Punitive system puts canines in the hot seat

Board: At dog court, experts in animal behavior decide whether an animal that has bitten people lives or dies.

January 18, 2001|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

It's the first case of the day at the Vicious Dog Hearing Board and the defendant, as usual, isn't taking the stand. Bishop, a black pit bull charged with biting two people, is locked in a kennel at the city's Bureau of Animal Control.

Despite his absence, in a nearby conference room, the dog is on trial for his life. Unless the board finds that the bites were justified, Bishop will be sentenced to die. The dog's owner tells the three board members that Bishop, whose coat is laced with scars, is not an aggressive dog.

"He ain't going to bother nobody," the young man says. "I had him since he was a puppy. I paid $1,500 for that dog. He was not raised to bite people."

But the evidence shows that a woman was bitten in the leg by the dog in December, while walking through the alley behind the house where the dog lives.

A friend of the owner, who was caring for the dog that day, is called to the stand - which is actually a chair at a large square table across from board chairman Janet L. Boss. The friend, speaking into a portable microphone, tells Boss that Bishop "don't bother nobody." But Boss, this canine court's kind version of Judge Judy, is less interested in Bishop's reputation than figuring out why the dog was loose in the alley.

"On the day in question, where were you and where was Bishop at the time of the incident?"

"I was at the back door."

"And where was Bishop?"

"Bishop was in the yard."

"How could he go in the alley? Is it a fenced yard?"

"Yes, it is."

"But does he jump the fence?"


"Then how does he get in the alley?"

"I open the gate for him."

"So you purposely let him loose in the alley at times."


The Vicious Dog Hearing Board was created in 1998 as a tool for the city to crack down on dangerous dogs. In the past two years, the board has heard 62 cases. It has heard cases of pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds, Labradors, chows and mixed breeds, cases of dogs that bit children, mail carriers, neighbors and delivery men. But all the cases had one thing in common.

They didn't have to happen.

`Vicious dog'

Last week a pit bull attacked a 7-year-old girl in Southwest Baltimore. The story was horrifying and yet familiar, made particularly tragic because the child sustained extensive injuries to her face. The animal reportedly did not loosen its grip on the girl until onlookers beat it; it was later euthanized.

Boss says such worst-case scenarios don't often reach the city's hearing board, where an owner has the chance to make a last-minute plea to save the life of a pet deemed vicious. In many cases, owners simply relinquish the animals, sometimes because they find the behavior impossible to justify.

"Vicious dog" is not so much a descriptive term as a legal one, defined basically as any dog that bites or attacks, or would have if not restrained. Since it is illegal to have a vicious dog in Baltimore, the only hope of an accused dog's survival is for the board to find that the bite was provoked or otherwise deemed legal.

A dog is not vicious, for example, if the victim were trespassing on its territory or tormenting the dog; or if the dog was protecting its young.

That's where the board's expertise comes in. Its five rotating members, which include Boss - an animal behavior counselor - two retired K-9 officers, a trainer and a veterinarian, make their judgments based on their knowledge of canine behavior, along with gut feelings about the owners' ability and desire to care properly for pets. They must balance the need to be fair to the animal with the need to protect the public from danger.

In one recent case, the board spared Hennessey, a Rottweiler who bit a police officer serving an arrest warrant, because the dog had 4-week-old puppies at home. In another case, the board decided to euthanize Puppy, a terrier mix, and Chubby, a chow mix, after they jumped through a loose screen window and severely injured a mail carrier.

The dogs' elderly owner, who made a tearful plea to save her pets, did reclaim a third dog, a Lab mix named Lady, because the victim couldn't be sure the dog was part of the attack.

Eighteen months after the hearing, Dorothy Young still sounds bitter. "I'll always say they killed my dogs without reason," she says. "My dogs are just like children to me. They took my dogs. They weren't vicious. They just protected me."

Behavior problems

The dogs are chained alone outside all day. They are allowed to roam alleys without supervision. They are left in yards with open gates and inadequate fences. They aren't spayed or neutered. They aren't licensed. They aren't trained - or if they are, they're trained to fight.

These are the dogs whose cases are heard at the board's Wednesday morning meetings. Beforehand, Boss sometimes asks to see the animals, to get a visual image of the pets whose lives are in her hands. When she approaches their kennels, some stand on their hind legs, barking at her through the chain link. Some stare menacingly; others avert their eyes.

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