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San Francisco Dog Court 

Due process, under the law, for every canine

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
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Page 4 of 6

The pig should probably be thinking along the same lines, but when she emerges slowly from her refuge in the park, she is chirping and grunting happily. The pig, named Potsticker, is 33 pounds and has a long tail that wags as she walks. A few weeks ago, she was munching on grass, minding her own business, when, from across the park, Sweet Pea charged and bit her on the ham. Now Guldbech and Duford will reunite the animals to observe their reactions in a controlled experiment.

The pig moves into position and starts eating grass. More, Sweet Pea's owner, tightens her grip on the dog's leash. The other dogs in the park are baffled by the pig but not antagonistic. Sweet Pea, on the other hand, bucks and whines and struggles to break loose. She knocks More down. Duford takes control of the leash and walks the dog closer to Potsticker. Amazingly, the pig continues eating. Twenty feet, 10 feet, five feet. The closer Sweet Pea gets, the more aggressive she gets. It's starting to feel like Lord of the Flies. But Potsticker doesn't even look up. It should come as no surprise that the pig just wants to eat.

Behavior assessments like this provide valuable pieces of information. Duford conducts them regularly for Dog Court. "Bill will ask me to do an assessment to get a deeper picture," she says. Herndon also sends dogs to UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine for a similar, if pricier and more pedigreed, evaluation. But Duford does the bulk of the assessments. Usually, she conducts an extensive interview with the owner and runs tests to get a sense of the animal's history and how well the owner understands her pet. "I want to know about the human element," Duford says. She listens carefully to what owners say. She writes most of it down.

This evening, after the assessment is over, More says all the wrong things.

"You know, we were hoping this would all be resolved on Christmas day," she says. "The people around the corner were having a barbecue, and it was a pig. But we didn't know its name." Duford gasps in shock and covers her mouth. This attempt at humor falls very flat around people who have dedicated their lives to working with animals.

More is highly defensive about the assessment. She knew Sweet Pea would act up, and the dog did. Like most owners who appear in Dog Court, the gorilla in the bedroom of More's mind is the possibility that Sweet Pea will be seized and destroyed. If Herndon orders the dog euthanized, More's the type of person who might appeal by filing a lawsuit. If Herndon deems Sweet Pea vicious and dangerous and places restrictions on her, More might contest that decision. The vicious and dangerous label carries hidden costs. The animal must be registered as a public threat. Some counties won't allow dangerous dogs into their jurisdictions. Insurance companies may reject claims. Landlords often won't rent apartments.

Dog owners have exerted their right to take Dog Court rulings into the human civil court system five times in the past, most notably in the Whipple case. Five times, such "habeas canus" appeals have failed. Each time, the argument has been about due process. Without any lawyers, subpoenas, or swearing in of witnesses, Dog Court is designed to be less formal and more accessible than the real, human court system. Cross-examination happens through Herndon.

"We're not trying to punish people," says Herndon. "We're trying to protect them. We don't want an average guy to go to the trouble and expense of getting an attorney."

But without normal legal procedures, Dog Court is vulnerable to criticism. Herndon's not an official judge. He's an administrative hearing officer. He's also a cop with an office in the shelter, which raises other questions.

"I don't like it at all," says Kenneth Phillips, the Los Angeles-based attorney for Shawn Jones, a Richmond boy who lost his ears in a pit bull attack in 2001. "What safeguards are there for privacy?"

Phillips practices dog law in counties all over the country. He's seen how much procedures vary, if they exist at all. The regulation of dangerous dogs doesn't happen on a federal level. But, Phillips says, there has been a noticeable and general change in attitude about dog attacks. "People and governments and industry have become less tolerant of bad dogs and irresponsible owners," he says. He attributes it to progress made by the animal rights movement. Strangely enough, the shift toward viewing dogs as something more than property may actually be the same as an increased emphasis on owner responsibility, the conservative maxim Herndon holds dear. "Dog owners just have to be more responsible," Phillips says, sounding familiar.

Herndon's concern with Laurie More and Sweet Pea, naturally, focuses on what steps More, who has two small children at home, will now take to make her dog safe for the community. Since the attack happened on federal parkland, Dog Court's legal authority over More is tenuous. But More, if a bad comedian, is a responsible owner. She showed up at the hearing. She showed up tonight. She agreed to abide by Herndon's decision, and she's willing to put Sweet Pea on a leash in off-leash areas. She's even willing to cede the park to Potsticker and walk her dog somewhere else.

In the end, Herndon decides that Sweet Pea, while aggressive and high-strung, is not vicious and dangerous. He hopes More will seek out a dog trainer to modify Sweet Pea's behavior.

"I just hope we got through to her," Herndon says. "I hope it makes sense."

Case 4: Poppa Gets Mad

Jan. 20; 12:35 p.m. The city shelter. Every animal that comes through here has a past. Not all of them have a future. A woman shows up for a behavior assessment on her dogs. Her name's Telsee. She's trying not to cry.

About The Author

Luke O'Brien

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