It started with the dogs. Almost 20 barking dogs. One cold day three winters ago, the Fairfax County animal shelter took the dogs away. Killed all but two of them. It broke Dorothy Randall's heart. They were her pets, her friends.

Then came the county Public Health Department. They didn't like the way Randall, 65, and her 67-year-old-sister, Mary Elizabeth Flint, were living: The log cabin with no running water. The outdoor pit privy. The rats. The piles of garbase.

But most of all the Health Department didn't like the eight or nine cars strewn across the the yard. Some were stuffed with trash; others were crammed with junk. Still others held bags of faded mementos.

One day last June, the Health Department ordered the women out of the dilapidated house and tacked a notice on the door declaring the place unfit for human habitation.

Randall and Flint didn't budge. The splitrail cabin had been their home for 27 years. They weren't about to leave now.

The county tried to be helpful. Social workers obtained Social Security payments for them. Randall and Flint had never applied for the payments before. The social workers drove the women around the county, showing them potential homes.

There was just one hitch. Randall and Flint didn't want to move unless they could take along their cars full of mementos and junk.

County officials lost patience. The County Board of Housing Hygiene, the appointed body that enforces Health Department regulations, took the women to court and asked the judge to find them guilty of a criminal misdemeanor: violation of the Health Department's order to vacate the house, punishable by six months in jail or a $500 fine.

But Judge Robert M. Hurst of the 19th General District Court didn't throw the women out of their rundown cabin. He threw the Board of Housing Hygiene and Health Department representatives out of court and told them never to bring another case like that into his courtroom.

"Fining them or putting them in jail isn't the solution," said Hurst. "They don't have 2 cents to rub together."

Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan said he agrees: "If these two ladies have no other place to go, I don't see how in God's name government can say, 'Go out in the cold.'"

The court's reaction has incensed county health officials, who say the judge's order prevents them from carrying out their duty to protect residents from dilapidated, unsanitary housing.

"Now it won't do any good for people to complain (about dilapidated housing)," said John Victor, chairman of the Board of Housing Hygiene. "We can't do anything about it."

And Victor insists the board and the Department of Health aren't the bad guys in the scenario.

"We're not in the mood to throw anybody out of a house," said Victor. "But when we do say, 'Get out of a house,' we know what we're talking about."

"I can't in good conscious let them stay there," he continued. "The day you pick up the paper and see that the house burned down and two ladies were killed, we'll be the first ones people scream at. They'll say, 'How could you let those ladies live in conditions like that?'"

Victor said health officials take residents to court as a last resort, after repeated attempts to coax them out of a house fail.

In the case of Randall and Flint, the eviction notice came June 1, 1981. Health officials gave the women 60 days to leave the house. Seven months later, the Health Department filed for court intervention.

The Health Department took about 110 housing health violations to court last year, department records show. Only a handful of such cases involve poor people living in substandard housing, according to John Newman, supervising sanitarian in the divison of environmental health. He said other cases vary from minor housing safety violations to condemned, vacant buildings that require boarding.

Most court cases that involve evictions are aimed at vagrants who trespass into boarded buildings, said Horan. He said the Randall-Flint case is a rarity.

"Every once in a while you have a case where the people literally have nowhere else to go," said Horan. "If that is so in this case, they aren't committing a crime by staying there."

Health officials argue that the courts have the story all wrong.

"The judge decided the case without even hearing it," said Victor. "He made a visual inspection of these two ladies sitting in the courtroom... and prejudged the situation."

The women have been given chances to move out of the rundown house.

"They're pack rats," said Richard B. Winfield, who owned the house and its surrounding 3.6 acres until he turned it over to his children last September. "They want to find a place were they can move all that plunder, a place just as remote as that place had been in years past."

The house is an anachronism. The only symbols of the modern age are the junk automobiles in the yard and a huge television antenna that juts above the surrounding trees.

The split rails of the cabin are cemented together. A worn path leads from the front door to a small woodpile.

Winfield said he moved the house in 1935 to the wooded site off Lee Highway, west of Fairfax City. It served as a tenants' house on the adjoining Winfield farm.

Over the years, a posh subdivision has slowly surrounded the small, two-story log cabin.Residents of brick mansions now can peer across the hill through the bare winter trees at the weathered house, its yard full of junk and its assortment of sheds and out buildings.

Randall and her husband moved into the house 27 years ago. Then her sister moved in. The Randalls raised four boys in the house. The husband died in 1964. Four years later, Winfield says, he quit charging the family rent.

The two sisters have lived in the house rent free ever since.

Winfield said he assumed the women would eventually move out.

Instead, the problems have only mounted. Richard Amity, the county's animal control director, said his department has confiscated about 30 underfed, sick dogs from the place over the last 10 years.

"That lady (Randall) has collected dogs for years," said Amity. "She gets very emotionally attached to them. She feels sorry for them, but she can't afford to feed them and take care of them properly."

Judge Hurst, the commonwealth's attorney and county health department officials plan to meet this week to decide how to resolve the Randall-Flint case and the half-dozen similar cases pending in the courts.

Meanwhile, the Board of Housing Hygiene chairman said the board will continue to hear eviction cases at its regular meetings.

"We're going to behave just as though the judge never made his ruling," said Victor. "We have to. It's our job."