Dog owners descended on Howard County from throughout the Washington area last night as the County Council, responding to a nationwide debate over pit bull terriers, held a public hearing on what would be one of the region's toughest animal-control laws.

In all, about 300 citizens turned out to testify for and against the bill, which would require special licenses and muzzling of dogs that have been declared dangerous by the county animal control officer.

The bill, if approved at the council's legislative session next month, would require pet owners to obtain up to $100,000 in insurance coverage, a provision that some opponents said could make ownership of pit bulls impossible.

The law also would require owners of dangerous pets to enroll the animals in obedience training classes and house the pets indoors or in an approved shelter.

Dog trainers and owners came from as far as Virginia, concerned that the bill's passage would pave the way for stricter measures in surrounding jurisdictions.

Opponents said the legislation is vague, allowing the county animal control officers to impose restrictions if they found animals to be "dangerous," "inherently dangerous" or "potentially dangerous."

They said the provisions would subject pet owners to unwarranted challenges from neighbors, and said the public would be better served if the county took steps to enforce its existing leash laws and impose steep penalties on owners who habitually let their dogs roam free.

"We know there is a real problem with irresponsible dog owners," said Kasi Campbell, an Ellicott City dog trainer and member of the Responsible Dog Owners of Howard County. "The demand to animal-bond is a strong relationship, and legislative efforts to manage this relationship will be ignored or result in long, drawn-out court battles."

Bruce Harkin, chairman of the county Animal Matters Hearing Board, which would be responsible for enforcing the proposed law, had particularly harsh words for the proposal, saying it is unworkable in its current form. He criticized the bill's sponsors, Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray and council member Charles Feaga for failing to consult his board before writing the legislation.

Among those who supported the bill's passage last night were Marianne and John Brinker and their 8-year-old son Timothy, who was the victim four years ago of the county's most serious dog attack on record. Eighty percent of Timothy's scalp was torn off by a pack or roaming dogs, including three pit bulls.

His mother testified that at the end of this month Timothy is going to undergo his 11th operation to repair the damage to his scalp. Marianne Brinker also related how one of the dogs that attacked her son had already been cited twice prior to Timothy's attack.

The owner of the dog had been fined only $25, she said.

"If the 'potentially dangerous' section had been in effect, I think this dog would definitely have been identified and perhaps Timmy wouldn't have had to undergo what he had to go through," she said.