Devon Merritt with her dogs, Penny and Myrtle, and a few others, in Fairfax, Va. Merritt worries that an anti-tethering law in the county will lead to fines for tying up her injured dog whenever she is outside. (Antonio Olivo/TWP)

Rare is the creature who looks more forlorn than a dog tied up, alone, outside a restaurant or in his owner’s yard.

But is tethering man’s best friend cruel?

The question is being debated in cities and suburban communities across the country as laws that ban or limit the practice are adopted — usually over the objection of those who accuse officials of ushering in an overly intrusive nanny state.

The latest such place is Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest jurisdiction, which last week passed a restriction that limits dog tethering to one hour per day if the pet is unsupervised. The penalties: $500 for a first offense; up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine for a second violation; and, for a third violation, a possible sentence of one year in jail or a $2,500 fine.

“So you’re going to go to jail for a year if you tether your dog three times for 62 minutes, and nothing is wrong with the dog?” Alice Harrington, legislative liaison for the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders, asked Fairfax’s Board of Supervisors before it passed the measure 7 to 3.

“Is this really where you want to go with this county?”

Nineteen states have laws restricting or banning dog tethering, as do about 215 local jurisdictions, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been pushing for such legislation.

Locally, the District, Arlington County and Montgomery County have laws regulating tethering, although their rules are more lenient than the ones Fairfax has adopted. Arlington allows tethering for three hours at a time, for example, and Montgomery’s law allows two hours.

Fairfax officials say their law, modeled after one in Richmond, is geared toward preventing excessive use of tethering, which animal rights groups say can make dogs more aggressive and prone to attack other animals or approaching children. The stopwatch on the 60-minute restriction would start when an animal control officer arrives at a place where cruelty is suspected, officials say.

“It boils down, in lay terms, to a fight-or-flee instinct that dogs have,” said Cory Smith, director of pet protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States. “If they believe they can’t flee, they will fight. A lot of these ordinances are part of a holistic look into how we strengthen our community when it comes to animal welfare and public safety.”

Fairfax County Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said the county ordinance could also be a teaching tool for dog owners — particularly new immigrants — who may not realize the potential downside of tying up their pets for extensive periods.

“We get all the cultures from around the world in Fairfax County, and, in a lot of places, companion animals are not part of the culture,” Frey said. “Then their kid sees an animal and says: ‘Mommy, Daddy — can I get a dog?’ But they don’t have a clue about how to care for it.”

Frey, who often keeps his friendly German shepherd, Boomer, in his Sully District office, said the goal of the law “isn’t necessarily writing a ticket.” Rather, Frey said, it should help educate pet owners as to what is good for their animals in order to appropriately regulate their own tethering practices.

But some dog owners in the county of 1.1 million residents are worried that they will be written up. At a lengthy public hearing last week, they argued that the measure would open the door to harassment by overly zealous animal control officers or perhaps by a neighbor who has a beef against the dog owner next door.

The law also doesn’t account for situations in which a dog is “an escape artist, able to scale fences, or whether it’s tethered for its own safety or the safety of others, these pet owners say.

Take the case of Penny, one of Fairfax County resident Devon Merritt’s two Basset Hounds, who ruptured a disk in her back and recently had spinal surgery.

Merritt said that Penny could aggravate the injury if she frolics with Myrtle, Merritt’s other Basset, who is the more rambunctious of the two. So Merritt tethers Penny whenever both animals go outside.

“She loves to be in the sun,” Merritt said. “I’m not going to ruin her quality of life by not letting her do that.”

Although Merritt keeps an eye on her pets from inside her house, she’d technically be in violation of the county law because she isn’t always directly supervising Penny.

Margaret J. Rucker, president-elect of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, said her group has taken no position on dog tethering — mainly because research is inconclusive on how much harm the practice can cause.

In rural areas in particular, tethering is common, said Rucker, who treats animals in southwestern Virginia.

“In some places, the person probably wouldn’t be able to have the pet if it weren’t tethered for a certain period of the day,” said Rucker. “It’s not an easy question to answer.”