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First-in-nation dog training ordinance ready for vote in Hillsborough County

TAMPA — Dog trainers would have to obtain a license and agree to training plans with owners under an ordinance Hillsborough County commissioners will consider Wednesday.

County officials have called the proposed regulations for dog trainers, dubbed Truth in Training, the first of their kind in the country. Trainers would have to provide their credentials to the county for publication and have liability insurance of at least $100,000.

They also must undergo local and federal background checks. Trainers convicted of animal cruelty would be barred from working in the county.

"It gives the consumer that peace of mind when making that decision," County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said at a Nov. 1 board meeting. A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for Wednesday and a vote may follow.

At the last commission meeting, opponents of the proposal came out in full force, countering advocates who filled an October commission meeting to rally support for the ordinance. Many speakers at the November meeting were animal trainers, in similar professions or their allies, who criticized the legislation as restrictive and burdensome to small businesses.

Kendall Duncan of Canine Cabana in Riverview said the new license would give dog owners a "false sense of security because a trainer is registered with Hillsborough County" even though "there are no standards set forth and there's no one overseeing this process."

Others questioned if it was necessary.

"Pet resources within the last four years has closed 16,826 dog abuse cases and not one was related to dog training," said Judy Seltrecht, an appointed member of the county's animal advisory committee. She asked commissioners to send the ordinance back to her panel for further review.

But Higginbotham, who has shepherded the ordinance through the commission, wanted to push ahead.

He said criticism of the proposal was born out of a misunderstanding of its scope. It would not prohibit trainers from using certain techniques or practices. Instead, the trainer and the dog owner would have to sign off on a training plan at the onset. It is intended to prevent trainers from using what some may deem forceful tactics without permission.

Veterinarians, service dog trainers, shelters and nonprofit or volunteer organizations would be exempt.

Four violations of the ordinance would result in a revocation of a business' license, though an incident in which an animal is severely harmed could mean immediate shutdown.

"It doesn't take away training tools," Higginbotham said. "It's a transparent way for the consumer and the trainer and their furry loved one to have input on what the training is."

The catalyst for the ordinance is Lorie Childers of Land O'Lakes, or, more precisely, Sarge, her Shih Tzu-Pekingese-mix puppy. Sarge was fatally injured at a pet day care two years ago, Childers said, after an impromptu training session went awry.

Childers has lobbied the county and the state in the past year to prevent future dog injuries.

"We have to start somewhere," she told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year. "The trainers I'm working with want regulation. They're all for it, they just want it to be done so it's meaningful."

Drafting the ordinance took 10 months, half a year longer than expected, in part because no other municipality has similar legislation on the books to model, said DeBora Cromartie-Mincey, senior assistant county attorney.

"This is going to give an opportunity for Hillsborough County to get on the map," Cromartie-Mincey said.

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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