San Francisco Dog Court

Due process, under the law, for every canine

Denny doesn't buy it.

"We've had problems with him before," he says. What makes him think Hay's lying? Denny squints: "His lips were moving."

In court, Herndon reaches the same conclusion. "I believe you know where the dog is," he sternly tells Hay. "And I believe you've taken the dog, and you've hidden the dog, because you don't want to accept the liability for this."

Radical waits for justice in the shelter's custody ward.
Nicki Ishmael
Radical waits for justice in the shelter's custody ward.
Behaviorist Donna Duford visits a dog in the kennels.
Nicki Ishmael
Behaviorist Donna Duford visits a dog in the kennels.

The process of investigating a case and bringing it to court has evolved considerably since 1993, when Herndon and Denny started as the Police Department's two-man vicious and dangerous animals unit. Back then, the police didn't even take complaints of dog-on-dog attacks, which often presage dog-on-human violence. Hearings took place at the Health Department, where drug lords and their lieutenants would stroll through unprotected doors with weapons. As far as the police brass were concerned, Dog Court was an arcane and unwanted distraction.

"They wanted to phase it out," Denny says. Instead, almost as an afterthought, they assigned Denny and Herndon to it. The two started part time, keeping the court afloat with the help of Heather Fong, the current police chief. Fong had adopted a pit bull and recognized the value of the civil hearings.

Then Diane Whipple was ripped apart in January 2001 by two Presa Canarios in her Pacific Heights apartment building. She died in the hospital the same day.

"That was a huge wake-up call," says Carl Friedman, the director of Animal Care and Control. "We needed to have a mechanism in place to allow citizens to have a hearing immediately."

Herndon and Denny went full time, instantly becoming one of the best-known and most scrutinized examples of dog justice in the nation. Since the Whipple case, San Francisco has remained in a state of heightened canine alert. The number of hearings Herndon presides over has increased by about 60 percent, and Denny now investigates a dozen incidents a week, most of them dog-on-dog. Today, though, he's only got one on his mind.

Denny slides his car into a spot on the steep hill in Bernal Heights where Hay lives. He knocks on Hay's door. No answer. Denny questions two neighbors. They can't help. Then he sees what he's been looking for -- a mailman. Several of the mailman's co-workers say they've been attacked by Hay's dogs. The postal worker tells Denny that Hay receives certified mail at an address two blocks away. Denny hustles up the street. Another letter carrier confirms the address. This is the third mailman Denny has questioned today. They are his secret weapon, his clearinghouse for information on poorly mannered dogs. A mailman being attacked is a regular occurrence. Dogs chew up nearly 4,000 of them around the country each year. The Whipple dogs went after a mailman, Denny points out. The mailman fought them off with his pushcart.

But the U.S. Postal Service can only get Denny so far. He knocks on the door of Hay's second house, a dilapidated wreck where Denny suspects Caluha may have been stashed. Nobody's home. There are no signs of the dog, although a neighbor reports that Hay frequently comes and goes with pit bulls. Denny decides to make the house a regular stop on his rounds.

As he skates back into traffic, he comforts himself with the thought that he's one step closer to Caluha and that, once again, Denny's Law -- "Cop is to doughnut as dog is to mailman" -- has proved true.

Case 3: Fight at Sutro Heights

Jan. 12; 5:03 p.m. Very cold. This is the park. It's the same old story. An adopted Taiwanese street dog bites a surprisingly svelte Vietnamese pig. The pig doesn't like it. Now the dog's in trouble. An expert is called in. Her name's Duford. She's a behaviorist. Her captain is Guldbech. They'll reintroduce the dog to the pig and see if they make bacon.

The wind whips through the trees in Sutro Heights Park, a chunk of federal land perched on cliffs above the Pacific. The sun is about to set, and the temperature has dropped quickly. Drums bang in the distance. Somewhere in this park a pig is waiting to be attacked.

The pig will soon face its nemesis, a 3-year-old basenji mix named Sweet Pea. The basenji is a barkless breed from Africa, but something doesn't add up here. Sweet Pea's owner, Laurie More, rescued the dog off the streets of Taiwan. Also, the dog won't stop barking.

She barks at cars, at bikes, at other dogs, at people. When Donna Duford, the city shelter's behavior assessment specialist, and Capt. Vicky Guldbech of Animal Control show up, Sweet Pea barks at them. Guldbech kneels down to say hello. Sweet Pea lunges. Guldbech jerks away.

"Whoa! She almost got my hand," she says. "I'm a little concerned."

Guldbech has been working in Dog Court since before the hearing process began. As Animal Control's representative to the court, she sets the schedule, makes recommendations to Herndon, and provides him with information. She also collaborates with him and the City Attorney's Office to make revisions to the city code. "I've been here so long, I see what doesn't work," she says. "I get to tug on the law."

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