Something there is in a suburbanite's soul that loves to own a dog. But coping with violations of leash and license, angry neighbors and owners' excuses has left some Fairfax County judges a little short on affection.
"I always say, if you hit a man on Main Street in downtown Fairfax, you'll probably get three months' probation. But hit a dog with a stick and the whole community is going to come down on you and you'll probably go to jail." said Fairfax General District Court Judge F. Bruce Bach.
"People's emotions run very high when it comes to these dog cases."
Fairfax animal wardens, who estimate there are 120,000 dogs in the county, only 26,000 of them properly licensed, said they issued 2,900 summonses to violators this year. Two years ago, before the leash laws were amended, the number was a mere 1,200.
"Not too long ago, Fairfax was rather rural, with 100-acre lots," said Richard F. Amity, head of the county's animal control department. "Now you have quarter-acre lots, but people still feel they have a God-given right to let their dogs run at large."
About one-fourth of the summonses result in court cases, the wardens estimate, but the number of owners who take the trouble to show up in court is considerably lower.
"It's a tremendous problem and we have so many of them," Bach said this week. "I don't think any of us really want to go about arresting these people (to get them into courts), but something has to be done."
This month the country's General District Court judges took action: They began convicting defendants in dog cases in absentia (the maximum penalty is a fine). And the cases have been given a "special place" on the court calendar -- at the bottom of the criminal docket.
"It seems to me to be a little bit ridiculous to be sailing through an assault case, and then you get a dog case," said Judge Martin E. Morris. "It gives too much amusement to those who are here for murder and rape and theft."
In private, however, even the judges are willing to tell dog stories gleaned from court proceedings.
One Fairfax resident, accused of letting his German shepherd run loose in violation of the county's leash law, recently assured Judge Robert M. Hurst that the dog had opened a house window and let himself out.
"I asked him whether the dog was also the one who was closing the window," Hurst said. "He said yes. I found it a little hard to believe." The owner was found guilty.
"You can get 20 people in court over a dog and it can cause all kinds of terrible problems," said Judge Morris."Lord, people can get upset about it. You can get whole neighborhoods split down the middle."
In one case heard by Judge Hurst, a county man irked by the constant barking of his neighbor's dog, tape recorded the disturbance. Then he went away for the weekend, leaving tape recorder and speakers blaring.
"The tape recorder barked back at the neighbor's dog all night long, over and over and over," said Hurst. "Eventually the neighbor called police and the man was charged with violating the county's noise ordinance."
Rivaling that was the experience of a Springfield man who arrived at his home on B raddock Road to find that a hit-and-run driver had killed his Irish setter. Eventually, according to Judge Hurst, the man calmed his children, got them to bed and buried the dog. Then the doorbell rang.
"It was one of the county animal wardens" who had been called by a neighbor, Hurst said. "He wanted to know where the dog's county tag was. The man said he had probably buried it with the dog. So the warden ended up giving him a summons for not having a tag and a rabies certificate" for his dead dog.
"I dismissed both charges," said the judge.
While the dog tales continue -- some lawyers joked about a "doggy homicide" case heard earlier this month -- so do the judges' frustrations.
"If you know of a better way to handle these dog cases, please tell me about it," said Judge Hurst wearily. "We know it's a pain in the neck... but there has to be some place to come to. I guess the court docket is it."