Dogged by Pa. over website listing ads for puppies

May 29, 2011 1:22:58 PM PDT
Matt Snader's got a problem.

The former Lancaster County resident, who moved to Snyder County in 2009, runs an Internet classified ad business involving several websites, including one called On that site, a variety of breeds are offered for sale. But Snader isn't the seller.

"I don't have any dogs here," Snader said. "We're not selling the dogs; we simply place ads for people who do. It's basically straightforward classified ads."

But the Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement says that technically, is a dealer.

That means Snader has to buy a $750 dealer's license and may even need to take responsibility for the dogs sold through his site.

And if he refuses, he could be cited, even fined.

Snader, a 28-year-old married father of four, says he's "flabbergasted" by the whole thing.

"We don't want to be rebels here or go against the law," he said. "I hired an attorney, and of course that's not cheap. But we're trying to deal with it."

Michael Glass, of America's Pet Registry, an organization that lobbies on behalf of Pennsylvania's dwindling dog breeding industry, calls the situation a classic case of overreach.

"He's not selling puppies, but the department says he only has to be offering puppies for sale," Glass said. But if posting classified ads online makes Snader a "dealer," Glass asked, what about newspapers or others that do the same?

"The courts may have to decide this," Glass said.

Officials acknowledge that they're in uncharted territory. "We have not had a lot of cases like this," said Jean Kummer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Bureau of Dog Law.

But she said the manner in which Snader charged his customers for placing the ads amounted to him receiving a commission on the sales - "and under this law, that makes him a dealer" who must have a license.

Snader said his fee for placing the ads was based on the price of the dog.

"The more they sell the dog for, the higher our fee is," he said. "The dog law says that's charging commission, but we're still not involved in the sale of the dog."

Snader bought the Web-based business four years ago, before Pennsylvania's landmark 2008 dog law was passed. The previous owner did have a dealer's license - although, Snader says, the former owner has since asked the state for a refund.

After acquiring, Snader said he spoke with a humane officer, who told him he wouldn't need a license because he wasn't actually selling dogs.

Subsequently, he said he got a call from a state dog warden. But "we simply told him we don't handle dogs, and he said, `OK,' " Snader said.

"There was no indication anything was amiss," Snader said.

That changed in April, when he was on vacation in Mexico. "I got a message saying someone from the Bureau of Dog Law wanted to talk to me," he said.

When he returned to Snyder County, he opened his mail and found he'd been cited by the bureau for "illegally operating a kennel without a license."

Snader was confused. Breeders and their advocates were enraged.

Within a week of issuing the citation, the Bureau of Dog Law had rescinded it. But the same day the bureau rescinded the citation, May 2, it sent a letter to Snader, telling him he had 30 days to get a "dealer" license, or "we reserve the right to proceed," Kummer said.

Dealer licenses are based on the number of dogs sold; dealers selling 50 or fewer dogs annually must pay $75 for a license. Those selling more than 500 are charged $750.

State officials say the difference between what Snader does and online newspaper classified ads is that newspapers don't vary charges based on the value of the item sold.

Russ Gillespie, classified and online sales director for Lancaster Newspapers Inc. - publisher of the Sunday News - explained that all LNP classified ad prices are based on a per-line rate, and "the line rate is based on the size and frequency of the ad, not the price of the pet."

That Snader has chosen to price his ads on the basis of the sale price, Kummer said, is tantamount to a commission.

"While he does not actually sell dogs ... he gets a portion of the sale price," she said.

State Rep. Gordon Denlinger, a Republican representing eastern Lancaster County, agreed.

"The law as drafted clearly states that those who sell dogs on a commission or percentage of sale basis are required to obtain a license - whether they ever touch or take custody of dogs or not," he said in an e-mail. "The method of calculating the charge for the classified ad is what separates `dealers' from non-dealers."

Denlinger said he knows the situation is frustrating for breeders "and I've heard from quite a few."

"Ultimately, apart from a judicial decision or legislative action resulting in a change, commission-based classified advertisers will need to obtain a `dealer' license."

Snader said he would "seriously consider" going out of business before getting a license - and cost isn't the main reason.

"For starters, the application has things like `proposed advertising routine for dogs,' `veterinary schedule' and things like that in it that make no sense for what I do," he said.

"My understanding is that a dealer has to track who buys each dog and where it goes," he said. "Obviously, that would be no problem if I actually was handling the transactions or involved in the sale. However, it is totally unrealistic for me to be trying to get all that information and keep it straight. I would have to hire someone to help me just to do that."

Then there's the liability issue.

"If I become a licensed dealer, do I need to personally guarantee all the puppies for sale on the site?" he asked. "I am only getting paid for advertising; I could not afford to assume a liability like that."

And he also wonders if he'd be on the hook for the health of the dogs.

"Am I going to have to run out and inspect the facility in which the dogs are housed in order to place the ad? Will I have to inspect the puppies myself before listing them?"

He needs to make a decision soon, he acknowledged. "They are trying to force a classified advertiser into a dog dealer mold," he said.

Glass calls the whole situation ridiculous.

"What's happening in Pennsylvania, we throw our hands in the air and say - oh my goodness, how much more?" he said.


Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era ,