL 1979, c. 672 §A41; 1987, c. 383 §2; and 1981 c. 368, §7

17. 7 MRS §3961


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