THE THOUGHT of being attacked by vicious beasts carries with it a special kind of horror. Arlynn Joffe of Rockville and her 3-year-old son, Brett, lived through such a nightmare last Saturday when they were encircled and attacked by three 100-pound Rottweilers -- and she has 150 stitches in her legs and thighs to show for it. They survived, thanks to some brave neighbors, but the physical and emotional scars may take time to heal. There are, however, two immediate corrective steps that the city of Rockville can take to prevent a recurrence of those terrifying moments. The law that allowed those three Rottweilers to return home following their attack should be removed from the books -- and those three vicious animals that have been allowed to terrorize the neighborhood and maul Mrs. Joffe should be destroyed.

But one vicious dog can cause almost as much torment as three. Earlier this week, 70-year-old District resident James Majette and his 12-pound terrier, Chip, went through their own ordeal when both were attacked by a pit bull near their Northwest Washington apartment. Mr. Majette was hospitalized with deep bites, Chip has an abdominal hernia, and the pit bull had to be shot and killed by a policeman to bring the assault to an end. The attacks on the Joffes and Mr. Majette and his dog are not isolated incidents. In the fiscal year ending June 30, Montgomery County reported 749 dog-bite incidents, up from the 688 reported during the previous fiscal year. Prince George's County has recorded 429 cases through July, and the caseload is growing at a pace that could exceed last year's total of 720. The District of Columbia reported 468 dog-bite incidents in 1989 and has recorded 361 so far this year. And in Fairfax County, 141 dog-bite cases have been recorded in the past two months alone. According to the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated 1 million to 3 million dog bites occur nationally each year, and sometimes the victims aren't as lucky as the Joffes and Mr. Majette: nationwide 13 people were killed by dog attacks in 1989; this year the pace is up with 15 slain so far.

And let's be clear about who and what is responsible for this growing public health hazard. These attacks -- and we're talking here about unprovoked attacks -- aren't usually the work of stray dogs. These ferocious dogs are "pets," which have been permitted to develop into social ills, as menacing and as dangerous as loaded handguns. And when attacks occur, the law should not hesitate to remove those animals from the community forthwith and make the owners pay dearly for the trouble they cause.