Lorrie Woodruff of Bowie wanted her dog to have his day in court. Max, her black cockapoo, faced a violation of Section 3-135 of the Prince George's County code, "Running at Large," which carries a $50 fine.
"You don't dispute the fact that your dog was at large?" asked Pamela Loeb, chairman of the Prince George's County Commission for Animal Control, at the Aug. 26 hearing in Largo.
"I was out looking for him," Woodruff said. "It is my mother's dog."
Loeb told her she would learn of the panel's decision in 14 days.
Welcome to "Dog Court," the informal name given to the seven-member commission charged with enforcing the county's animal control ordinances.
The panel's deliberations can involve everything from how to keep a dog from barking at night to whether an animal should be euthanized.
It's not Court TV, but when animals are involved, passions can run high.
"We are talking about people's pets, people's family members, and they are very emotional about that," said Loeb, a professional dog trainer.
The same day Woodruff tried to get Max off the hook, Dennis Herber came before the commission in an effort to spare the life of 3-year-old Videll, impounded June 27 because authorities say he is a pit bull terrier, a breed banned in Prince George's.
Herber argued that his dog was a Boston terrier.
"Where did you acquire this dog ?" Loeb asked Herber during the hearing.
"I acquired it from a friend. The person no longer wanted the dog," Herber said.
"You have no proof of this dog's heritage?" Loeb asked.
Alberta Holloway, the attorney on the commission from the Prince George's County Office of Law, interrupted:
"For the record, Mr. Herber has provided rabies shot information to Bowie Animal Hospital that the dog is a Boston terrier."
Loeb and other commission members said they empathized, but they said their hands were tied.
If Videll is found to be a pit bull or mixed pit bull terrier, he will be destroyed. The county euthanizes about 1,000 pit bulls annually.
Like Woodruff, Herber was told that he would know his dog's fate in two weeks.
"I try to understand where people are coming from emotionally, but at the same time, as commissioners, we are empowered to enforce legislation," Loeb said. "I have been fighting the pit bull law since it was proposed, because we need to punish the deed and not the breed."
Howard Goldfarb, the commission member who represents an animal rescue organization, said, "Prince George's is the only county in the area that has a pit bull law, and everybody on the commission disagrees with it."
Goldfarb, a home builder who works with several animal rescue groups, said more attention should be focused on the county's abused and neglected creatures. "We had a case where a dog was found with cigarette burns and a bullet in him."
Sometimes, animal issues can expose class tensions among neighbors.
Retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Rudolph Thomas told the commission Aug. 11 that he has been afraid to work in the garden in the back yard of his Clinton home since his collie, Brownie, was attacked and bitten by his neighbor's 160-pound presa canario, Aquilla, on July 8.
Thomas came armed with a lawyer, videotapes, neighbors and petitions in an effort to remove Aquilla and another dog, Jazzman, from the neighborhood.
Joseph Williams and his wife, the dogs' owners, contend that Brownie is the aggressor.
Thomas's daughter Rhonda testified tearfully that she came home and found Brownie bleeding from a gash in his head.
But Loeb and other commission members did not find her story completely persuasive.
Loeb wanted to know why Rhonda Thomas elected to go to a neighbor's house after finding the injured dog instead of taking him directly to a hospital.
"I wanted someone else to see the dog before I took the dog to the vet in Waldorf," she said.
Thomas gave the commission a summary of his research to make the case that the canario is a "killing machine" once used by ancient soldiers in battle.
He also produced a March 17, 2002, article about the California lacrosse coach who was mauled to death by a canario.
Despite the information, Rodney Taylor, chief of the Animal Management Division for the county's Department of Environmental Resources, said the presa canario is not automatically a vicious animal. He inspected the dog after the incident.
"This is the first incident that we have had on this dog," Taylor said. Besides, Taylor added, at 160 pounds, Aquilla was too large to jump the fence.
As he left the hearing, Williams said the issue is not so much his dog as it is acceptance by his new neighbors in the Windbrook section of Clinton.
"We just moved to this neighborhood," he said. "I did want to be neighborly, but they have had meetings about us. They have called us 'ghetto.' "
Rudolph Thomas said that had nothing to do with it. "My fear and concern is that this dog wants to attack me," he said.
"He attacked my dog, and every time I go in my back yard and they [Williams's dogs] are out, they are digging a hole and trying to get onto my property."
Taylor was called back to Thomas's home Aug. 18 because Aquilla was again in his back yard.
Despite Taylor's assertion that he was too big to jump the fence, when animal control officers tried to catch him, he did just that.
The officers took him away.
Loeb said the commission notified Williams last week that he would have to put up a taller fence and pay fines to get his dog back.
Williams decided to let animal control keep the dog, which is worth several thousand dollars.
Taylor said he will try to find a new home for Aquilla. If not, the dog will have to be euthanized.
"I spent almost $1,000 to build a kennel, $300 to build a doghouse," said Williams, whose voice broke with emotion.
"People's dogs get loose every day, bite people every day. My dog didn't bite anybody. I will move on from here."