With a new 'watchdog' in the Capitol, musings on a decade of dog law

Back in the dark of ages of Pennsylvania dog law (circa 2002), long before Oprah Winfrey catapulted the state and its infamous "puppy mills" onto the world's stage, a small band of women set out to find out why so many breeding dogs were suffering in filthy kennels.

They quietly but persistently sent email requests for documents and questioned why inspection reports noted repeated violations yet so little had been done to hold the breeders accountable.

They asked then-gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell if he would do something to help. He promised he would "immediately redress the problem" if elected.

Those were the days when coffee-stained inspection reports filled with "Kennel passed!!" notations like so many grade school report cards were crammed in file folders in the back offices of the Department of Agriculture.  

Anyone interested in seeing them had to trek to Harrisburg and pay for copies. (Today they are available free online thanks to the investigative efforts of the Morning Call of Allentown).

Those were the days when Nathan Myer, one of the state's largest commercial breeders had a seat on the Dog Law Advisory Board. (Myer gave up his license after his lawsuit to overturn the 2008 dog law failed rather than comply with the regulations.) 

Gov. Rendell, backed by tens of thousands of angry citizens, eventually changed the status quo for commercial kennel dogs in the Commonwealth. Granted, it took him a full term - while thousands of dogs endured untreated disease, cramped kennels and temperature extremes - to start the ball rolling, but by 2008 things were changing dramatically for the dogs.

In 2006 Rendell fired the Dog Law Advisory Board and assembled a new board to help shape the new dog law. He hired Jessie Smith - a 20-year veteran of the Attorney General's office and Harrisburg Humane Society board member - as the deputy secretary of the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. Also hired was a prosecutor to handle dog law cases and later a veterinarian to better assess the conditions of kennel dogs.

The passage of the dog law - over the vigorous objections of dog breeders, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, even the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, was noted by Rendell and legislative leaders as one of the top accomplishments of the 2007-2008 legislative session. Despite the strong push back from breeders and their allies, citizen animal welfare activists prevailed.

With strict mandates on commercial kennels selling more than 60 dogs in a year such as larger cage sizes, exercise and vet care, the law signed by Rendell in Oct. 2008 was quickly established as a national model. 

Along the way, the number of citations filed against kennel owners who violated the dog law rose dramatically and the number of large kennels began to dwindle. For the first time the kennel licenses of chronic dog law offenders were revoked.

Today we enter a new era in dog law enforcement. The new governor as attorney general prosecuted some of the worst kennel operators - albeit after prolonged efforts by activists and reporters - to call attention to fraudulent puppy dealers.

Now Gov. Corbett says he is committed to enforcing kennel laws and will not tolerate repeat offenders.

Lynn Diehl, the former bank manager who was tapped to run the Office of Dog Law Enforcement, has a steep learning curve, as the final phase of dog law regulations goes into effect July 1.

When asked what her qualifications were to run an office responsible for the oversight of several thousand kennels, we were told by an agriculture official: "She has a dog."

Diehl's boss, Michael Pechart said Corbett was looking for someone with "no agenda."  But neither does Diehl have the knowledge of complicated enforcement operations that draw on the hefty kennel law, the animal cruelty law and local zoning laws.

And with the departure of Jessie Smith, along with the former director of the bureau Sue West, who resigned earlier, there is no longer any institutional knowledge in the agency headquarters.

Pechart said other changes were in the works: among them evaluating whether there was a need for the Dog Law Advisory Board and the all-veterinarian Canine Health Board, created by the 2008 dog law that drafted regulations setting temperature, ventilation, lighting and flooring requirements in commercial kennels.

Animal advocates say they are very concerned the new focus may sound more like the old: one that substitutes "education" for enforcement and overlooks violations in the interest of supporting agriculture, the state's number one industry.

Pecharts says absolutely not. 

"If we say correct something and we go back in two weeks and it's not corrected, we're going to have a problem," Pechart said. "We're not stepping back."