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North Hempstead considers canine count as way to get more pet owners to license their dogs

Nikko, a five year old Pit Bull mix,

Nikko, a five year old Pit Bull mix, gets a dog license at the Town of North Hempstead Animal Shelter on December 30, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Important members of the North Hempstead population are not being counted, so the town is considering a new approach: Bark once if you live here.

Concerned that too few pet owners are licensing their dogs, town officials say they want to more accurately track the canine population. They are considering a dog census, saying keeping count is more than a bureaucratic necessity, but an issue of public safety. A license is given to dogs who are vaccinated for the rabies virus.

"We've licensed over 5,000 dogs in the town," said Town Clerk Wayne Wink. "My suspicion . . . we have many more."

Like the human census, a dog census would involve going door-to-door, said Andrew DeMartin, the town's public safety commissioner.

A town employee would knock and "the animal's there or not there," said DeMartin, who notes, "a verbal response from the dog" is usually the giveaway.

A dog census is one of several proposals the town is considering. Regulating licenses can be a cumbersome task for the town of 226,000 (humans). Nearly 40 percent of U.S. households are dog owners, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

New York State previously controlled licensing, but in 2011 it ceded the job -- and the potential for fee revenue -- to local municipalities. The town has collected more than $34,000 this year.

But a census is "a little invasive," acknowledges DeMartin. "We're not looking to hurt anybody; we're looking to get compliance."

Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said officials will study the issue. Whether a census occurs depends on the availability of technology to better track dogs and accept licensing forms, DeMartin said.

Census or not, town officials say they will increase efforts to educate the public about licenses.

Animal advocates say outreach is critical. "It would be a good idea to start with how many dogs there are and how many might not be licensed," said Sandra DeFeo, executive director of the The Humane Society Of New York.

Dog censuses have over the years been proposed in New York State and in New Jersey. In neighboring Oyster Bay, spokesman Brian Devine said officials are "comfortable with the ratio between number applied for, as compared to what we perceive to be the dog population within the Town of Oyster Bay." But, "we do our best through public outreach and awareness . . . to make sure that all dogs within our township are licensed."

Jenna Givargidze, director of the North Hempstead animal shelter in Port Washington, said a census can help to monitor the control of rabies and ensure that lost dogs are returned. The shelter has cared for more than 300 surrendered or stray dogs this year.

Had every dog been licensed, "I'd have no dogs here," she said.

"It's a lot harder than counting people," Wink said. "Because their dog is a stay-at-home, gets walked in their own yard, a lot of people think it's unnecessary."

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