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Is Chicago finally preparing to crack down on unlicensed dogs?

Chicago’s threat to tighten the regulatory leash on more than 653,000 owners of unlicensed dogs has always been more bark than bite. But that may be about to change.

Tucked away in a “management ordinance” tied to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2015 budget is a new section on dog licenses that imposes new display requirements on dog owners and stiffer fines if they don’t comply.

“The owner of each dog required to hold a license shall, when the dog is on the public way, either ensure the license is visible and securely attached to a collar, harness or similar device worn by the dog or, upon request by an authorized city official, make available the license for inspection,” the ordinance introduced by the mayor at Wednesday’s City Council meeting states.

The mayor’s plan would also allow tickets to be “served by hand upon the person in possession of the animal at the time the violation is identified.” 

Currently tickets can only be sent by first-class mail “addressed to the owners of the most recent address show on county rabies vaccination records.”

Yet another change would dramatically increase the fine for unlicensed dogs on the public way — from a one-time penalty of $30-to-$200 to the same amount for every day until a dog license is purchased.

Mayoral spokeswoman Elizabeth Langsdorf insisted that there is no crackdown in the works and that the changes were “just meant to clarify the language.” A spokesman for the city clerk’s office that issues dog licenses said he considers the changes substantive and said Clerk Susana Mendoza played no role in drafting them.

The current number of dog licenses now stands at 37,294, according the Pat Corcoran, a spokesman for the city clerk’s office.

Last year, an admittedly exasperated Mendoza aired her frustrations about the city’s failure to crack down on unlicensed dogs.

Mendoza said she did her part to boost dog registrations — from 29,396 in 2011 to 40,896 last year — by offering free rabies vaccines at citywide events and holding an online dog registration contest with prizes donated by local businesses.

But those carrots were supposed to be followed by a stick: fines for dog owners who have thumbed their noses at the city’s mandatory dog license for decades without consequence.

Instead, the city’s Commission on Animal Care and Control dropped the ball — either because it was inundated and understaffed or because Emanuel changed executive directors just when a ticket blitz was supposed to begin with stings at dog parks and beaches.

At a time when the cash-strapped city was raising parking fines and counting on $130 million in revenue from red light and speed cameras, Mendoza said the city was leaving millions on the table by failing to follow through on its threat.

“When you go to the beach and it’s not a dog beach and people are running their dogs out there, people who have kids certainly would wish that dog at the very least had a license and, if it doesn’t, that you get a ticket,” Mendoza said then.

“We’re responsible for licensing. We did a tremendous job of that the year that we tackled that hard. But it was really predicated on a strong enforcement effort, which we’re not responsible for. . . . I have not seen a crackdown that I would feel comfortable with in terms of really getting people to license their dogs. I’m very disappointed in it.”

Mendoza acknowledeged that it was an “untenable situation” to expect 25 employees to police 653,000 dogs. But if Animal Care and Control has more important things to do, Mendoza said the city should consider privatizing a ticketing function that could pay for itself in short order.

For years, dog owners who failed to purchase dog licenses got a total pass.

That changed in 2005, when the clerk’s office finally put the computer software in place to match its short list of licensed dogs with Cook County’s 100,000-plus list of Chicago dogs with rabies shots.

Warning letters were then mailed to those whose names appeared on the county’s list, but not the city’s, prompting a small boost in registration.

That’s the way it stayed until October 2011, when Mendoza’s outreach campaign and the threat of tickets prompted a larger surge in dog registrations.

Although widely ignored, dog licenses remain a bargain. It’s $5 a year for spayed and neutered dogs, $50 for those that are not and $2.50 for dog owners who are senior citizens.

Three years ago, a wise-cracking Emanuel endorsed the plan to ticket and fine Chicago owners of unlicensed dogs.

“Look, we all love our individual pets. I grew up with them myself. But you can’t have some people abiding and being responsible and others not,” the mayor said then.

“The system falls apart if you don’t have comprehensive and total enforcement. . . . You can’t have some people abiding by the law and others getting a break. I want a comprehensive approach that way. That’s what I believe about it. . . . If we have a policy in place, I want it enforced.”